After the lights dimmed in theater 7 of the Bow Tie Cinemas on West 23rd Street, adjacent to the Chelsea Hotel, for the screening of Our City, My Story, a series of short films from the Tribeca Film Institute’s student filmmaker program, one of those warning statements appeared on the screen about the imagery the audience was about to see. The short film was A Modern Lynching, by Ioannes Palomaria, a student from the Thomas Starr Middle School in Los Angeles, California. Palomaria was required to make a video for his eighth grade class based on issues discussed on the Speak Truth To Power website dealing with human rights. Palomaria chose to make a short film about police brutality by comparing it to a dark era in American history when lynching was commonplace in the South. Using black and white photographs depicting brutal scenes of human beings strung from trees, lampposts and bridges, as well as white caped figures circling burning crosses, Palomaria contrasted these images with current news photos and reports of the death of Eric Garner, an African-American man and New York City resident who died of suffocation while being apprehended by New York City police for selling loose cigarettes. For the soundtrack, the student chose Strange Fruit, a song composed by Abel Meeropol, an American teacher and poet, who wrote it as a poem to protest racism and particularly the lynching of African-Americans. Billie Holiday recorded the song in 1939, and in 1978 her rendition was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Holiday’s voice resonated over the photos of dead bodies hanging from trees, and for the scenes of Eric Garner getting cuffed by police gasping for his last breath, Palomaria chose J. Cole’s Be Free. The sold out theater was silent throughout, save for a few audible intakes of breath during the just over 5 minute short.
Before Palomaria’s film, which won the award for Most Inspirational Film for the Speak Truth To Power Film Competition, the Grand Prize winner, How To Be An American Muslim, from Howell High School sophomore Pat McGarry, was shown. A satire that focuses on the intense scrutiny and prejudice Muslims have faced in America in recent years and the work that human rights activist Dalia Mogahed has done to help fight against these troubles. McGarry and Palomaria’s films, and the rest of the night’s program, was introduced by Kerry Kennedy, no stranger to human rights issues. Kennedy is the President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, founded by her mother, Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy (Ethel), a non-profit organization founded in memory of Robert F. Kennedy’s dream of a more just and peaceful world. Kennedy’s recent documentary, Last Days in Vietnam, which aired last year on PBS’ American Experience, is a heartrending account of America’s retreat from Vietnam and the struggle to save as many South Vietnamese as possible from the encroaching North Vietnamese army. The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Speak Truth To Power video contest is a partnership with the American Federation of Teachers and the Tribeca Film Institute. Each year, middle and high school students across the nation are called upon to produce short films focusing on human rights defenders featured in the Speak Truth To Power human rights curriculum, which is taught to more than a million students around the world each year.
In the midst of the Tribeca Film Festival one of Tribeca Film Institute’s (TFI) incredible student filmmaker programs, Our City, My Story, that celebrates the tremendous characters, settings and moments the young people of New York City are capturing right now through film, was screened on Friday, April 21st, 2016. All the filmmakers are under 21 years old, and this year alone there were 100 film submissions from across the five boroughs, representing over 13 communities in NYC, including Central Harlem, Inwood, Brownsville, Flatbush, Lower East Side, Middle Village, Hell’s Kitchen, DUMBO, Forest Hills, Midwood, Jamaica, Long Island City, and Chelsea.
Meet Your Family, a documentary from 16-year-old Ella Moon Light-Rogers, depicts the birth of her sister from her point-of-view, up to an including the birth in the hospital room. The Rogers family is very close, and the young director is particularly tight with her dad, so the imminent arrival of a new girl to vie for his affection brings on some uneasiness on Ella’s part. The infant is adorable and immediately becomes a source of deep affection for the filmmaker, and the journey she and her family take during her mother’s pregnancy is shown with warmth and humor. It is a beautiful family portrait that drew much positive emotion from the audience, particularly during the birth scenes. Meet Your Family won the best documentary award. Another documentary, from David Ortiz and Marc Ramirez, Steel Faces and Silver Snakes, is a look at the design, history and significance of the trains of the New York City transit system. The young filmmakers imbue their subject with reverence and love, recognizing the vital role the trains play in the life of the city.
The subject matter of each of the student films dealt with issues of family, society, relationship, maturity, parenthood, and even the cultural obsession with mobile phones. In iPhone Nation, Chelsea Muscat explores what happens when we interact with our phones to try to connect with other humans, and the fail that occurs when the virtual interactions only serve to cut us off from one another. Beyond The Boulevard, from Tyler Blake and Philip Errico, which won in the experimental category, is a meditation on how to turn one’s challenges into the wisdom that will empower others. Missing Question Mark, a documentary from Vicky Lee and Justin Juan, takes a look at a young teen’s struggle with depression and her fragile connection to the world around her. Spare Change, a narrative from Helena Holland Breger, Ellis Senger, Ian McQueen, Lillie Benkoil, Maximilian Shatan, Charlie Renner and Johnny Huang, is the story of a homeless man who finds a wallet dropped by a teenage boy as he is on his way to make a bank deposit for his mother. He returns the wallet and the boy expresses his gratitude by bringing him the food he was about to purchase with the found money.
Hate The Game, from Chevon Nelson, Naeem David and Jason Cela, won the award for best narrative film, and the story about a young African-American teen who finds himself struggling between doing something he loves and something that would benefit him in the moment is based on a true story. The strong acting, realism and themes of trust, betrayal, future promise and thwarted hopes bring to mind the work of David Simon, creator of The Wire and The Corner, two series that brought the viewer into the lives and struggles of the residents of inner-city Baltimore. The other six short films, Stop Bullying, Tunnel Vision, Growing Up, Hung Up, Sam The Sleepwalker and Can’t Say A Word rounded out a showcase of the best short films by emerging storytellers who are all under the age of 21. A jury of four judges voted on the winning films and awards were handed out onstage after the screenings.
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