Student Filmmaking Thrives at AFS Film Club
By Katie Ormsbee
The setting: a grade-school classroom.
The players: eight obscure but promising up-and-comers.
The theme: treachery, unjust punishment, redemption, and reconciliation.
It's the first day of filming, and all is quiet on the set. What this picture's visionary 4'5" director lacks in height, she more than makes up for in a set of pipes that could raise the dead.
"ACTION!" she bellows.
The air is thick with the palpable anxiety of both crew and cast. This is the third take of the film's most pivotal and emotionally charged scene: an inciting incident of brutal betrayal. While sitting only inches away from their victim, our two antagonists -- the victim's purported best friends -- clandestinely plot the tragic heroine's downfall.
As the antagonists hatch their plan in hushed whispers, the camera pans from plotter to plotter with an eerie finesse that could give Kubrick's iconic lip-reading scene in 2001 a run for its money. The camera pulls back. We're nearing the end of a beautifully crafted take.
Then our tragic heroine bursts into uncontrollable giggles.
The anxious quiet breaks, and the director slumps onto a table with a long, melodramatic sigh.
"This is taking for-ev-errrrr," groans an extra.
"Can you even see me in this shot?" demands another, taking this opportunity to primp her hair and re-apply strawberry glitter lip gloss.
Meanwhile, our camera operator has left her station and is now spinning around in circles, belting Nicki Minaj's "Super Bass."
It hasn't taken much to plunge this project into the depths of unprofessionalism, but you've got to cut the cast and crew some slack. It's 4 pm on a Monday afternoon, after all, and these fifth graders have a lot on their plates. They've just powered through a day of long division, spelling quizzes, the horrors of dodgeball, and the latest fifth-grade drama of stolen hair scrunchies and unrequited crushes. After the rigors of the day, these tweens are veritable troopers for sitting still for more than five minutes, let alone producing a coherent movie.
Was this what I was expecting when I first set foot in my AFS Film Club? Yes, and no. I'd taught tween kids extra-curricular music and drama for years. But the film club presented me with new and unexpected challenges. I'd never worked in an afterschool program, which inevitably entails deep-set elementary rivalries and cliques, post-education exhaustion, and attention spans as short as the life of a gnat. But luckily, the Austin Film Society doesn't just throw its interns to the wolves. I was placed in this classroom to help facilitate the teaching of a film club veteran, Landry Gideon.
Gideon, himself a filmmaker and 2012 TFPF recipient, first became involved with AFS Film Club as an Austin Film Society apprentice and has been onboard as a mentor since last winter. He's keenly aware of the challenges of teaching the nuts and bolts of filmmaking to young students.
"Everyone remembers fifth grade," he said. "It's just an awkward age. They're worried about everything else except just being a kid and having fun. Film club is about getting them to leave school and home behind when they come in the door and enjoy what we're trying to teach them."
And in spite of the occasional rough patch throughout the 2.5-hour sessions, I've witnessed more than one student exhibit some curiosity and excitement about the filmmaking process. "My favorite thing is writing," said one student, who arrived to class one day with eight hand-written pages of plot starring a witch and a snow leopard. Another group of girls took the initiative in writing and directing the earlier mentioned tale of betrayal. The narrative, based on a true story from the fourth grade, features two girls who get their friend in trouble with the principal over a case of sabotaged chewing gum. Eventually, the bad girls come clean and make up with their injured friend for a happily-ever-after ending.
Our "screening" of The Story of Fake Gum (pithily subtitled Do the Right Thing), which involved cramming 13 kids around a laptop screen, was a classroom blockbuster. The most rewarding experience for me as a teaching assistant, however, was to watch these girls collaborate on a story, act out roles that they'd conceived, learn hands-on about the post-production process, and grin triumphantly as they watched their finished film.
"While it's important for the students to do work that they're proud of," acknowledged Gideon, "it's even more important that they're having fun in the process." During my own semester of helping out with film club, I've found that perspective to be dead on. There's nothing more exciting than to watch kids I work with get enthused about a project.
Are there challenges in getting that project to work out? You'd better believe it. But as ol' Ben Franklin once put it, "Tell me and I forget. Involve me and I learn." If my own classroom experience is any indication of the involvement of some 225 students in AFS Film Clubs throughout Austin, I wager that they won't be forgetting these valuable lessons in filmmaking anytime soon.