Student filmmakers win over audience at festival

Layla Abbas
Editorial Director

Three University of La Verne communications students won the audience award at the eighth annual San Bernardino International Film Festival last weekend.

Billy Lopez, junior television broadcasting and political science major; Thomas “T.J.” Sanchez, senior television broadcasting major; and Chris Norman, junior radio major, were honored for their documentary short film,“Building An Empire.”

“Building An Empire” is a film about Jesse Hernandez, a pro wrestling Hall of Famer who opened a wrestling school in San Bernardino called School of Hard Knocks.

The school is a place for men and women looking for pro wrestling training. Hernandez also stages live audience matches in West Covina.

Don Pollock, professor of communications, nominated nine University of La Verne student films including “The Big Show,” “Tough Love,” “Living With the Gold Line Azusa,” “Ava,” “Building An Empire,” “La Sagrada Familia,” “Running to the Finish,” “Under the Influence” and “Chinese Lantern Festival.”

Pollock accepted the award on behalf of the group, who could not attend the award luncheon.

“I teach an advanced video production class where students make short documentaries about interesting places and people hidden around La Verne and San Dimas,” Pollock said at the luncheon. “This was an episode in San Bernardino about Jesse Hernandez, who is a hall of fame pro wrestler and started a school for wrestling called, ‘School of Hard Knocks.’”

Pollock said although this was not a local story for La Verne, he thought it was a unique and great idea.

“Because this crew was so prepared, they had time to go back and do the re-edits which made the film so much better,” Pollock said. “I feel strongly about the film and have entered it into many festivals, so it was nice that the audience here appreciated it too.”

Sanchez, producer and director of “Building An Empire,” said people do not usually hear about the semi-pro wrestling matches, so this made the story stand out.

“This is a quality documentary,” Sanchez said. “When Jesse is talking about what the school is about and the moves he teaches, we were able to film guys practicing it. So he says, ‘I teach them tumbling,’ and then you see a guy tumbling on the mat. He says, ‘I teach them how to fall,’ and you see a guy falling with Jesse in the foreground.”

Sanchez said his crew did an amazing job capturing the interviews in a visual format that makes sense. Sanchez said it was an honor to be nominated and win this award.

“I do this stuff because I am passionate about telling stories,” Sanchez said. “The fact that me and the crew were able to tell this story good enough that other people like it enough to be put in a film festival means the world to me.”

Norman helped with camera lighting for the film.

Lopez, the producer, director and audio editor of “Building An Empire,” has always been a wrestling fan, making him excited to film this story.

“We were watching different types of documentaries in class and a wrestling one came up,” Lopez said. “So I was researching local wrestling spots and came across this story.”

Lopez said it was great to get a look behind the scenes of wrestling, and learn the art of the sport.

“I had a great crew,” Lopez said. “Both were hands on with the idea. I came with a fan perspective and T.J. looked at it with a more technical view. Everyone did a little bit of everything and the time management and workload was evenly distributed.”

Annie Ho, junior broadcasting major, said her childhood inspired her documentary “Chinese Lantern Festival,” which was nominated for an award at the film festival.

“I was born and raised in Taiwan,” Ho said. “I did not move to the U.S. until sixth grade. So for me, the Chinese Lantern Festival is my childhood. When you are a kid, you always go there and see the lights and eat dinner with your family and enjoy the day.”

Ho created her short student documentary at the Los Angeles County Fairplex Chinese Lantern Festival in December and January.

She said her favorite part about creating this documentary was seeing shadow puppets again, a tradition that she has not seen since she went on a field trip in Taiwan as a child.

“Seeing a shadow puppet again after a long, long time without people knowing shadow puppets was so enjoyable,” Ho said. “It is like the traditional artwork is back, when it was gone for a really long time. In Taiwan people do not know shadow puppets nowadays.”

“Building An Empire,” “Chinese Lantern Festival” and the other student-produced films can be viewed at

Layla Abbas can be reached at

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