I just arrived to our Making Media That Matters (MMTM) film space in the heart of Kaimuki. I cannot believe it has been an entire year since our last program. I walk through the doors and am greeted by hugs, kisses on the cheek, and warm smiles from many familiar faces. The room is already abuzz with activity…new participants are filing in, staff is talking story and setting up chairs, and the snack table is very popular, as usual. Some participants come with a buddy or two, and hover together in a corner to scope out the rest of the room, knowing there is strength in numbers. Others have bravely come alone and sit quietly and awkwardly by themselves, just waiting for someone to engage them. I flit back and forth greeting staff members and introducing myself to the new students. I go to the lone wolves first. One young girl looks so grateful when I speak to her that I decide to sit down and stay for a while. We chat and she seems a little nervous, but excited. She is well-spoken and thoughtful, and comes across as wise beyond her teenage years. After a few moments, I move around the room some more, trying to meet everyone. I walk up to two girls that are practically attached at the hip, both only engaging with one another. I introduce myself and ask if they’ve ever participated in anything like this before. They are both wide-eyed and appear frightened by the overly perky, bubbly grown-up that keeps peppering them with questions. I giggle to myself at the different reactions, and remember how hard it is to try something new and different when you are a teenager. Heck, even when you’re an adult!
After snacks have been gorged on, slippers have been cast off to the side, and copious amounts of snapchats have been taken, we come together in a circle to formally begin. Vera, the warm and enthusiastic Executive Director of Hawai’i Women and Filmmaking (and the program’s brainchild) welcomes everyone, runs briefly through the night’s agenda , and begins introductions. Each student and staff member introduce themselves one by one, and disclose the pronoun(s) that they want us to use in reference to their person. Next, we have a question that hopefully serves to do some ice-breaking, as there are always a lot of nerves on the very first night of MMTM. The question is, “What are two things that you feel you do well?” We have decided that during this session of Making Media That Matters, we would like to focus more on self-esteem and confidence building. In the past, numerous student films have been made about body image issues. It is evident that this is something young girls struggle with profoundly. From a very early age, girls are taught that much of their value and self-worth lies in their appearance. The pressures that arise because of the incredible focus on an acceptable (read: pretty) female appearance are innumerable and oppressive, and often vastly unattainable. While we at MMTM still want to address these damaging messages and its effects on teenage girls, we also want to foster self-worth in our students in other ways, like the importance of their compassion, intelligence, strength of character, kindness, determination, humor, and so on. Some hesitate to come up with something positive that they do well. Others make a joke (“I eat well!”), clearly demonstrating that one of the things they excel in is making others laugh. ☺ Others respond with things like cooking, biology, math, soccer, basketball, taking photos, helping others. I think to myself how important it is that women don’t ever underestimate or undermine our strengths…because younger girls are always watching and taking cues on how to behave. I want to be confident in my many attributes, because I should be proud of these qualities, and because I want them to be confident in theirs. Vera and I led the group in a discussion about ways of behaving in our film space. We want to create a space where everyone thrives, in which each person feels valued, heard, and understood. We asked the students to not think about these suggestions as “rules” but as agreements and recommendations for ways of behaving in the space. The participants all yelled out different suggestions to add to our board:
Put forth your best effort
Positive, encouraging, can do attitudes
Keep an open mind and respect one another.
Participate/share work/work together/team work
Communication with kindness and patience
Listen to one another
Use constructive criticism in a positive/caring way
Stay calm, even when things get stressful
Speak from your own point of view-don’t speak for groups of which you are not a member
I was quite impressed with our list! Vera reminded us all that it is a living document and things suggestions can be added as the program moves along. Next, we jumped right into our film lesson, with film teacher extraordinaire, Lisette!
