Originally published May/June 2013 in Oakland.
Compared to 30 years ago, filmmaking and distribution are easy. Mobile phones record high-definition video, and anyone can upload content to YouTube or social networks where people from around the world can see it. The average person creates and consumes media on a previously unmatched level, and Hollywood no longer has a monopoly on the cinematic process.
This democratization of technology and distribution channels is a blessing for filmmakers, but while the means are becoming increasingly accessible, it’s still as difficult—if not more difficult—for filmmakers to have their voices heard amid the billions vying for attention.
In 2005, Alternatives in Action set out to provide a venue for young filmmakers—the Bay Area Youth Film Festival—an event where they could share with the community the local and national issues that affect them. The Alameda-based nonprofit constructed the festival to empower youth to take leadership roles in their lives and communities. Since its inception, the annual festival—now called Project YouthView—has not only high-lighted the work of more than 250 filmmakers, it has also provided training and real-world experience to the 75 kids who’ve helped plan the upscale affair at the historic Alameda Theatre. The screening and awards show—presided over by celebrity and industry judges—takes place on May 9 and is a chance for young artists to walk the red carpet and see their films on the big screen. Out of 75 films, nine are selected for screening for their exceptional voice, quality, and content.
We had a chance to speak with a few of the finalists about their films and their inspirations for speaking up about the issues affecting them and their communities.
“As an Oakland resident myself,” Zijun “Stephy” Liang says, “I’ve seen several robberies and fights on the streets and heard a lot of gunshots outside my apartment.” The 19-year-old filmmaker called upon her personal experiences when creating Fast Forward: The Road to a Peaceful Oakland, one of the films chosen. It is a documentary that explores the Season of Peace-Building campaign, which was organized by young men and women from Life Academy of Health and Bioscience High School to build awareness, through fasting and community outreach, about the high number of Oakland teens and young adults who die in homicides.
Liang, who acted as the documentary’s director and videographer, created the short with other youths through the Media Enterprise Alliance program. MEA mentors provided professional equipment and experience to bring the students’ vision to life. Under the mentors’ guidance, the students researched the nonviolence campaign, filmed interviews with Life Academy students and faculty, and edited the clips into a cohesive story. The MEA, which partners with Oakland Unified School District’s public-access station KDOL, focuses on media arts and video production with an emphasis on transferring these skills into a job or college setting. While Liang wants to pursue a career in film, the MEA program offers something more personal as well. “Students in the program get chances to do a lot of hands-on work, express their opinions … [and] let their voices be heard. I wanted to be involved in this program because I did not want to miss an opportunity to better myself and do something for the community.”
Fast Forward is Liang’s second time working on a film through the MEA program, and she saw the documentary as a way to spread the campaign’s message. “I want to live in a peaceful community, not a scary one. I want our voices to be heard by more people through this film.”
In Fast Forward, we see and hear how violence in Oakland affects the lives of young and old alike, but for Liang, the documentary has a hopeful message as well. “I want people to learn that someone cares about the community and wants Oakland to be peaceful. It’s hard to stop violence, but at least we can do something to abate violence.”
Much like Liang, Walden Smith sees film as a means of spreading the word about important issues. The 14-year-old Alameda resident worked with fellow Alameda County 4-H members on Take Out Takeout, a comedic animated les-son on San Leandro’s recent ban on Styrofoam food containers. Prior to making the film, the home-schooled teenager appeared in front of the San Leandro City Council to argue for the ban on polystyrene foam containers often used in restaurants as easy and inexpensive to-go containers.
“Basically, since Styrofoam is so brittle, when it’s swept into the ocean, it breaks apart and sort of decomposes, but not really,” Smith explains. “The chemicals make the water bad and unclean; it’s just not a good material. If you reheat your food in the Styrofoam, it tends to leach chemicals into the food, so it’s also a safety hazard in some ways.”
