Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Community Partnerships with Film Festival Encourage Critical Thinking

Watching my students strut their stuff on the red carpet at this year's annual film festival is something I won't soon forget. A couple of highlights: Juniors Max Provost and Drew Fineberg flexing their muscles in front of a gaggle of photographers; Junior Kelli Bagwell's speech about this year's Junior Jury award winner delivered with such confidence and pizazz anyone would have believed she was a festival regular. Junior Adil Shariff enjoying laughs from a packed house as he recounted some of the unique features of our selected film. The Sarasota Film Festival has just wrapped up its 15th annual film festival. This Gulf Coast film showcase is quickly becoming known as the best festival nationally for supporting educational programs in local schools. In fact, over 5000 students participated in educational programs related to the festival this year. All free.

This year, the Out-of-Door Academy expanded its involvement across school divisions. Last year students in the upper school were treated to a free screening of Rory Kennedy's biographical film about her mother Ethel Kennedy, titled Ethel, this year our engagement expanded. This year, underclassmen were again invited to the festival to enjoy another documentary, Maidentrip. Second graders were invited to see a series of shorts in the Youthfest program. Seventh and eighth graders were guided through a festival curriculum in the process of critique and review writing. The best review was honored by being published in the Observer, a community paper, and awarded a framed recognition at the culmination of the festival. Congratulations to eighth grader Emma Roberts for her review of the film Luminaris by Argentinean director Juan Pablo Zaramella.

In ninth and tenth grade, students were again invited to see a film, another documentary. This year's film, Maidentrip, offered the story of Laura Dekker, the Dutch teenager who circumnavigated the globe, solo. The film was directed by Jillian Schlesinger, a young American film maker who became inspired to write the story after seeing the media frenzy over the legal battle Dekker and her family had to surmount before launching the trip. Students were captivated by  Dekker's courage and pluck, generally blown away by her accomplishments. Many noted what a difficult, or at least unconventional, childhood the young woman had had. Her necessary independence at a young age seems to have contributed to her ability to manage such an incredible journey.

After the film, Schlesinger spoke to students about the creative process of making the film. She became interested in it after hearing about Dekker on the news as she faced a legal battle in the Netherlands to get permission to sail. Schlesinger created a Kickstarter page to raise money to make the film. Hearing about vision moving into reality for both the young film maker and the sailor was a compelling example of fulfilling a dream.

In the upper school, Journalism students halted production of the paper to work in two hour film critique workshops with the film festival's Educational Director, Allison Koehler. Koehler discussed ways of seeing film including criteria related to story development, production value, and audience appeal. The films, ten shorts ranging in length from two to twenty-six minutes, were literary, thought-provoking, and beautiful. I was impressed by the level of discussion and attention to detail from students in classroom discussions. The mixed level group noted camera angles, narrative style, as well as plot development, acting, and visual appeal. As an English teacher, I was inspired by the curricular connections to literature analysis. My students' insights, intelligence, good humor, and articulation of sophisticated ideas related to narrative illuminated aspects of the films I had missed or thought about differently.

As we moved into deliberations about the "best" film, students argued for their favorites based on cumulative scores. When they struggled to reach consensus they looked for other ways to make a sound decision in their nomination. Imagining that one objective for film makers in showcasing their work at festivals is to get noticed by production companies, students further deliberated about what the film's creators might be able to offer in future films. With help from Koehler, who provided links to interviews and additional evidence of the film makers' work, students felt confident that their choice wasn't simply a "one hit wonder." I was pleased with how seriously they took the nominating and by the care and consideration they offered in exploring the creative process behind the films. 

For the end of the festival celebrations, the Journalism students were invited to walk the red carpet at an event honoring local student film makers, actors, and critics. While they all suspected that paparazzi that wooed them into poses on the carpet were plants instructed to treat them like celebrities, they were nonetheless amused by the attention and hubbub. After the red carpet performance, ODA journalists were invited to share their critique of their favorite film The Scared is Scared and were subsequently treated to an unusual video thank you from film maker, Biana Giaever, in which she personally thanked ODA students for their nomination as she munched an enormous chocolate chip cookie and drank milk, reminiscent of scenes in her film.

Next year, I hope to expand the program for 9th and 10th graders, inviting students into small group discussions at the conclusion of the film rather than dismissing them to afternoon classes. Each fall, students and faculty take an afternoon to discuss an all-school read. Having a community "film talk" seems like a great continuation of the tradition of shared narratives, one that all students will have fresh in their minds. I also hope other divisions at the school will continue to find ways to bring the festival into teaching. Perhaps one day we might even boast a film making class in which we premiere the year's work at the festival.

Our educational collaboration with this rare community asset will continue to grow, I predict. I look forward to participating in the festival as programming matures and ODA explores ways to further integrate our curriculum with those resources and the creative minds involved in film making. 

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