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Supporting young people is the answer to keeping our world turning - by Serena Ngaio Simmons

We had been planning for close to a month at that point. Or, rather, the incredible team I had the privilege of working with were planning. I was lucky to be able to sit there and eat cookies while a stacked crew of film mentors, instructors, and support staff outlined the packed week we had ahead of us in what was going to be the 2020 Spring Reel Camp for Girls at Ka Waiwai on University. Every Thursday we would meet for an hour and a half and I would watch as a dope team of women hammered out the details on lectures regarding film lingo, types of shots, lighting, storyboarding, genre, and everything in between. Everyone was excited for spring break to roll around; the participants would come in, we’d have our sharing circle, and then the camp would begin.

That is until the week before the camp was slated to start. While the COVID-19 disease had been spreading rapidly throughout Italy and Spain at that point in time, it hadn’t yet hit the U.S. in a manner deemed severe enough by the government to warrant some type of distress. This was the wrong response and yet, it isn’t entirely surprising when we consider that this system was never built to help us in the first place. The cases were rising, however, and it was only a matter of time before Hawaiʻi would be affected. The decision to postpone the camp was a difficult one but necessary. We wanted to have the camp but we also knew the importance of community and taking care of our collective, physical health; if social distancing is the way we help to ensure that, then we would be sure to comply. Given the increasing number of confirmed cases we have seen in the past two weeks, I am glad we made that decision.

Vera Zambonelli, our amazing executive director, then reached out to us a few days after our last meeting to see if anyone would be willing to try the camp out on an online platform. Though there would be significant changes and some quick reorientation in regards to access, lectures, readjusting lesson plans and slideshows to fit in a more limited timeframe, themes, and figuring out how to ensure every participant would be able to gain the skills needed to make the films they wanted to make while in quarantine, a good chunk of us were on board. We hadn’t done our programs online before since the whole point of HWF programs is to engage in community in person; but in the face of a growing global health crisis where art and stories are needed more than ever, we find ways to adjust. Thus, the online Reel Camp was born.

From Tuesday-Friday, 10:00 am-12:00 pm, I was reminded many times of why I keep coming back to youth work. Young people don’t let anything stop them; when given the opportunity and the tools to tell a story, they go for it. With the last two weeks being a critical time for Hawaiʻi to get a handle on public health safety and to start adjusting to being inside their houses for an undetermined amount of time, I naturally felt anxious, afraid, and generally unmotivated to do anything. Surprising how a pandemic will do that to a person. What got me through was the willingness of these young people. The original theme of the camp was going to be on mental wellness and the ways in which we can learn to shed light on issues people have with mental health, as well as how we can potentially learn to care for those issues and ourselves overall. When the reverberations of the virus hit our shores in droves, it seemed only appropriate to take a bit of a shift in direction and encourage the participants to think about an additional issue that we find ourselves increasingly affected by on the daily now: COVID-19.

There are usually proper cameras, lighting, sound equipment, tripods, and the ability to move to different physical locations. These are all basic components in making a film. With a quarantine situation, access to all of these is either completely cut off or up to the individual person who might happen to have all of these things. Most of our participants had iPhones. And that’s what most of them used. In addition to iPhones, they had access to editing software, storyboarding and scriptwriting technology, and mentors helped them along in imagining and crafting small, but supremely meaningful movies within the tightest of constraints. I was privileged enough to be able to bounce around between breakout rooms in our Zoom calls every day, where I would listen to brainstorming, laughter, stress, stories, and a ferocious, creative hustle. With the outside beyond their yards or front doorsteps off-limits to them, there was a whole new way to think of being in their houses now. In the short time we have been in quarantine, our houses have taken on new meaning for many of us; they are places of shelter and rest, but they have quickly become full-on worlds unto themselves. The challenge for the participants was to figure out how to create within a different set of borders than the ones we’ve grown accustomed to. And they took off running.

When I reflect on the films, some of my favorites had to do with the recurring problem of product shortages that we see circulating throughout the news and in memes on social media. The U.S. is a capitalistic nation and the core tenant of capitalism is revealed whenever we see another one of these shortage stories: everyone for themselves and leave none behind for the rest. While this is a serious topic and it links to larger problems of western prioritizing of the individual vs collective, panic buying, and unequal distribution of resources, the way in which participants made this topic into something funny was ultimately what many of us needed. Humor is so important right now even if it feels like it’s impossible. Laughter is needed. Joy should still be sought if one is able to search for it. Making videos poking fun at people who are hoarding doesn’t eliminate the severity of the problem. It is still an issue that should be taken seriously. Humor, however, can help us to look at it in a more digestible format, see the utter ridiculousness of the situation, and hopefully laugh some of that stress out that we might have been holding in our bodies before then.

And the majority of these films demonstrated the vast array of emotions we feel adjusting to this new reality, with the feels ranging from laugh out loud funny kine to nostalgic and make-me-wanna-call-up-my-friends-to-reminisce-about-the-outside kine. Some chose to highlight the danger of living in this new virus riddled world, imploring audiences to pay attention to CDC guidelines such as staying inside, engaging in social distancing, and washing your hands. One provided a recipe on how to bake cookies while stuck inside. In the limited amount of time we had to set this up, rearrange everything to fit an online platform, check-in with participants and mentors to see if everyone is still down and able to commit to this, and the uncertain territory of executing a mini film festival online through Zoom— everything happened. There were bumps in the road because there always are. People had to adjust to a new way of mentoring and filmmaking in just a few days. Participants had to make a film with just the things and the people they had in their house. And they did it. Everyone did the dang thing and I’m grateful I got to see it.

The unstoppable nature of young people and the folks who care about them is what made this happen. People who see a need for expression and art and are willing to go the extra mile to make that happen, even when the chaos makes all the things we used to do seem pointless. Or harder. Or not worth as much effort with the way the world appears to be going. Young people who still want to create in the face of uncertainty and make short films and TikToks infused with themes of connection, relation-making, scarcity, anxiety, safety, and the importance of finding joy and life in the midst of everything we are going through right now as a collective. This organization has always given me hope and always shown me that supporting young people is the answer to keeping our world turning. In this past week, I have learned even more so that programs like these will not stop at anything to continue providing that level of support and encouragement to young people. That young people will not let limitations destroy their voice, stories, and experiences. That they know what’s going on, are paying attention, and will find the means to remind you of that time and time again. That we will all find a way to continue on with the art of making because if anything is needed in this uncertain time, it is that: creation. Newness and reconfiguration. Turning, turning, and turning, until we huri each other out of the pits and into a more radical, felt, generative future.

Serena Simmons

HWF Poet & Writer in Residence

*note: 'huri' means to 'flip' in Te Reo Māori


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