The doctor and high school teenagers got to know each other at pickup basketball games in New Orleans neighborhoods.
What Dr. Vincent Morelli learned propelled him and a friend to launch a film that would document the shortcomings of the city's public school system.
The result was Left Behind: The Story of the New Orleans Public Schools, a documentary about three African-American high school seniors: Mario, Jonathan and Joshua. The film is being screened at universities around the country and will be shown Friday at the Studio@620 in St. Petersburg.
Morelli and his colleague began shooting the documentary a year before Hurricane Katrina hit and continued filming during the storm and its aftermath.
"We show reasons for the looting, rape, murder and mayhem — the effects our man-made environment has on human behavior,'' a synopsis of the documentary states.
"We examine the core of our American values, the framework by which we live, and we show how our most vaunted beliefs and government policies have played a role in our nation's shame.''
Still, Morelli, who will be in St. Petersburg for this week's screening, describes the project as "a film of hope, determination and resiliency.''
This is his first film, though he edited friends' scripts while living in Los Angeles, Morelli said. He said he and co-director Jason Berry had been following news of the dysfunctional New Orleans School Board when they decided that the ailing school system was the city's biggest problem.
"That's when we went out and filmed our first members of the School Board. The problem in the school system was so big and so complex that everyone wanted to talk about it,'' Morelli said.
At the time, the city's public schools had 65,000 students, 97 percent of whom were black.
Morelli, a family and sports medicine doctor who teaches at Meharry Medical College and Vanderbilt University, lives part time in New Orleans. He wrote, edited and produced the project.
Morelli and Berry thought they had finished filming the documentary four weeks before Katrina struck. Morelli, who was returning to New Orleans after filming an interview in Washington, D.C., was called on to do a favor. A colleague wanted to get his family out of danger and asked Morelli to cover for him. He agreed and ended up staying through the hurricane. He was able to do some filming during the storm, and Berry joined him later to film its effects.
The two also interviewed well-known people for the film, including linguist Noam Chomsky, civil rights activist Jessie Jackson, rapper Ice T, Rep. Maxine Waters and author Michael Eric Dyson.
Morelli said he hopes policymakers will see the film.
"They hear the numbers and the statistics. This really brings it down to an emotional basis. It really shows the effect education has on society and the psyche. I would really like the general public to see it … It would be nice to see our collective conscience broadened.''
Reach Waveney Ann Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.