In the YouTube-Facebook-viral video era, it’s hard to remember the time when youth-made media was rare. Now in its 10th year, “Screenagers,” playing at the Pacific Film Archive this weekend, is a film series that began before the eyes of the world turned to under-21s and before that demographic’s camera phones became the eyes of the world.
The series, which is also curated by high school students, began in the late ’90s, when representatives from Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS), a film and media school within Berkeley High, came to the Pacific Film Archive with the idea for a youth film festival. After a small test run with just films from Berkeley High, the festival opened up to student filmmakers from the entire Bay Area. Dharini Rasiah, a CAS teacher, also took an active role in encouraging juniors in her Art of Video class to curate it. Over the last ten years, the program has met with success and enthusiasm from Bay Area high school students. It runs for the twelfth time on February 7, with filmmakers on hand for a Q&A.
On the day of final deliberations on film selection, I visited the PFA for a sneak peek at the films being considered, and talked to the curators and mentors. East Bay Center for the Performing Arts is an Albany High documentary on an arts center in Richmond. It presents a perspective on Richmond not typically found on the nightly news, where reports on gangs and violence are common. The doc combines historical background on the area’s boomtown era, interviews with local residents, and footage of dance and musical performances at the center. Another film under consideration, experimental Prescribed Detention, is a short mood piece on the inner life of a student on ADD medication. According to the two Cal undergrads who mentor the program, these two films are typical of the range of submissions they received.
“There’s a wide range,” Andrew Eitelberg said. “We have poetry films, we have documentaries.” Robin Eitelberg, his co-mentor and wife added, “Last year they had a surprising number of documentaries, and not enough introspective films. This year was kind of the reverse, I was surprised we didn’t get more straightforward narratives.”
Not only were they surprised at the types of films submitted, but also at the maturity of the content. “It definitely surpassed my expectations for high school-made films,” Robin said. “We were impressed that age was coming up. We saw some films that were not only about youth, and the issues around teen culture, but also about aging and dying.”
Though the series started small, interest in it has grown significantly. There are eleven curators this year, one of them a senior mentor who participated in the program last year. Several years ago, the series expanded from one to two shows due to its popularity. “This year we are back to one show but I am worried it may sell out and we will have to turn people away,” Rasiah wrote in an email. In comparison with earlier years, Rasiah said, “many more of my students are interested in curating the festival. And many more schools are familiar with and submit to the festival.”
New filmmaking technology and an overall increase in youth filmmaking has also affected the series. “Digital filmmaking is more common in high schools and there are more youth festivals all over the country,” Rasiah said, measuring the changes the series has seen over the last decade. The student curators were positive about the growing accessibility of filmmaking. “I think more young people are making films now because it’s easier,” said junior Gemma Searle. “Before you had to be more of a committed filmmaker, or have a lot of money.”
Current curators, as well as alumni, were enthusiastic about how the series helped them grow as critical viewers. Though students entered the program informed about making films, it was through Screenagers that they synthesized technical knowledge and opinion into an informed critique. CAS junior Mariela Barrios explained: “Before, I would like something, but I wouldn’t really understand why. Now I know.”
That was the consensus among the other students involved, including several alumni. “This was definitely a turning point for me,” said Kadhja Bonet, a Film Production major at USC who participated in the program in 2005. “In curating for Screenagers I sort of developed a critical voice for what I considered my aesthetic, what I liked, what meant something to me.” Melissa Chapman, another alumni, concurred: “Screenagers got me on a good path in thinking in terms of film and really realizing how much I did enjoy film, and it eventually led me on to film as a career.”
If past Screenagers are any measure, this Saturday should be a lively affair. “It was unlike anything I’d been to,” Andrew Eitelberg said, describing last year’s auditorium packed with excited young filmmakers and their fans. “The opportunity to have your work on a big screen at any age is really fantastic,” Robin added. Even in a time of ever-increasing screen proliferation, maybe the big screen is still the most coveted.
Jane Riccobono is an editorial intern with SF360.org.
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