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April 25-May 2, 2007

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High school filmmakers

High school confidential: On Saturday, six local high school student-made films screen at the Rio for the sixth annual Santa Cruz Film Festival.

Youth Empowering Youth

High School filmmakers draw on personal experience to uncover larger cultural trends

By Leah Bartos

For a generation supposedly obsessed with "me," these more than a few local high school students sure seem concerned with the world around them.

On April 28, six high school student-made films will screen at the Rio Theatre in conjunction with the sixth annual Santa Cruz Film Festival. The film topics range from teen pregnancy to drug addiction to hardcore and punk music subcultures--all of which are told from a unique young voice and insider's perspective.

Youth Empowering Youth, a local nonprofit organization, sponsored the project and brought in 12 undergraduate mentors from UC-Santa Cruz to work with a total of nearly 50 high school students from Aptos, Watsonville and San Lorenzo Valley high schools. "We're bringing the university, the high schools, the community--especially the nonprofits--together and presenting it to the larger community," says Lee Giove, the project's coordinator.

Giove currently works as the Youth Empowering Youth coordinator for Visionary Arts and Media, a local network geared toward providing a venue for alternative media. Giove, who earned his BA in community studies from UCSC last year, had previously worked as a mentor for high school filmmakers as part of a field study for his major.

"I saw that this is such a powerful medium to expose issues and educate the community," Giove says, adding that it provides a learning experience for the filmmaker as well. "Besides that, [documentary work includes] going out and actually working with the these people that are directly affected by these issues."

These projects take the experience a step further, as the filmmakers take advantage of personal experience to adding a self-reflexive element to the final cut. "It's so powerful to see it first hand from the people who live it," Giove says. "They amaze me in so many ways--their ability to grasp these big concepts and make it personal. Every video is so personal."

Yesenia Molina, a 16-year-old filmmaker from Watsonville High, is among the group who worked on a piece titled Blind Culture. "We chose that title because we noticed that the Mexican youth don't notice their own culture--they go toward American culture instead," says Molina, who is Mexican-American and has lived in Watsonville her entire life.

"We wanted to show how the media is a huge influence on students," Molina says, noting how the media compels young people to attain certain productions like iPods and cell phones.

"Culturewise, we were focusing more on dress. You hardly ever see students walking around wearing traditional dress," she continues. "It's always Abercrombie & Fitch or other brand names."

Molina says that she and her fellow filmmakers decided that they didn't want to lose their culture.

"I became more aware of my culture and where I came from," Molina says, adding that she hopes that her peers will begin to appreciate their heritages as well. "I hope that they educate themselves more about their culture. And that they [won't] be ashamed of their culture."

Another student film from Watsonville High tackles the issue of teen pregnancy and takes a similar critique of the media.

"They're showing how the media gives a skewed perspective on the subject [of teen sex]," says Danielle Loberg, a UCSC mentor who worked with the group.

Much like the film of their counterparts, these Watsonville students took advantage of their personal perspectives on the topic. One of the filmmakers, for instance, was a product of a teen pregnancy and attended child-care care at the high school where she is now finishing up her senior year.

The students also interviewed their friends who were young mothers and fathers, as well as officials including Watsonville Mayor Manuel Quintero Bersamin. Watsonville continues to have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation.

But when taking on the tough issues, Giove reminds the students to keep a positive outlook. "We try to encourage these videos and projects to be solution-oriented," he says.

One group of filmmakers from San Lorenzo High explored topics of drug addiction, while another from Aptos High exposed misconceptions surrounding straight edge--or the rejection of drugs and alcohol--and the hardcore music scene. Another film from Aptos High takes a critical stance on environmental sustainability, calling on their peers to make a change. D.J. Turner, a UCSC senior filmmaker who is providing technical support for the project, is particularly looking forward to a film titled Little Things, which will mostly likely be the closing film in the series. The film was made by a group from San Lorenzo Valley High School and incorporates several short testimonials about momentary events that dramatically shifted people's lives, including a young woman's decision to get a ride with strangers that ended in a car accident and a man who unexpectedly delivered his own child.

"It really sums up all the other ones [films] about how every moment counts," Turner says. He adds that the diverse film topics such as pregnancy, drug addition and environmental conservation are all linked in the sense that seemingly small decisions can make big impacts.

Last spring, Turner worked with Giove to coordinate Youth Empowering Youth's first mentorship program with high school students from San Lorenzo Valley High School, which culminated and culminating in a packed screening at the Attic. This year, they expanded their program to include two other local high schools. Giove and Turner agree that it's an honor to be included in the Santa Cruz Film Festival this year. "As far as improving from last year, the community is starting to see the potential for this program," Turner says. "I'm hoping that it's an even bigger turnout than last year."

Local High School Works screen Saturday, April 28, at 11am at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. (www.santa

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