It's been an incredibly inspiring weekend in Nevada City with The Wild & Scenic Film Festival. This event is the largest of it's kind in the U.S. and is held annually, every January in Nevada City. Their website describes it as: "a gathering of award-winning films, filmmakers, speakers, celebrities, and activists who bring a human face to the environmental movement and the actions being taken in our communities."
My partner (Red, Woolman grounds and maintenance) and I had the opportunity to check out Friday night's session and saw "Bidder 70", a film that I highly recommend! It is a documentary about Timothy DeChristopher, a young man who through civil disobedience disrupted an illegal BLM land auction.
I loved it and can't wait to show it to my students. He is just the kind of role model that we need right now. A regular guy with a clear sense of right and wrong. He jumped into his action without a plan, then grew into his role as an inspiring voice advocating for actions against climate change over short-term profit. Tim proves that yes, one person can make a difference, but that community makes that difference count!
But actually, what I want to write about now is the panel that I had the chance to speak on this morning with a group of exciting young filmmakers and mentors. The session was held in the Nevada City Hall, which during the festival is called "the activist center". The theme was:
Youth and Mentorship for Effective Digital Storytelling:
Do you make media, or want to? Do you wish you knew more? Come participate in a discussion with young filmmakers and their mentors. Youth have often been a silent and ignored voice. With access to technology unlike any previous generation, media and film can become the great democratizer for youth. What is the role of adult mentors in this process? What do both adults and youth need to know to make effective media that can share a youth perspective in a world already saturated with information? Come find out.
I've got to admit that public speaking still gives me the heebie jeebies (it's different in the classroom!). So, when the panel moderator sent out potential questions that would be asked, I took the opportunity to write copious notes beforehand. I put so much time into it, I thought I might make the effort worthwhile by sharing what I had to say here, too, for those of you who couldn't make it today.
How does your organization use filmmaking with youth?
Each of our core classes: Peace Studies, Environmental Studies and Global Issues have an ongoing out of class project. In Peace Studies, it is a 10 minute peace advocacy film that explores a topic and then presents potential actions the audience can take to get involved.
Over the 4 months, in self-chosen groups of 3-4 students, the youth decide upon a topic, learn about the power and potential of advocacy films, conduct research, learn production techniques, find and execute interviews, edit, and premiere the films.
Why we use this form of storytelling:
This project fits perfectly within the Peace Studies class, as one of the major takeaways of the course is to understand the significance of the difference between positive peace and negative peace and direct and indirect violence.
When we look up the word peace in the dictionary, more often than not we find that it is the absence of violence. In Peace Education terms, that is what we call Negative Peace. When you look up violence in a dictionary, you find something along the lines of the use of physical force against a person or group of people. That is what is referred to as “direct violence”. However, we all know that significant harm comes in a lot more forms than a punch in the face—racism, sexism, classism---all of these are examples of what is called “indirect violence.”
So then, if something like poverty is indirect violence, war is direct violence, negative peace is the absence of direct violence…then what is Positive Peace and how do they all connect to Peace Advocacy Documentaries? Martin Luther King said, “true peace is more than the absence of violence, it is the presence of justice.” And I would like to add that we are talking about justice on all planes: social, economic, ecological and political justice.
Positive Peace is synonymous with the Sanskrit word Ahimsa, meaning active nonviolence. It denotes the presence of connection and community; and is more about the journey than the end point. In the creation of Woolman Semester Peace Documentaries, students are actually engaging in an act of positive peace while the topics of the films often highlight issues of indirect violence that might not have be part of mainstream discourse. For example, we’ve had films about able-ism, homelessness, and the negative effects of gang injunctions on communities. The students chose topics that also highlight actions that folks are taking in order to bring about positive peace such as highlighting current immigrant rights movements, gangs who are a positive force in their communities, re-examining happiness and the American dream, actions against military recruitment in high schools, and more.
Our Peace Documentary project serves the greater community when we premiere the films and post them online by bringing to light stories about people building community and creating exciting alternatives to unjust systems. But the films also benefit the filmmakers immensely, as they learn film production techniques, research skills, as well as the ever important group collaborations skills. The empowerment that is a result of learning to use film as a tool for advocacy can’t be underestimated.
On a deeper level, I have also seen the project have a healing effect on students, too. I am remembering the experience of a group of young women who created a film about sexuality in the media and the importance of creating a culture of consent in our society. The questions that the audience were asked to ponder in the film were just as meaningful as those that the group asked themselves behind the scenes.
Another example would be a group of students who couldn’t agree on a topic until they realized that one thing that the entire group had in common was that they were all on psychotropic medications. And so, these courageous young people created a film called "Pill Popper Generation", which was an extremely vulnerable look at how young people are so heavily medicated these days.
I also think of all of the fabulous role models that the kids are introduced to in the process. I remember a couple of years ago a group was creating a film advocating for LGBTQ rights and they went to the Castro district in San Francisco and met all of these incredible elders who were able to tell the stories of their struggles, but then also give this sagely advice that gave the youth in that group so much hope that their paths would get easier in the long run. Or the example I spoke about earlier of the group that explored how in the Bay Area there are gangs who are a acknowledging that there are actually some really powerful and positive aspects of gangs like mentorship and a sense of family connection that can be retained while turning away from the violence.
What is your relationship to the young filmmaker(s)? Why is it important to you to help youth have a voice?
Students and staff at Woolman tend to have really strong, close relationships. This comes out of the fact that Woolman is such a small, residential program, where at any point in the week I might be pruning trees, scrubbing toilets, or baking homemade pizza with my students.
But another important part of how we run the school is related to its roots as a Quaker institution. The Quakers believe that every single human being has a piece of the truth (or in more religious terms that of god within them)---everyone equally---on a macro scale this is seen through an unwavering commitment by Quakers to human rights and nonviolence as is seen through their legacy of activism. But, within the school, it is seen in the way that the youth’s voices are valued. Although Woolman is clearly a hierarchy of staff and students, we also frequently involve our students in the decisions that affect them. From our seminar style round table class discussions to our weekly community meetings, many say it is the first time that they really feel heard by adults.
This sense of agency is then carried out with the youth back to their hometowns. At Woolman, we firmly believe that we are educating students with relevant knowledge of what is really happening in the world right now. We also believe in introducing the youth to tools to actually do something about it not because they are “the leaders of tomorrow” and it is up to them to “save the world” but because they have immense power and potential to be leaders now! And we hope that Woolmanites will actually act as more than leaders, but collaborators in groups of change-makers that don’t just include youth, since it is up to all of us to do our part to create a more just and sustainable world.
Obviously, I don’t need to convince anyone here of the power of storytelling through film, about how many more people you can reach with your message or the relationship between stories and action. My experience as a mentor for young filmmakers has further solidified my understanding of how capable teens are and especially how technologically proficient they are. And so, with that, I just want to encourage both young people and educators to give it a try. There are an enormous amount of resources on the web—ranging from entire step-by-step guides, as well as short videos on everything from film shots to how to build rapport in an interview.
The benefits of a documentary film project are vast. The benefits are cultural in the way in which we can influence social action and discourse to academic through the research and the type of learning that comes when students are able to follow a passion and advocate for something dear to them. Then there are the interpersonal group work skills, and potentially even spiritual benefits as I have seen the healing that has come through work on certain films.
The Woolman Semester Peace Documentaries can be seen in the gallery section of our website, as well as our YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/woolmansemester
Students from Fall 2011 chatting before the premiere of their Peace Docs at the Unitarian Church