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Littleglobe's Teen Film Project - Turn the Lens: A Case Study

By Chris Jonas (Project Director, Film Producer, Littleglobe Co-Founder) and Erin Hudson (Film Director and Littleglobe Core Team Members)

“Turn the Lens” is a series of Littleglobe filmmaking projects that provide opportunities for community members to empower themselves through personal storytelling. The pilot project is a two-year engagement with teenagers in five high schools across the state of New Mexico. The core of this program is a collaborative filmmaking process, the creation and presentation of participant-produced films and, as a culmination, a feature-length documentary film, “Centennial Class,” that explores the passage of six selected New Mexico students through their last two years of high school.

“Turn the Lens” youth spend focused time behind and in front of the camera, bringing personal and intimate perspectives to the screen and to audiences. This process gives means for teenagers to bring to the forefront their individual and collective stories, encourages dialogue amongst the youth and helps participants empower themselves by stepping outside of their usual realms of interaction to reflect more clearly the world as they see it.

Through personal filmmaking, the “Turn the Lens” process facilitates personal and community empowerment. Littleglobe has found that the “Turn the Lens” approach 1) humanizes institutional public school policy, 2) updates long-held notions of identity and power within the context of the community and 3) more accurately reflects the needs and feelings of those who are making their way through educational systems. It is only when individuals and community residents “turn the camera on themselves” that we, as a community striving to be inclusive, can provide an accurate and compelling portrait of one another’s lives and perspectives. This process encourages reflection, creative self-empowerment and the capacity to address and perhaps challenge long-held notions about identity, family, community and education within and outside of a community of people.

The Project—Our Five Collaborating Schools, Program Goals and Process

“Turn the Lens” collaborates with students from five rural public high schools in New Mexico. In fall of 2010, at each school, we began filmmaking, personal narrative and community engagement projects with a group of 16 eleventh-graders. After the first year of work together and from each initial group of high-school students, together we chose one or two teenagers from each school to be the project’s primary collaborators and storytellers for the culminating feature documentary film, “Centennial Class.” The film project completes with each school’s graduating class of 2012.

The following is a description of each collaborating participating high school and the primary storytellers from each school.

Farmington’s Piedra Vista High School, a high-performance school in the oil-rich Four Corners region, consists of a student population that appears wealthier and more inclusive than it actually is. While students who claim “Anglo” European-American ancestry dominate the student body, Piedra Vista’s evolving demographics represent people from communities as diverse as is generally found throughout New Mexico. Piedra Vista High School includes a growing native population (now over 25%) as more and more families from the Navajo Nation move to the city. There is also an increasingly present first- and second-generation Mexican and Central American population. As is the case in many rural New Mexican schools, given the distances between the rural communities of the area, many of these students travel miles every day to attend school. Policy within the school attempts to address these issues and bridge the varied needs of their quickly changing student body. For example, the school offers classes in Diné (Navajo) language and government. The school also provides personal laptop computers for all students so they can all have the same tools to succeed in their studies, regardless of a student’s economic situation. However, while taking initial steps to provide for the students themselves, the school lacks clear means to engage and represent student families and community, given distances and a diverse set of specific cultures. Jimmy is our primary storyteller from Piedra-Vista. He’s Anglo-American and is passionate about playing the trombone in the Piedra Vista High School band. He was recently kicked out of his father’s house and is now residing with his mother, who has a history of drug abuse. Jimmy has dreams of playing the trombone at New Mexico State University. He failed numerous classes his junior year and is working to make up the credit. Jimmy struggles with his family’s poverty and lack of resources. Jimmy is eager to share his story because he feels like he usually blends in at school and is often unseen and unheard.

Portales has the feel of a small middle-American agricultural town. A main street divides the town. On one side of this street is the dominant middle-class culture of the town and the other is the part of Portales regarded as “Taco Town,” consisting largely of first- and second-generation immigrant families. At Portales High School our main collaborating student, Juan, is from a hard-working family from Mexico who is determined to do what is needed to help himself and his siblings graduate from high school while retaining the rich traditions of his family’s culture. Juan’s dream is to go to Eastern New Mexico University and become a Spanish teacher and soccer coach. He is a dedicated, straight-A student, soccer player, older brother and family member. Juan will become the first of his family to graduate high school.