Lisette teaches film at UH Manoa and we are honored to have her expertise at MMTM. Our film lesson was a lot about story – how to move from brainstorming to concrete ideas that can be represented on screen. We learned about the 4 stages of story (story concept, characters, plot structure, and individual scenes) and how they work together to make a cohesive, dynamic script that will translate to the big screen. We discussed tone, story arcs, the desired affective response of an audience, climax, and resolution. Lisette always does a fabulous job of making the lessons engaging and fun, as we don’t want MMTM to feel like a second session of school. She asked each student to fill out a worksheet with the “bones” of an original movie idea: the main character/protagonist, the main character’s wants/needs, an inciting incident, a conflict, a climax, and a resolution. Then, we broke up into groups of 3-4 to try to meld all the students’ stories into one unifying, singular story idea, that had aspects of all the participants’ original story arcs. I jumped into a group with 3 other students. One pitched a story idea about a feisty girl that dreamed of going to space. Another pitched a story idea about an energetic heroine that wanted to save the earth from pollution. The last student envisioned a main character that was peaceful and happy and wanted to leave her mark on the world. After the students pitched their individual story ideas, there was the inevitable awkward pause as we all took a moment to figure out how we were going to combine all three stories. “Welllllll,” I began, trying to get the film ball rolling, “We need a character name for the main character. Any ideas?” One student mentioned that it would be funny to combine all of their first names for the main character, and “Pherylnani” was thus created. We all laughed and congratulated ourselves on our ingenuity. ☺ It was then pitched that Pherylnani could go into space, and from space, she is able to spot the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (the large floating island of trash located in the Pacific Ocean - link to an informative page about the Patch here). She is so appalled that she can see the mass from space, that she decides her life’s mission is to find a way to dispose of the floating trash island. Now our group is on a roll, throwing out ideas fast and furious, as we all giggle over Pherylnani’s proposed adventures. After spending a large amount of time conducting research in space, Pherylnani discovers an unknown planet with life forms. These life forms eat trash, and this is how they sustain their species. An idea is born: she will return to earth and find a way to bring the trash back to this planet. Earth would be free of the garbage patch and the trash aliens would feast for decades. She decides to name the trash species “Hsart” (TRASH, spelled backwards ☺). We all beam with pride at our brilliant cleverness, and agree that our movie sounds fantastic and original. I think to myself, for probably the 20th time since working with this program, how lucky I am to get to work in such an original, creative place with fantastically imaginative youth.
Lisette calls the group back together and each group takes turns “pitching” their script idea. One group has a story about a Phoenix that is taught to rise from the ash by her Grandfather Phoenix. Another group tells a story about a writer named Liz that sets out to help her Mother save their home from bankruptcy by winning a writing contest with a cash prize. The room is now humming with energy and inventiveness, as the students share ideas and giggle at one another. For our last activity, the staff demonstrates a project that the students must complete for the following week. They are instructed to bring in 3-4 pictures representing something that they care deeply for and are passionate about. The goal is to try to get the participants to begin thinking visually, in terms of how to tell a story. The staff decided to participate to mirror the exercise for the students. Staff talked about issues like indigenous rights, sex education, reproductive rights, bullying, LGBT issues, and body shaming. Our staff is incredibly diverse, and our little show-and-tell exercise demonstrated our diversity perfectly. The exercise made me feel more connected to each staff member, and served to remind me of how many passionate and brilliant minds exist together in our little space. I discussed intersectional feminism and how important it is that we are always inclusive within the movement. Though I have devoted my entire adult life to the study of feminism and gender, I still stammer and struggle with how to break down these huge concepts to a room full of teenagers. It’s important that we talk about feminism and the importance of listening to those voices that often get left behind or silenced…like women of color, indigenous women, transgender or non-binary people, women with disabilities, etc. I began learning about these things at the age of 19, and it was simultaneously eye-opening, wildly confusing, and frustrating to begin grappling with multiple systems of oppression and privilege. My goal for the 2017 MMTM season is to find better language in which to teach and clarify, while also instilling inspiration for teen leadership and advocacy for the issues that matter most to them. We ended the evening on a high note, with whoops and cheers for a successful first evening together. Both staff and students have high expectations for the rest of the program, and I can’t wait to see the what is in store for each of us.