Building the Critical Lens of a Captive Youth Audience

Giving young media makers access to cameras and training is important, but exposure to a larger body of non-traditional films opens up the ways stories can be told and examined with a critical and creative lens. Unfortunately, for all of the youth media community’s work towards developing media literacy and enabling students to harness their voices—we sometimes forget that we need to be developing audiences as well. Presenting films to engage young people to respond and be critical viewers is one of the most important ways to inspire creativity and to leave a meaningful impression through our work with young media makers.
Appreciating the ‘Alternative’ Film
Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) presents a monthly screening series for New York City high school students every year. A few months ago, I was screening Black Orpheus to 130 of these teens. During the Q&A following the showing, I realized that somewhere in the second act I had lost my audience. They were restless and bored—far from my intended results. At that moment, I realized something crucial. Students were so bored by the film because watching it was an entirely foreign experience—it greatly differed from their understanding of film viewership that they simply couldn’t or just weren’t interested in connecting. The experience solidified that film education is a partnership between actively making and reading/critiquing films.
My experience was not unusual per se. Students are accustomed to casually being shown documentaries and “old” films in the classroom as a learning aid for a history lesson or as a diversion when the classroom teacher needs a moment to get some other work done. Perhaps this is why students think of films that are shown “educationally” as boring, dry and divorced from their own experiences of the world.
Within youth media, there is a large focus on getting students to tell their stories, often with an emphasis on using the documentary format. Many times, the only reference points students have to this type of filmmaking are the talking-head infused, straight-laced (and often very educationally important) documentaries that are shown in the classroom.
The reality is that youth are, and always have been, interested in breaking boundaries outside of what adults tell them is of value. But without seeing avant-garde, alternative films, students are so accustomed to what they generally consume on television or feature films, that when they are given access to tools to make their own films they have only a few examples of storytelling techniques in their pocket. The beginning of any artistic endeavor generally involves mimicking that which we have been exposed to and it is very hard to create films that parallel the Hollywood aesthetic on a tight budget.
As educators, if we aren’t showing young media makers films that shift paradigms and break boundaries, how can we possibly create a core of young filmmakers to develop into adults who will?
As educators, we can get young media makers to understand and enjoy different kinds of films—those that tell stories in unique and nontraditional ways. And in so doing, we give them a chance to develop range, breadth and depth in the kinds of films that they make. Exposure to non-traditional films encourages young filmmakers to be more informed, active audiences and thus, more creative in making new media.
Exposure to Limitless Possibilities
Because young people are drawn to non-mainstream, subversive films, independent screenings can provide young people examples of limitless possibilities to create film beyond the mainstream and effectively tell their stories. For example, TFI recently screened Big Mouth’s Arctic Son and Matt Ruskin’s The Hip Hop Project. Both are documentary films but not standard fare.
Unlike Black Orpheus, students are ready for a film like Arctic Son, which is equally challenging for a 15-year-old. Artic Son is about a young Native American who struggles with alcohol and making good decisions in a traditional native community. The parallel to the current struggles of many young people with the themes in Artic Son expose media makers to strong and personal narratives that can be shot both artistically and metaphorically.
The documentary, The Hip Hop Project (HHP) helped students realize that a documentary need not be boring or fit a standard model. Because HHP is a film that is visually sophisticated, non-traditionally shot and narrative, young people have a point of reference to understand how the filmmaker bucked convention and thus, utilize such ideas in their own work.
Building an Audience
It is essential that as media educators cultivate students we pay greater attention to the fact that though they may not all become filmmakers, they will certainly buy movie tickets for years to come. One of the greatest gifts that we can give to youth media makers are the tools to be an informed viewer—to know what is available, to locate where these films exist, and to hold a cache of references which help to enlighten new filmic experiences. And if they do become filmmakers—the more they see, the more effectively they will be able to use their own voices.
There are so many ways that youth media educators can expose their students to exciting, non-traditional films and filmmakers. There are infinite resources that provide free screenings, lend films, or discount tickets for groups at small reparatory houses. Nearly every city, and increasingly more outlying areas, have museums with film programs; revival house cinemas and there are organizations like Human Rights Watch, American Documentary/P.O.V or Arts Engine that can provide educators great films to show students. And, of course, there is Netflix!
In addition, educators have so many different (and inexpensive) options for showing their students a newer, fresher film 101 curriculum. All you need is a DVD player, time, and a critical, engaging eye. Even if this falls outside the schedule of youth media programming, introducing film screenings to critique with a Q&A can spur young people to continue to organize screenings of their own.
A Critically Aware Media Future
We cannot encourage students to think outside of the box without showing them what actually is outside of the box. If youth media educators support a critically aware and media literate generation of young people, the media youth produce will be more apt to counteract the messages in the mainstream. As we develop this young audience, we arm them with ideas about their world, spaces to develop their sense of self, and the endless possibilities of expression using film. The more informed our future audiences are, the more room there will be for films that don’t fit the mainstream model and encourage an engaged, creative, and critically vocal generation.
Lisa Lucas currently runs the Tribeca Film Institute Youth Programs, which annually serves over 4,000 NYC students with pre-professional development, hands-on filmmaking training, screenings and in-school arts programs. Before her work with TFI, Lisa worked at Steppehwolf Theatre Company and TADA! Youth Theatre. Lisa is a graduate of the University of Chicago and serves as the NYC chair of its alumni film club.