Cuba High School has a student population that’s well over 80% Navajo. Institutional policy and the culture of school leadership falls short of identifying means to meet student needs in this school, maintaining a long and complex legacy of mismatches between students and a school culture that is intended to serve them. An increasingly complex and ever-changing “Code of Behavior,” which must be memorized by students, emphasizes a policy of discipline that seems inconsistent with fundamental beliefs of most of the student body. Students travel at least 30 miles to attend school and make a daily transition from a traditional Navajo world (wherein families speak Diné as a first language) to a school devoted to forcing their students into compliance with a mainstream approach to education. In Cuba High School, our primary student collaborator is Waylon, who lives in the town of Torreon on the Navajo Reservation. Waylon has dreams of being an artist—he loves to draw. Waylon sees this film as a way to show audiences what it’s really like on the Navajo Reservation, i.e., how they live without running water or electricity and how his family retains and honors its traditions.

Deming High School, on the U.S./Mexico border, has the state’s poorest student population with the highest teen pregnancy rate. Even so, school policy is relationship-based and supportive of the broad needs of the school’s students. The border is a defining characteristic of the school, with 400 of the school’s 1,400 students commuting from Mexico across 40 miles of desert to attend the high school every day. We have two friends as our primary storytellers from Deming—Vicky and Montiqua. Vicky lives with her sister since she lost her mother during middle school. Making her own way by working at Sonic, Vicky is excelling at school and has dreams to go to New Mexico State University. Vicky’s mom was from Mexico. Montiqua’s father is a fourth-generation farmer and she is proud of her family’s agricultural heritage. Vicky’s parents encourage her to leave for college even though they confess it’s a little scary since she will be the first in the family to go.

Laguna-Acoma High School serves two New Mexico pueblos, bridging the specific needs of their native student populations and the state’s culturally desensitized testing requirements for graduation. The school policy struggles with combing the U.S. institutional schedule and policy with two sets of different Pueblo cultures. This includes different calendars that include regular feast days, classes in each of the two Pueblo languages, and cultivating a learning culture that remains sensitive to the many perspectives on “growing up” consistent with the belief systems within these two communities. In this school our primary storyteller is Mitch, who is Acoma. She’s currently the school’s salutatorian and works hard to maintain her GPA. Mitch navigates her cultural traditions with school—a balance of keeping up with her grades and participating in dances and religious activities.

In each of these schools, the stories of these individuals consistently defy what may be traditionally held notions of the American adolescent. Many of our students face extremely difficult situations head on, forcing them to “grow up” earlier than may be the case for many students in more “mainstream” American settings. Nonetheless, we find students who are filled with a great sense of responsibility for their world. Most of our student participants describe ambitious futures that include college, higher degrees and professional careers—futures that are surprising and inspiring, given life challenges that may generally be regarded as impediments, including poverty, family instability, institutional cultural misrepresentation and historic trauma. However, our primary filmmaking students and the subjects of this film are not the recognized student leaders of their classes. Many of these students are quite shy and are not naturally the first to talk in a group of peers or adults.

As the project unfolds, it’s clear that the “Turn the Lens” filmmaking program is providing the means to externalize the intimate world of each of our students—giving them the time, space and a forum to explore and share personal experiences that is unique compared to the outlets of expression afforded to teenagers in the community today. Personal, narrative filmmaking allows each student to engage aspects of home, school and personal life that can be complex and contradictory and tell stories that may not always rise to the surface.

As a result of two years working with these students and these schools, we are team-creating a single film that will help students reflect on their nuanced experiences as well as illustrate to larger audiences the complexity of their lives. Some of the themes the filmmaking process and completed feature documentary film address include:

  • How students in New Mexico navigate their lives, their communities and the mainstream U.S. public school system,
  • The role adults, families and community members play in helping high-school students pursue their goals and dreams,
  • How the New Mexico school system can play a supportive role in students’ unique paths towards adulthood,
  • How public systems can address the specific needs of modern New Mexican youth,
  • How youth might develop stronger voices while becoming active, respected advocates for their cultures, people and perspectives.