When San Leandro’s Polystyrene Foam Food Service Ware Ordinance went into effect late last year—joining similar bans in Alameda, Oakland, and Berkeley—Smith worked with a half dozen other youths to help educate people about the dangers of Styrofoam and the new law in a fun and humorous manner. In Take Out Takeout, Smith explains, “The idea is that all of the Styrofoam characters are leaving San Leandro, so we have them marching out of town. Then we inform you that there’s a ban going into effect and you have to stop using Styrofoam.”
The filmmakers used a mash-up of styles to construct the story. “We animated it by taking photos of each prop and cutting it up and piecing it together so that it looks like traditional paper animation, but it’s all digital.” Smith relied on characterization and humor to bring the props, such as Styrofoam cups and clamshells, to life and help drive the narrative. “For a lot of the props, we had to be creative. We realized, ‘Oh, my god, the clamshell looks like it has a mouth.’ So, we animated the lid to open and close, and that’s how it talks.” Each prop has a different caricature; the oyster pail—often used as Chinese food takeout containers—is a Samurai with weaponized chopsticks, and the green waste container is the cool kid on the block.
For four years, Smith has worked with Alameda County 4-H to promote environmental stewardship and it’s evident in Take Out Takeout, which combines Smith’s dedication to the environment, his desire to build a career as a documentary filmmaker, and a teenager’s humor to create a unique short film ready for the silver screen.
For some Project YouthView finalists, such as 16-year-old Lily Yu, the filmmaking process proved to be as eye-opening as the film’s subject material. For Yu, film wasn’t her first form of artistic expression; that honor belonged to music. “I really love music,” Yu says, “I’m in my school’s jazz band. I had just started in film, and I didn’t know much about it, so I decided to do a music video.”
That music video, Limitations, caught Project YouthView attention, and Yu found a new medium for her voice. Since filming Limitations, she’s contributed to three videos for KQED chronicling the Oakland dropout crisis.
The Skyline High School student came to film through the Bay Area Video Coalition, or BAVC, a group that organizes classes, events, after-school programs, and resources to help artists working in film, music, and digital media enact social change through their work. Yu found her source material and inspiration in a fellow BAVC member, Moria Moore.
“[Limitations] talks about African- Americans, and it came from Moria Moore’s album, History in the Streets,” Yu says. “I thought it would be nice to complement her music with Oakland’s history. In the music video, I used found footage from documentaries about the Black Panthers, and I decided to focus the video on that. You’ll see [Moore] in the spots that the Black Panthers were in many years ago.”
Jason Jakaitas and Ewen Wright, Yu’s BAVC mentors, guided her in telling her story through an unfamiliar medium. “They taught me how to improve my beginning idea and how to keep people interested. I had to write out locations for each shot—‘Where do I imagine this part of the song?’” While Yu found the idea-generating process exhilarating, she admits that she incorrectly assumed that creating a music video would be simpler than other styles. Amid constant scheduling conflicts, weather delays, difficulty securing filming permits, and the endless need to hear the same song over and over again, Yu just wanted to, “get it over with.” However, that feeling gave way to something more powerful in the editing bay.
“When it comes time to edit, you see the great stuff you’ve filmed. In the end, being able to watch the video and say, ‘This is what I’ve accomplished,’ feels amazing … Limitations is the first video I made, and being 16 and being accepted into a film festival feels amazing.”
Yu’s next film through BAVC tackles a more personal subject that she believes will resonate with many teenagers. “A lot of people assume that since you’re a teenager, you’re lazy and you don’t do anything. It explores the pressure, anxiety, and stress that teenagers can have.”
Project YouthView and media programs throughout the Bay Area provide youths with the tools and the venues to deliver their voices with a professional polish. In an age where voicing an opinion for the world to hear is as easy as clicking a few buttons, the festival serves as a reminder that just because the number of voices entering the stream has drastically increased in recent years, their worth and importance have not lessened. “Youths can make a difference,” Liang says. “Every- one can make a difference. It is not about the age.”