October 10, 2008

A Thumbs Up for Teen Movies Festival This Weekend Will Screen Films Made By High-Schoolers


Dominique Smith's first film, a short called "Scuff," depicts a series of fights set off when one teen steps on another's new shoes.

Smith, 17, screened his creation at a local teen film festival and then decided he needed to step up his game.

"It was kind of mind-boggling seeing everybody else's work against ours," said Smith, who entered the contest with classmates from W.E.B. DuBois High School. "Theirs were more complex."

So Smith spent the following year making "Night at the Video Store," a 14-minute homage to his heroes -- think Wes Craven, John Carpenter and Quentin Tarantino -- that will debut at this weekend's fourth annual Milwaukee Spotlight Student Film Festival. The event showcases the work of teens from around the country, but local schools that offer video production and film classes are particularly well-represented.

Karen Ambrosh, a media and technology teacher at DuBois, 4141 N. 64th St., has gotten her students involved. Her media criticism class is required for all students, and she teaches the fundamentals of video editing in her multimedia and design class.

"We're getting known as a school that does film work," she said.

A group of Ambrosh's students has been hired by the Wisconsin Donor Network to make an informational movie about organ donation that will be used as part of Milwaukee Public Schools' districtwide health curriculum.

But this weekend's festival, hosted by the downtown non-profit arts center Bucketworks, will showcase films students dream up on their own.

There's a documentary about segregation in Milwaukee, and a melancholy narrative about a boy and his grandfather reflecting on the cycles of life after finding a caterpillar. About 65 films were submitted from all over the country, up from 35 when the festival started four years ago, said James Carlson, executive director of Bucketworks and an event co-founder.

"It does really give us a place to start a conversation with young people about the way they see the world," Carlson said of the festival. "They're obviously thinking deeply about things that affect all of us."

Carlson and Dominic Inouye, an English teacher at Pius XI High School who also teaches a film studies class there, started Spotlight as a way to give youths a showcase and a place to network. There weren't many venues where the teen with $10,000 of equipment at her disposal could talk shop with the young person who depends on 10-year-old technology and her own passion to create a film. And so Spotlight became that common ground.

At Sunday night's award ceremony, 10 winners will get prizes, including trade magazine subscriptions, script consultations with local filmmakers and memberships to Bucketworks, which Carlson describes as a health club for the brain. The arts center offers video cameras, editing suites, costumes, props and proximity to adult artists who are willing to mentor young filmmakers.

Kelly Saunders, an English teacher at Nicolet High School, is one such mentor. In her film studies class, Saunders' students are studying Alfred Hitchcock and making their own suspense films to show they understand the auteur's work. She's tapping into and developing an interest that she has noticed is growing stronger in teenagers in recent years.

"They just love to make films," said Saunders, whose students have been involved in Spotlight.

"They want to be seen and they want people to respond to them."


- The Milwaukee Spotlight Student Film Festival runs Saturday and Sunday at Bucketworks, 1340 N. 6th St.

- Tickets are $5 for Saturday or Sunday, $8 for both days.

- For more information, visit www.milwaukeespotlightfilms.org.

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