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Film takes teens from housing projects to Sundance

It began as a small documentary by two teenage filmmakers about guns, death and grief at a Brooklyn housing project.

Then, in the midst of production, one of the teens saw his best friend die in a freak shooting on the project's rooftop.

The shooter was a police officer.

This dramatic boost has propelled Danny Howard and Terrence Fisher to the big time: Bullets in the Hood: A Bed-Stuy Story will compete next month at the Sundance Film Festival in the short documentary category.

"We thought it was something we'd show to our friends and family," said Howard, the 19-year-old cameraman and co-director. "We never even dreamed about Sundance."

Sponsored by the nonprofit Downtown Community Television Center, Howard and on-camera narrator Fisher set out to capture a self-destructive gun culture that had claimed the lives of eight of Fisher's friends. Early footage showed youths demonstrating their skill at loading their weapons and preaching a shoot-or-be-shot philosophy.

Residents "are dying over something that's real stupid," Fisher, 18, says by way of introduction. "A lot of people have guns for no reason."

But the film's focus shifts after Fisher witnesses the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury at the Louis Armstrong Houses in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.

Fisher declined to be interviewed for this story because of a pending federal review and a lawsuit the Stansbury family filed against the city.

But Fisher's raw opinions and emotions are on full display in the film, which chronicles how the community copes with the shooting.

"They shot my boy Timothy Stansbury for nothing," he says to the camera in disgust.

The shooting occurred on an otherwise quiet night in January. Officer Richard Neri and his partner were patrolling building rooftops. Stansbury, Fisher and another friend decided to use a roof as a shortcut to another building.

Neri's partner pulled open a rooftop door so that Neri, his gun drawn, could peer inside for any lurking drug suspects. Stansbury startled the officers by appearing at the door and moving toward Neri, who responded with one shot.

In the film, Fisher recalls tumbling down a stairway with his mortally wounded friend.

"I just heard a shot and saw blood," he says the morning after the shooting. "I didn't know who got shot. . . . I was checking myself."

What follows are scenes that have become New York City rituals after questionable police shootings: friends and neighbors mourning the death with candlelight vigils, TV crews and reporters competing for sound bites from a grieving mother, and angry protests demanding justice.

In another scene, a group of women mock Mayor Michael Bloomberg for visiting Stansbury's family. The film later cuts to local newscast footage of police Commissioner Raymond Kelly telling reporters that based on early evidence, "There appears to be no justification for the shooting." More outrage flows when a grand jury decides not to indict Neri.

Nearly a year later, Fisher and Howard will trade the inner-city grit of the projects for the ski-resort glitz of Park City, Utah, where their 22-minute short will open for feature movies at the Sundance festival Jan. 20 through 30. It was one of 82 films selected for screening out of nearly 4,000 submissions.

Howard, who grew up in another Brooklyn housing project, attends Claflin University in South Carolina. He said working on the film made him feel lucky to survive.

"It made me question my own mortality," he said. "I said to myself every day, "Wow, it could happen to anybody.' "

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