A year after the L.A. riots, it's Hollywood, not the fourth estate, that continues to reveal why "people go crazy and burn down their neighborhoods," says Allison Anders, director of last year's low- budget hit, Gas Food Lodging. As proof, Anders offers her new film, Mi Vida Loca (due out this summer), which gives a voice to yet another segment of society usually ignored: the "homegirls" of L.A.'s Echo Park gang. Unlike the media stereotype, these women are independent, strong-willed, and hardly content to stand in men's shadows. "Feminism has definitely reached these girls," Anders says. "They don't have the opportunities to back up their self-determination. So they express it in terms of gangs--or crime." Seventeen-year-old Nelida Lopez (in the red shirt), who plays a character named Whisper, makes no apologies. "Everybody has a life," she says, "and this is the life we chose." Loca may be an unlikely story of women's empowerment, but Anders, a single mother who lived in Echo Park for six years, still believes that "movies can tell us about our place, or lack of place, in our culture."