Rio Hondo College Theatre Department Debut’s Documentary

“Turnbull Canyon: A Road Unwound” tells the stories of the canyon we call home

On Wednesday, September 27th, the Rio Hondo Theater department held a screening of William Ohanesian’s documentary: Turnbull Canyon: A Road Unwound, telling the story of the infamous hills that surround our campus. Highlighting some of the different perspectives that hang in and around the canyon show how diverse the culture is in it. Fortunately, Bill had some time to spare to answer some questions about the film. Here’s what happened


Q: You mentioned that you and your partner had thought “why not us” when making the documentary, what was your true inspiration or attraction to covering the real story of Turnbull Canyon?


A:In a very real sense, it was a combination of pragmatism and opportunity.

Like most young people growing up in the area, destination Turnbull Canyon promised a combination of mystery and fun.  A sort of forbidden fruit where anything… or nothing might happen.  Pretty irresistible to us high-schoolers in Hacienda Heights and Whittier.


After a career of working in the studio system and later as a corporate videographer, I was pining for a worthy project / subject I could really get my teeth into.  I’d done some experimental short subjects, a documentary on a struggling rock band, etc.   Over pizza and beer, I suggested to my partner the idea of a film on Turnbull, with little idea of content, form, length, etc.  The hills weren’t far away, so I could go up there at any time I could.  It soon became apparent, as I mentioned, that no one had undertaken a serious overview of the hills, the recreational & residential aspects and especially, the rumors, myths and true crimes that have swirled around the area.  


It seemed a great historical loss that such a vital history was being virtually smothered by time, many of those that had known stories or experienced incidents were passing away, little photographic documentation of the hills existed.  With my limited foreknowledge, I decided to jump in and see how far it would develop, what I could compel people to talk about.


And the more I researched and explored, the more people I met, the more fascinating, contradictory, tragic and real the history became… and that was just what I was told on camera!  I also became aware of how many stories people did not want to have known.  So, I am very grateful to – no, privileged, by – those individuals who were willing to share their memories and impressions.” 


Q: How long was this documentary in the making? It felt like it was a long labor of love.

A:We started shooting in 2014.  That doesn’t really describe how long it took to make it, as I was working full-time, doing freelance assignments, family obligations, et.  Months might go by without appreciable progress.


Also, not many people understand the commitment that goes into a DIY project, when there was essentially one person – yours truly – doing everything.  Making the cold calls, setting up interviews, schedules, contacts, research, equipment purchases, etc. etc.  The AM fog footage had me up in the hills before work, capturing scenic footage of many cold mornings.


When the question comes up, which it frequently does, I try to explain that in terms of actual man-hours, it may not be all that different from a traditional, full-time crewed film, except that I’m the only crew.


So yes, it was quite the labor of love.”


Q:How did the entire process come about when contacting all the people involved, from the residents of the canyon to the city officials?

A: “One always tries to make a good impression, so that one secured interviewee will refer you to another person.. Or someone who doesn’t want to talk will refer you to someone that does.  This happened a few times.  

I also strove to get a balance of ages, genders, racial backgrounds, etc. represented.

I realized that I needed the balance of city officials to counter the hearsay of “regular” people.  The fire captain was very cooperative.  The industry Sheriff’s Station connected me with Deputy Nanquil, who was a dream interviewee.  I was incredibly fortunate to have met him.  Other public officials were not cooperative, therefore, they missed an opportunity to have their views voiced.


Admittedly, it’s disappointing when someone says yes, then says no.  Or simply refuses to return your calls. As a journalist, I’m sure you’ve experienced that many times.  

So often, you just need to brainstorm and ask.”


Q: What’s your favorite memory in the canyon, if any?

A: “I was asked a similar question near the end of the Q&A, something like “what was your best memory of making the film?” I answered that it was the variety, generosity and trust of the people I met, who let me into their home, gave their time on the trails, took time out of their work days to sit for my inquiries. That still holds true.


But your question is slightly different.


When you’re out trying to get footage, it’s essentially lonely, sweaty, hard work. And not knowing if you got anything usable or not until you get to your editing computer and upload it and sort through to assess what you got vs. what you wanted to get.


But favorite memory… ?


Ok, I’m going to go a little mystical on you.  My experience up there has led me to believe in SOME presence of spirits up there.  Not necessarily malevolent, but mischievous. My deal was to collect recyclables on the hikes and shooting trips to help clean the place up a bit and appease the spirits.


And I’ll be damned if it didn’t pay off with unexpectedly fortuitous shooting opportunities, people met, my car unticketed when overparked, etc., etc.  Some of the footage I got was only by luck, opportunity and a quick eye to capture events and actions.


So, those unanticipated, unforeseeable opportunities were by far the favorite memory in the canyon I had.


A final thought…

The hills themselves are ultimately, just a pile of dirt.


When the road was opened in 1913, it brought the human element.  That intrusion, that asphalted original sin brought in decades of human fears, imagination, the carefree escape from civilization, the temptation to violate the norms of civic life.  Like us as kids, the darker impulses of human behavior were feared and in many cases, acted out. Rumors spread of Santeria practices, Nazi meetings, insane asylums, orphanage murders, hanging trees, the whole rumor mill started cranking overtime.  And rumors begat reality. There is no question that some unimaginable cruelties have been committed. 


People blame the hills for encouraging evil under the shelter of darkness. Things have occured in the canyon for which – as the deputy says in the film; “There is no explanation for”


The dirt can’t hurt you, but naivete can.”


There will be a double-screening of the film on Wednesday, October 22nd at the Whittier Historical Society, starting with the first showing at 2 PM and the following showing at 6:30 PM both with Q & A’s subsequently after.