You hear emerging directors talk about it all the time: the movie that inspired dreams of making movies of their own; the one that first made them realize the vast potential of an art form.
Yet whereas most newbie filmmakers tend to cite a familiar set of influences, perhaps the artsy reverie of Terrence Malick's Badlands, or the popcorn-munching brio of Steven Spielberg's Jaws or George Lucas' Star Wars, University of Texas-Arlington professor Ya'Ke Smith's cinematic love affair began with something more modest and humane: John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood (1991), a stirring drama about three young men growing up in inner-city Los Angeles.
"I was able to see the effect that that film had on people around me," says Smith, who was born and raised in San Antonio, in a neighborhood that he says was similar to the one depicted in Singleton's film. "To see how a film could really arrest people, and make them think about what they were doing. Even if they then went back to what they were doing, at least for a moment that movie stopped them."
Flash forward two decades, and Smith has taken the same mixture of sincerity and social engagement that propelled Boyz n the Hood and poured it into his affecting debut feature, Wolf. The movie, which had its world premiere last month at the South by Southwest Film Festival and will screen locally April 14 and 18 at the Dallas International Film Festival, is a sad and timely drama about an African-American teen (Jordan Cooper) who is being molested by his pastor (Eugene Lee).
With its determination to explore issues of homophobia and church corruption, and to force black viewers to consider thorny tensions within their own communities, the film is very much the work of a director who says he wants to "put on-screen a world that hasn't been seen before."
Sitting in his office at UTA, decorated with prizes that he has won at festivals for his short films, he adds: "If you follow my work, none of it is nice. I think film should be a mirror to show us: 'This is the world we live in. Let's look at it and let's correct it.'"
Smith, 31, graduated from the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio in 2003, and then went on to receive a master's degree in fine arts at the University of Texas at Austin in 2006. Among the short films he has made are Hope's War (2005), about a soldier dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, and Katrina's Son (2010), about a boy searching for his estranged mother after he loses his grandmother in Hurricane Katrina.
He moved to North Texas in 2009 to teach at UTA, where he is an assistant professor of film, video and screenwriting. He was encouraged to apply for the job by another UTA professor, Bart Weiss, who, as director of the Dallas Video Festival, had screened Smith's short films.
"We want the films that our students make to be about something, to touch on core values," Weiss explains. "We don't have students making movies about zombies or hit men. And I think Ya'Ke is really great about getting students to delve into themselves and make things that really mean something."
For his part, Smith says he has relished the opportunity to wear dual hats, as filmmaker and teacher. He has used some of his students as crew members on his own sets, and he sometimes screens the footage he has shot in class.
"My set can be an extension of the classroom," he says. "I teach them things, and then they can come on the set and see me in action."
Smith finished writing the screenplay for Wolf in early 2011, and shot it over 15 days last July and August in San Antonio. He raised about $3,000 of the budget through the independent film crowd-source funding website IndieGoGo, but most of it was paid for out-of-pocket by Smith and his producing partner and longtime friend Ralph Lopez. (An investor helped with finishing costs. The filmmakers prefer not to say how much the film cost.)
"It's something that we're passionate about," says Lopez, of his willingness to put up his own money. "To me, being successful is making films, because that's been our goal since we were kids."
Now the filmmakers are playing the waiting game, hoping to secure a distributor. Smith says that his experience at SXSW involved "a lot of sleepless nights, tossing and turning." He could barely sit still at the first screening of the film, and instead hovered at the back of the theater.
He observes: "You go into a film festival wanting somebody to buy your film. When you're in film school, that's your goal, go out and make a feature, get a distribution deal, keep making features and eventually get someone else to pay for the features."
Regardless of what happens with Wolf, though, Smith says he is committed to trying to blaze his own path through the film industry -- and to remain in Texas while doing it.
"Quite honestly, I never want to go to Hollywood," he says. "I want to find small investors that give us enough so that we can make quality work, but who will allow me to tell the stories I want to tell."