While growing up on his Encino cul-de-sac in the 1980s, Darren Stein made films with his father's video camera, bossily directing the other Jewish kids like a baby Roger Corman. The sets were backyards; production was every afternoon save for Hebrew school hours at Leo Baeck and Stephen S. Wise temples. The scripts included zombie flicks, campy gay comedies and a Holocaust drama in which a bicycle pump doubled for a canister of Zyklon-B.
Today, the movies and the adult Stein and friends are the subject of an edgy documentary, "Put the Camera on Me," which premieres at Outfest 2003 July 10-21. Narrated by Stein -- who is gay and the director of several feature films such as "Jawbreaker" -- it explores the power structure of a neighborhood clique through the eyes of a child auteur. The portrait is reminiscent of films, such as Todd Solondz's "Welcome to the Dollhouse," which expose the darker side of childhood in Jewish suburbia.
The bully of "Camera" is often Stein, who relished the power he wielded over his neighbors because he felt powerless and unpopular at the formerly all-male Harvard prep school.
"I gave orders. I was the provocateur," he said.
His "Camera" co-director, Adam Shell, noted how Stein would promise him a role, then give it to another boy.
Another friend recalls in the film: "If Darren said, 'Dress up in your mom's tights,' you dressed up in your mom's tights."
Cut to 1999, when Shell and Stein were discussing how to restore the videotapes -- then stored in a torn-up shopping bag -- and came up with the idea for a documentary. The two-year production was sometimes painful because "we were forced to deal with our childhood antagonism toward each other," Shell said.
But the process was ultimately healing. "It was profound for me to be able to ask for forgiveness," Stein, 31, said of his years as a tyrannical child director. "But I'm still bossy."
For information on "Camera" screenings at Outfest, Los Angeles' gay and lesbian film festival, call (213) 480-7065 or visit www.outfest.org/fest2003. Other Jewish-themed Outfest films include the feature "Yossi & Jagger," about male lovers in the Israeli army.