Volume 16 • Issue 50 | May 7 - 13, 2004

To be young, Downtown and a director

By Jess Wisloski

Downtown Express photo by Aaron M. Cohen

Lisa Wurtzel, center, an I.S. 89 student, spoke about her film, “In the Woods” on the opening day of the Tribeca Film Festival, May 1. Darwin Eng, right, of I.S. 126 in Chinatown, directed “Fight for Love.”

A small crowd trickled in to the Tribeca Cinemas on Saturday May 1, the opening day of the Tribeca Film Festival, but these film fans weren’t the jeans-clad camera-toting star spotters that will be pervading the streets of Tribeca through May 9. Many of these moviegoers were under four feet tall, yet Danny DeVito wouldn’t give them the time of day. And the feature playing wasn’t the sold-out Olsen-twin hit, “New York Minute,” but instead a series of short films by local students as part of the showcase for NYC Youth Behind the Camera.

For the first time in the three-year history of the festival, the Family Festival reserved part of the program (albeit a last-minute add-on) to youth filmmakers in the Downtown area. The team from the family festival, as creative director Peter Downing put it, “scoured Downtown schools for all the school programs, the after-school programs, to find what was being made.” His only caveat was that they had to expand the search to include schools in higher areas of Manhattan, because the pool of films was still small.

In the lobby of the theater, vendors handed out free popcorn and soda, sponsored by the festival to the young filmmakers, their stars, and the audience of parents, siblings, and those perusing the festival with 6-year-old in tow who came in off the street to see what was going on.

Preparing to see her film for the first time with a general audience was Lisa Wurtzel, 14, a student in the eighth grade at Battery Park City’s I.S. 89. She became involved with Manhattan Youth’s after-school filmmaking club back in sixth grade and had been working on the script for this film ever since then. As a seventh grader, she produced the film, at long last, and as excited as she was to be part of the festival, still had apprehensions about the acceptance by the audience.

“It’s really good because the teachers didn’t want to make you do a specific thing. It was really yours — with their help. It was very independent to work on your project,” she said, but admitted the extra time put in by the teachers of the program (which in her case involved bringing her to Central Park for a weekend shoot, and purchasing a special device for handheld shots specific to her film) made the production possible.

Theseus Roche, who is the program director for Manhattan Youth’s filmmaking class, added that she was the first person involved in the program, and still the longest-standing member.

“The program had a slow start, the second semester though, people started hearing what we were doing and just started coming,” he said. For many sessions, it was just Lisa, so instead of trying to shoot, she started working on a screenplay, which turned into “In the Woods,” the film screened at Saturday’s event.

“I was the first to start working on my film and the last to finish,” said Lisa, and mentioned that when it came time to shoot, she ran into several problems: finding actors committed to the project, seasonal changes, and location scouting.

“We didn’t know of any woods,” she said, laughing.

The program for the noon screening included the work of participants of the New American Youth Ballet; an after school program at Chinatown’s PS/IS 126; the Manhattan Youth program at I.S. 89; and the work of a group of students at Stuyvesant High School.

When the lights dimmed, a titter filled the theater, young kids whispering to each other and their parents, and the impatience of waiting to see a movie. More akin to a college film production class than any festival was the constant praise filmmakers and actors received every time a name came up on the screen — a small burst of applause usually rang out.

A short, but funny instructional video from the New American Youth Ballet was first on the program, and highlighted the fun of dancing. A sped-up shot of little ballerinas trotting to class in tutu’s had the audience chuckling, and two young dancers proved their talents at acting in the leads of the film as well, which was staged in a talk-show format.

The next two films from the Chinatown program featured the same young acting duo, but otherwise dealt with broadly different topics. “Shoplift” by Lindsey Yang, ended on a discomforting note, as a young girl who informed on a shoplifter ends up bullied for her honesty, whereas Darwin Eng’s “Fight for Love” was a humorous tale of a boy’s aggressive advances — he picked fights — with the girl he loved, went unappreciated and misinterpreted.

“Bells R’ Ringin’” was a short by Manhattan Youth student Khamari Young, and by far received the loudest response from the guffawing adults. A young troublemaker is sent outside to play unknowingly as his mother and teacher commence in a voracious- and risque- flirting session. “I love yoga. I’m very flexible,” was one of the gem lines from the bragging mother who was played by one of the program’s advisors.

When “In the Woods” came on, Lisa slouched a little in her seat.

“I guess I was embarrassed. I don’t know why — I wanted people to like it,” she said afterwards. The film was darker than the others. A young girl walking through the woods comes across a boy her age. The two join up for the walk, and soon it becomes clear that the boy has some secrets. Should she still trust him? By the end of the film, the audience is left wondering themselves.

The final two films were by a group of directors from Stuyvesant High School, most of whom were busy taking the SATs for their big debut. Dakota Straub, a junior, was the only one present when “Re-Take,” the story of high-school obsession, and “SP.ED,” a documentary about the school’s special education program, received appreciative applause.

After the films, a brief Q & A session was modified by Till Schauder, a New York based filmmaker whose last feature premiered at the festival in 2003. While he started out by saying he was amazed how young the filmmakers were, he then confessed to have remembered that his own first film “entailed my brother as a lead actor.”

One person asked if making films “has changed the way you sit in an audience and view a film?”

“I think so, because now I notice more details,” answered Wurtzel, and gave an example about unexplained outfit changes in a scene.

“I have to agree,” said Darwin Eng. “Before I was just watching TV and everything would just go right through my mind. And now I’m noticing things, like ‘Oh, this is isn’t even logical, or, this isn’t right.’”

Roche spoke up on behalf of the advisors of the Manhattan Youth, as well as on behalf of all the filmmaking programs. Roche, who has acted as a catalyst for some of the other youth programs Downtown, brought in a college friend to teach the class at I.S. 89, Paul Echevarria, who is now heading up the program in Chinatown as well.

“What we discovered very very quickly is the difference between films made for kids and films made by kids,” Roche said, with several of the filmmakers sitting on chairs to his right, watching attentively.

Issues-related subject matter is what Lisa said she prefers, and said she’s definitely more interested in doing heavier subject matter. As her mother, Faith, and sister, Ariela, stood by after the screening, she explained her choice of a more ambiguous ending (the protagonist in her film ends up walking away hand in hand with a boy who had two strikes against him to us veiwers. 1) He unrolled a bag of marijuana in front of her; 2. Told her he had no parents and was living on his own).

“A lot of films everything ends right away. You know, everything falls into place. Paul helped me with that ending. I wanted to leave it that they don’t know who to trust. It leaves them to think about it,” she said.

Lisa is working on another project, but her final year at IS 89 has kept her occupied, and Echevarria said the program has grown in a way that keeps his hands full.

“At first I found it was very hard to capture their attention. They were very much into movies,” he said, but had to try and connect them to the medium. “My goal was to kind of slow the movies down and say ‘What kind of shots are the filmmakers using here? How are they creating meaning? What kind of story elements are being used here?’” He explained that once given the tools and guidelines, though, the students came out with a very distinct voice of their own.

“It was very special, the results, and I found the varying degree of results to be very interesting.” Along those lines, Roche, speaking to the audience summed up the experience.

“A lot of these films were very very brave, a lot of them were almost uncomfortable to watch. But I’m very proud of all the kids, and I’m kind of hoping that in the years to come they get more and more of a place of recognition.”


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