REEL FATHERS/Real Families : A First-Time Youth Media Production Intensive
It is more and more common for organizations outside the youth media field to incorporate video and media production in their programs, which requires advice and partnership with youth media educators, community youth centers, and professionals.
For example, my organization REEL FATHERS focuses on the relationship between fathers and young children, teens, and incarcerated fathers and their families, using film screenings and facilitated dialogue as reflective tools to promote better father-child relationships. As research from the National Fatherhood Initiative indicates, 24 million children (one in three) live absent from their father. These young people are two to three times more likely to be poor, to use drugs, to experience educational, health, emotional and behavioral problems, to be victims of child abuse, and to engage in criminal behavior than their peers who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents.
We realized that our efforts were not reaching teens enough, despite the range of community partnerships we had in northern and central New Mexico. We wondered if youth media could be an effective way to help young people explore the highly-charged, sensitive subject of fathers. Yet we were concerned that if we asked young people to create films around the theme of fatherhood, they would see the topic as too traditional or painful and thus, not participate. The outcome was quite the opposite, and transformed our approach to the teens and constituents we serve.
New Mexico has some of the greatest poverty, unemployment, youth crime, teen pregnancy and school dropout rates in the nation. At the same time it has a booming film production industry. REEL FATHERS wanted to empower youth through media production to deepen the examination and healing process of their relationship with their fathers/father figures, while providing production skills that could lead to potential careers.
In order to identify, recruit, and effectively support teens in the community, we needed to form relationships to reach participants from local high schools. We already had partnerships with Head Start and United Way, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and local groups that support incarcerated fathers and their families. However, we needed film and teen-specific support.
We approached the following organizations and individuals to partner with:
• Warehouse 21, Santa Fe’s teen art center, which provided the needed production and post-production equipment as well as expertise in designing educational programs for youth;
• GEAR UP!, a national college readiness program funded by the U.S. Department of Education, which provided access to 9th grade students at Capital and Pecos High Schools; and,
• Ed Radtke of Transparent Films as the filmmaker/educator, who brought passion and years of experience in leading youth media workshops.
Our aim was to create a two-week film intensive, where local high school students could tell their story through narrative, documentary, animation or experimental techniques. Funding for this program came from The Seabury Foundation, a Chicago foundation that wished to support REEL FATHERS’ work with disadvantaged youth around the theme of fatherhood. Once we established the above partnerships over a period of several months, we collectively promoted a father-focused media workshop, which resulted in 16 ninth-graders and two senior interns signing up.
At the first workshop, Don McAvinchey, a LISW therapist and coach with 18 years experience working with adjudicated youth and REEL FATHERS’ Director of Reflective Process, led a simple exercise to get participants to talk about their fathers. The first student to speak told us that she was currently homeless and described her abusive, often absent father. She also said how much she loved him, in spite of everything. Her story encouraged other accounts and observations. For example, in the closing circle a participant said: “I never knew my father. I never talk about him. I feel like a weight has been lifted from my chest.” The focus on fatherhood as a theme and focus for storytelling seemed to bring the teens closer together.
During the two weeks that followed, teen filmmakers met every weekday afternoon with lead artist Ed and Angelo Jaramillo, the regional coordinator for GEAR UP.
At Pecos High, seven students worked as one team on a narrative project telling a story they conceived and wrote about a girl getting ready for prom who confides in her friends that she’s pregnant, then has to share this news with her mother and father before her boyfriend arrives: A Prom Story.
At Capital High, students divided into three production teams. Three girls created Three Fathers, a documentary portrait of their fathers, two of them contrasting their birth fathers with their current, adopted fathers. Four youth took a true-life story one of them knew about a young woman corresponding with her father in prison and created The Letter. The young man who never knew his father teamed up another youth to create The Runner—an imaginative re-creation of his father’s experience on the day he, the filmmaker, was born.
On Saturdays, the two groups—one rural, one urban—would come together, along with staff from each school, the partnering organizations, and a few parents. At the second Saturday session, the youth screened their works-in-progress and received feedback and encouragement from Ed, staff, advisors and their fellow students. At the close of the intensive, the youth filmmakers created four moving and original works. A senior intern created a fifth behind-the-scenes documentary portrait of the workshop.
Following the program, the works were screened at special assemblies at each school—enabling parents, friends and peers to see the youth’s work and honor their accomplishments. The youth were proud to stand before the audience and comment on their work, answering questions about their creative process and how the filmmaking experience had touched them personally.
Two of the works—The Runner and The Letter—were selected to show at the local Santa Fe Get Awesome Youth Film Festival. One challenge we noted was the seriousness of approach and emotional maturity of our youth’s films made them stand out from the other entries. The director of The Letter, for example, exclaimed to me “Our [films] were the only depressing films!” The serious nature of their stories on fatherhood actually embarrassed the students.
This reaction leads us to believe that we must continue to develop partnerships with the youth media field—to learn how to encourage confidence, recognition, and ownership of the stories that teens produce, which comes with the kind of relationships that are created in a youth media approach. Currently, we are exploring a possible partnership with Youth Media Project, a radio-based organization in Santa Fe, NM.
What We Learned
Looking back, our first attempt at a media-production intensive helped us identify several important steps to encourage teens to explore stories of a challenging, personal nature. These might be helpful for other organizations that are not interested in starting a media-production component:
• Find partnering organizations that complement your organization’s strengths as program providers, particularly youth media organizations;
• Set up a long lead time to plan the program and promote it throughout the community and your partners’ networks;
• Work with a skilled facilitator, and if possible, an educator in the youth media field;
• Create a safe space and neutral, supportive environment for young people and allies to talk about the theme or focus;
• Provide teens the freedom to choose their production approach and encourage confidence and recognition;
• Find ways to celebrate the completed projects and provide lots of appreciation for the courage and creativity of the filmmakers.
Through our first media-production intensive, we learned that storytelling through media has an important role to play in the lives of young people. It is an expressive means for students to find their voice and to process emotions tied to personal, difficult relationships and issues.
Despite our initial concern that starting with an assigned topic would impede creativity, we found that an area of focus can act as a catalyst, inspiring young people to draw on their innate wisdom, courage, and creative instincts. As a group, teens worked together to transform shared, difficult experience in their lives. We have much to learn from the many organizations throughout the U.S. that are exploring ways to use media to more effectively engage young people. And, collectively, we can learn from the success of the youth media field, where young producers often depict intimate stories for the sake of expression and community/social change.
Deborah Boldt is the executive director of REEL FATHERS. She is an award-winning filmmaker with a longstanding, passionate interest in film as an educational catalyst. Her films have been shown theatrically, broadcast nationally on PBS, and have served as the basis for corporate and educational seminars. Deborah is an Aspen Institute Scholar, the recipient of an NEA Regional Fellowship, and a former board member of the New York Women in Film and Television.