Finding a voice through film | November 29, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 29, 2013

Finding a voice through film

An after-school program teaches high schoolers how to make documentaries, tell their stories

by Elena Kadvany

In "Janet and Wendy's Story," two students at Menlo-Atherton High School talk to a video camera, held by a fellow student, about being teen mothers.

The camera follows them into intimate situations: their families' homes, one baby's 1-year birthday celebration, the other's bath time.

The eight-minute documentary, made by Nimsi Garcia, is one of many films that have been created by students in New Voices for Youth, an after-school media-production training program based out of Menlo-Atherton High School. Other documentary topics — all brainstormed and chosen by the students themselves — have included cliques, de-facto social segregation and transitioning to high school.

New Voices for Youth, organized by the Leagues of Women Voters of South San Mateo County and Palo Alto, teaches groups of 10 to 12 students each year how to create a short documentary film, from start to finish. Twice a year, students are recruited, with pizza meetings and film showings, for the voluntary program. Each session runs for eight to 10 weeks.

New Voices received a $2,500 grant last year from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, to support the program's current film project, which focuses on young men and sexual responsibility.

Though the films, all about 10 minutes in length, are the tangible end products, New Voices for Youth's larger purpose is all in the name.

"We wanted to give kids a voice," said Kathleen Weisenberg, one of the League of Women Voters members who created the program in 2004. "We wanted the kids to focus on an issue that they really cared about and could educate the rest of us about."

Two program directors — Tanuj Chopra, a filmmaker from Palo Alto, and Ana Angel, service coordinator and technology education specialist with the Palo Alto Housing Corporation — teach the ins and outs of filmmaking once a week: how to use a camera, interview someone, research, edit in Final Cut Pro, upload footage online.

"We don't try to hover over too much on them, which is cool because they end up coming up with something that they want to do," Angel said.

"I'm a little less interested in them making the perfect or the greatest or the best production," Chopra said. "I want them to have exposure and feel like they created it themselves. That's the general philosophy."

Most New Voices students have never been exposed to film production before.

"There's still a gap between what these kids are capable of doing and what's available to them in the classroom a lot of times," Chopra said. "The kids who do want to make videos and (do) editing are filmmakers by heart; they're in those classes specifically. But I think that a lot of these kids, especially a lot of girls in this program, they don't always get opportunities with technology in the classroom."

Erik Amaya, a Menlo-Atherton graduate, joined New Voices with no film experience but left the program having interviewed for, filmed and edited multiple documentaries.

"I fully expressed the message that I wanted (to get) across," Amaya said of the three films he made.

The first film was about transitioning into high school and balancing new academic demands with "fun time."

"How do you manage?" he said he wanted to find out from fellow youth.

In the end, he said: "It felt great, having the ability to create a documentary and deliver a message that you wanted to deliver. I believe that was one of the greatest feelings I (had) had in such a long time."

Amaya is now a freshman at Canada College in Redwood City but stayed on with New Voices as an intern.

Nimsi Garcia, the student behind the teen mothers movie, said filmmaking taught her better time management. But more importantly, it gave her insight into other people's lives.

Garcia said she used to misunderstand teenage girls who get pregnant, assuming they had made poor decisions or were "not really thinking about their lives."

"But once I got to know (the girls in the film) ... they're people who are struggling and they're still doing so well," She said. "It's really cool. (The film) definitely made me aware of more things around me, and I think if a lot more people got into film it would open up doors to their community that they might not have known. It really connects people."

Garcia and another student's film, also on teen parenting, were screened at an annual Youth Tech Health Conference held in San Francisco this April. The two films are also shown in freshman sexual education classes at Menlo-Atherton and other schools in the Sequoia Union High School District, Angel said.

"It felt good to know, even though we have this small cluster of kids, that we could reach out well beyond it and hopefully have an impact," she said.

New Voices recently launched an campaign, aiming to raise $15,000 by Dec. 31.

"We have been struggling with funding, and in order to be able to continue at M-A, we have to be successful with this campaign," Angel said.

More information about the Holiday Fund, including how to donate, can be found on page 8.