National film fest lets young storytellers shine [video]

    “You will be making a video. And you have only two days in which to finish.”

    This was the message delivered to the 21 teenagers participating in the American Graduate Flash Festival held at WHYY on March 9th and 10th.

    Broken into groups, working with a mentor, the students responded to issues and shared their experiences connected to the high-school dropout crisis in our country. They discussed, storyboarded, wrote scripts, conducted research, acted, recorded, and edited. The videos were 100-percent youth produced. And really, they only had about 10 hours.

    I have been working with young people to produce videos for about eight years, and one important lesson I’ve learned is this: Adults often underestimate the capacity young people have to show us that they are thinking about important issues.

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    Over the course of the two days, the students came ready and prepared with ideas, insight, and a willingness to share their experiences. They looked at a variety of issues and formed groups with individuals interested in the same topics.

    I had the fortune of serving as a mentor with one group. They chose to focus on the educational experience that new immigrants face in American schools, led by one of the participants in the group, Miguel Martinez, who arrived in 2010 from the Dominican Republic.

    I have known Miguel for a couple of months and learned quickly that he is ambitious and dedicated, and he handles many situations with grace, humility, and a sense of humor. Miguel wanted to share his story and the decision was made by all in the group that Miguel’s story would be the most impactful and meaningful story they could tell.



    The public response to the videos has been tremendous. Our videos were entered into a national competition, along with videos produced by young people in other cities participating in the Flash Festival. Though we did not win, the comments and feedback were overwhelming, as evidenced by the number of times each video was watched.

    Receiving acclaim for your work is always wonderful, but I am most proud that the youth in the program represented the characters in their stories with honesty and gave respect to each other throughout the process. Having a product that you can be proud of is a great achievement, but working well together is a skill that will serve these young men and women far greater throughout the rest of their lives.

    Henry Cohn-Geltner is a community media instructor at the Dorrance H. Hamilton Public Media Commons at WHYY.


    We asked Sydney Bynum, a senior at Constitution High School in Philadelphia, to describe her experience creating a short film about the American high school dropout problem. Her essay follows.


    Every 26 seconds a student drops out of high school. The current crisis facing America’s youth is substantially affecting teenagers all over this great nation.

    The American Graduate Film Festival brought together 21 teenagers from the Philadelphia area, including myself, for a weekend at WHYY. We began by asking questions and giving our answers to the best of our knowledge: Why do students drop out of high school? What happens to the students who drop out of high school? What can be done to combat the current dropout rate?

    Following our discussion, we broke into small groups of four or five to answers these questions by producing a short video. The issue my group chose to tackle was the lack of real-world application of the school curriculum. We felt the best way to display this topic was as a mockumentary we called “Real + World = Matters.”

    The plot surrounds an upcoming rapper cleverly named Marshall Mathews — a spoof on the rapper Eminem — who struggles fiercely with fractions, which causes him to drop out of high school to pursue a music career.

    As the video progresses, Marshall meets a man named Andre, who becomes his manager and producer. Andre robs Marshall of thousands of dollars, because of Marshall’s inability to comprehend fractions. Our production ends with Marshall returning to school with a new understanding that some skills taught in school do relate to his life.

    The best way to describe our final project is “8 Mile” meets NBC’s “The Office,” circa the Michael Scott era.



    Producing a film takes many steps, including brainstorming, outlining, eventually filming, and the dreaded final step: editing. Shooting our production as a mockumentary made filming and editing flow very well. We didn’t create a script; we all felt a sense of confidence in each other, despite never having worked together before, and some of us were meeting for the first time.

    Editing was less dreadful and tedious, because we split editing duties among four people. Each person had a scene to edit. We kept in the slight mishaps and missteps of the actors because it made the action appear to be more authentic. This also put less pressure on my group members, who had never used a camera or the editing software.

    Being in our small group, working diligently on our production, creatively isolated from the others — this is how I would describe most of the weekend for our group.

    The most interesting part of this experience was seeing the other groups’ videos. Everyone’s interpretation was spectacular and original. It was a nice change of scenery and a great way to end the weekend.

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