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Faith Lutheran teacher uses paintball as way to inspire, instruct students in art of filmmaking

It’s Friday.

The school bell rings and Jose Diaz rushes to the van.

Los Angeles beckons him yet again.

During the week, "Diaz," as he’s known to his students, assumes the persona of Faith Lutheran Junior/Senior High School’s coolest computer teacher.

When the weekend rolls around, however, he becomes "The Snake" for the Golden State Pirates, a Southern California paintball team.

Why does a quiet, nerdy professor transform himself each Friday into a wild warrior?

Is it the adrenaline rush and thrill of the fight?

Is it the escapism that the war games provide?

Is it the camaraderie of a team and the desire to be a hero?

Admittedly, for Diaz, all of those reasons are part of his rationale, but his real purpose for the Friday venture is that it feeds his passion — not for paintball, but for documentary filmmaking.

It’s 5 a.m. Saturday.

Diaz and his five-student film team rub the sleep from their eyes after a longer-than-usual trip from Vegas to Huntington Beach the night before.

They load the equipment in the van, grab a fast-food breakfast and head for the field.

Twenty-five miles and 40 minutes later, they arrive in the middle of nowhere.

The equipment van, fondly known as "The Armada," lumbers up a dusty hill and stakes out a prime location for filming and interviews.

The crew stages tripods, tests mics, checks batteries and reviews the morning plan.

Diaz directs the students on how to obtain action shots, when to get tight, who will man the on-field cameras and when the interviews will take place. Hundreds of players begin to crowd the team boxes and paintball chatter fills the early morning air.

"I had 15 kills yesterday."

"Did you see me take out that snake?"

"Dude, he was like 13 years old, and he took me down."

The teams make their way across paint-splattered grounds to the tournament registration booth for check-in.

Diaz’s cameramen film the parade of padded pants, guns and colorful face masks; the boom mic hangs in the air capturing the excited banter.

Diaz walks in the middle of the Golden State Pirates — director and teammate.

The idea to produce a paintball documentary was intuitive to Diaz.

He dabbled as a casual weekend player and loved the escape the game provided.

Playing in Las Vegas, he met many professional players who live their lives around paintball. College students, businessmen, attorneys, young men and women fill the ranks of committed paintballers.

"When I got the idea to create a paintball documentary, I researched the topic and learned that paintball stories were untouched," Diaz says. "There’s lots of video on the action, but nothing about the people and their stories. In many ways paintball is a metaphor for life, and these people live out their lives and emotions on the field."

In time, Diaz came to believe that a compelling documentary could be produced on the paintball experience. Each week characters, emotions and lives are juxtaposed against the structure of the game.

Diaz launched the documentary as a project for the Faith Lutheran Video Production Club in conjunction with his video production company, Iacon. "Everyone tells you the same thing about what it takes to make a documentary — a lot of filming," Diaz says. "Getting kids excited about that is tough, so I chose something that they might like: paintball."

Diaz believed that because students tend to enjoy the game they would be excited about the learning experience.

The students and Diaz set up a crew, built a storyboard, developed a plan and filmed a few local tournaments as a test.

"If anyone doubts that kids can do the same things adults can, they are fools," Diaz says. "Kids can make the winning shot, testify to their faith, fight in a war, create software and even make movies."

Diaz quickly recognized that to get to the heart of the film, he had to become part of it.

The implications of that decision were significant.

He had to train and compete for a position on a team, and just as importantly, his students had to rise to the challenge of filming the teams and their teacher. They’ve succeeded, but not without sacrifices.

Diaz has self-funded the film, and the financial burden sometimes leaves him with the choice between gasoline for "The Armada" or a splurge on a movie. Nevertheless, he forges on hoping that an investor will see the value in the film, "Paintball Zero," and aid its distribution.

"It’s difficult to raise money for a documentary because nobody can envision the final product," Diaz says. "So you have to invest all you have along with your blood, sweat and tears."

"Paintball Zero" is the tale of a high-school teacher finding himself while discovering the different faces of humanity and emotion behind the players in paintball.

The autobiographical film follows the efforts of the Golden State Pirates and documents the passion, behaviors and social interactions associated with Diaz, his teammates and the game.

Paintball originated as a sport in the woods of New Hampshire in the early 1980s.

The format of the game seems a bit like an adult version of "Capture the Flag."

Dressed in extreme sporting gear and protective masks, two teams face off on indoor or outdoor fields.

The Golden State Pirates compete outdoors in fields constructed of heavy-duty mesh and inflated bunkers shaped like 3D Pyramids, called "doritos" by paintballers, tall rectangles and low-level snakes.

Inconsistent field layouts bring an additional challenge to the game; players often experience the field for the first time when they arrive to compete.

Diaz and his film team have documented tournaments and players for several months, following the teams to remote locations and many different venues.

The culmination comes with a national championship at the end of the year.

Through this very personal journey, Diaz has discovered a sense of his own vulnerability and mortality; in paintball, as in life, he has learned that determination and chance play big roles.

As a child of the military, Diaz lived in many cities across the country. His roots are familial, not geographic, and the faculty and students at Faith Lutheran have served as his extended family for 11 years.

A treasure trove of computers, video equipment, Nerf guns, Transformers, movie posters, DVDs and yet-to-be-washed paintball pants grace every available space in his classroom.

Small and slight of build, Diaz is often mistaken for a student.

His quiet demeanor, soft voice and compassionate personality conceal the strong convictions of the man within.

Diaz discovered his passion for filmmaking while working under contract as a cameraman with "Entertainment Tonight."

Documentary films are his specialty.

Two years ago, he and his students created an award-winning documentary, "Life Beyond the Lights," in which they filmed homeless children in Las Vegas and the faith-based outreach programs that tried to help them.

That initiative affected the students and filmmakers as much as it did the homeless children.

"Paintball Zero" is influencing the student filmmakers in unexpected ways as well.

The core values of the game — respect, diversity, heroism and teamwork — are evident at each tournament and the corresponding journeys to film them.

As they make the trek each week, the film team solidifies its bonds and respect for each other and their teacher.

Making the movie is a personal and financial challenge for Diaz, but he perseveres.

"I often go to bed terrified about money, but I have to finish," he says. "In film, it’s all about the end."

As the announcer calls the next teams to the field, Diaz sends his crew to the sidelines.

"Game on in 3, 2, 1 … Go! Go! Go!" the referee shouts, and Diaz sprints and dives to his position belly down next to the snake.

Rapid fire and screaming fill the field as the plastic covered cameras and mics catch the action.

Thirty seconds into the game, Diaz fires from behind the snake — a clean hit on the hand forces his opponent to raise his arm in surrender.

Diaz’s cameramen catch all the action from the sideline.

After being hit, Diaz runs off the field and continues to watch the cluster of doritos, knowing that there is only one man left.

He instructs the crew to tighten the frame on their cameras.

"Shoot!" he shouts, directing both his teammate and camera crew simultaneously.

His teammate makes the last kill and grabs the flag for the win.

It’s a wrap.

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