By exploring the experiences and voices of New Mexican teenagers and through screenings of this film, it is our intent to create a documentary that can function as a point of meditation and open dialogue between members of each local community and our student families, as well as both local and national educational systems and policymakers. The resulting film, “Centennial Class,” will be screened throughout New Mexico in high schools and in community forums. Littleglobe, along with our collaborating high schools, New Mexico GEAR UP and the New Mexico Department of Higher Education (our partners on this project) will bring this film to New Mexico schools and communities during the N.M. Centennial Celebration (N.M. became a U.S. state in 1912) as well as to state and national conferences. The film will encourage dialogue about school policy and the constituencies this policy is meant to serve.

It is imperative that those in power more clearly understand the needs of students served in our southwest communities and the need to advocate for innovative policies that are inclusive of the unique and evolving needs of each school’s community as voiced by those students, their families and surrounding communities. For these reasons, the project seeks to help provide voice, new skills and knowledge, meaningful leadership opportunities and experience-based confidence to teenagers so they can reflect on and more actively participate in—and change for the better—the systems that serve them.

A “Turn the Lens” Lesson Plan: Interviewing One Another

One core “Turn the Lens” lesson we teach involves students conducting interviews with one another. In this workshop, we teach participants how to skillfully and respectfully conduct interviews, to ask open-ended questions and to listen without judgment.

In preparation for each interview, participants learn how to set up lights, black backdrop, audio equipment and camera. Each participant takes a role in the interviewing process, either as a camera person, interviewer, interviewee, sound person, or director. After each student is interviewed, participants switch roles and cycle to a new responsibility, allowing everyone to experience the whole filmmaking process.

Within this process, a new type of dialogue is created: with students behind the camera, holding the boom pole, listening through the microphone and asking questions; with the person being interviewed who tells her/his story in an atmosphere of deep listening and care, often revealing aspects of their lives unheard or previously unnoticed by their peers. In these sessions, students ask the questions that are important to them—about their home lives, about the types of support or lack of support they have in their families. From these heartfelt questions and responses, students share details that they usually aren’t encouraged to share in school, like having a mother who holds the entire family together, or what it’s like to go through the foster-care system, or how alcohol has ruined the life of a father.

After this process is complete, and with student permission, we screen the footage from the interviews for the entire group to view. In this way, we witness the beauty and vulnerability of sharing stories immediately after we have captured them together, allowing us all to become better connected and see one another in a new light—often as newly respected and loved individuals within a circle.

After these sessions, through evaluations, students tell us that they have never known about their peers in this way; that, with this new understanding, they feel less alone and isolated. Participants also share how good it feels to talk and share their stories and how amazing it feels to be listened to. Overall, we keep being reminded that the simple act of listening and formalizing a space to be heard and seen has tremendous transformational power.

The “Turn the Lens” program and the making of the documentary film “Centennial Class” are indicative of Littleglobe’s core practices: to utilize a multi-arts context to help give voice to communities and individuals, creating and encouraging a responsive and supportive system. The tools of filmmaking and digital storytelling are ideally situated to help empower teenagers to express a diversity of perspectives and opinions and to critically view the interconnected systems of educational system, family, peers and community.

Artists

Core artists Chris Jonas, Erin Hudson and Valerie Martínez approach this work based on years-long reflection about and experience of working in southwest communities. Erin and Valerie were born and raised in New Mexico; Chris is a ten-year resident. As artists, we are deeply engaged with the stories of our home. We are passionate that these stories be nurtured and shared with responsibility, dignity and respect. We know that these stories must originate and be told from the communities from which they emerge. We have seen stories transform individuals and their communities, and we have felt ourselves transformed by these stories. Stories can dissolve the barriers between us.

Being able to see myself on screen and answer… personal questions gave me a boost of confidence. —Deming H.S. student

It is amazing what you guys are doing – we all have stories to tell and you are making that possible. Thank you!! —Laguna-Acoma H.S. student

I am taking things more seriously and I’m able to be way more comfortable with others. Thank you so much for letting me express myself and be who I am. —Cuba H.S. student