Stepping in Time: Patrei, Watson, and Callister march to the best of Ballou’s drums. Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

Local filmmakers Michael Patrei and Casey Callister were watching the 2006 Cherry Blossom Soccer Tournament when the Ballou High School Marching Band took the field. The halftime performance may have been brief, but the 80-member band danced, strutted, and blasted their tunes with such gusto that it left a lasting impression. “I was blown away,” Patrei says. “I’d never seen a marching band that enthusiastic, that energetic.”

Though Patrei, 32, had directed a few short films, he had never made a documentary; Callister, also 32, had no experience as a producer. By day, Patrei worked on commercials for Web sites and Callister served as a program management consultant. Despite their greenness, the two lifelong friends formed Garden Thieves Pictures in August 2006 and set about securing permission to film the students. Through Callister’s wife, a teacher at Ballou who occasionally sits in with the band, the pair met Darrell Watson, the band’s director for the past 11 years. When the two filmmakers explained that they wanted to document the band’s positive effect on the students, the school, and the community, Watson welcomed the attention.

For four months, Patrei and Callister accompanied the band through practices in Ballou’s poorly ventilated band hall and on marches across the hills of Southeast as it prepared for and participated in the National High Stepping Marching Band Competition in Birmingham, Ala. At first, Patrei says, his subjects played for the camera: Kenneth Horne, co-captain of the drum line, started washing the white shirts he wore to practice; Rhia Hardman, flags captain, tried to sound more professional. But, as the students became accustomed to Patrei and Callister’s constant presence, they began to loosen up. Footage shows members of the band talking about their aspirations, getting into shouting matches, and grieving the death of a bandmate.

Watson, too, opened up: Almost as often as it records his exuberance, the camera shows the 37-year-old Maryland resident frustrated, angry, and confused as he attempts to get his group of teenagers to share his mature expectations. In one interview, Watson recounts a flamboyant move band president Lewis Franklin executed with his sousaphone during practice. “I meant to tell you to not ever do that turn when you’re marching down the street,” Watson says to Franklin with sudden force.

Following a preview screening of Ballou for cast and crew, however, Watson is all smiles. “[The filmmakers] showed basically what we’ve been feeling for a long time,” he says. “That because you’re in Southeast, that doesn’t determine who you are. Your decisions determine who you are.” Patrei agrees. “I think the important thing is just how impressive it is,” he says, “how easily they are rising above all the obstacles that they have in their way.”

Having submitted Ballou to the Sundance Film Festival, Patrei and Callister hope to build support for their film through public screenings and word-of-mouth. Garden Thieves Pictures publicist Thomas Bindley says that some ministers around the city found the story inspiring enough to justify a request for divine help and have agreed to hold prayer vigils for the success of the film and the band.

“We can’t [get into Sundance] unless all of D.C. is behind us,” Callister says. “If they’re behind us, I know we can get it.”