WALLA WALLA - Dozens of Garrison and Pioneer Middle School students showcased 31 original documentaries last week at the Walla Walla High School auditorium. The films were funded by a C-SPAN student filmmaking competition called Student Cam, which challenges students to make documentaries on issues of national importance.
When Dan Calzaretta, a humanities teacher at Pioneer, and Beth Clearman, a social studies teacher at Garrison, first learned out about C-SPAN's Student Cam project last spring, they were thrilled, though they were not sure how the students would react.
"When you say the word 'documentary,' a glaze comes over kids' eyes," Calzaretta said. "But we thought if they could make the (documentaries) themselves, they might be excited."
The rules of the Student Cam competition state that eligible films must incorporate C-SPAN footage, show different sides of an issue, be between five and eight minutes in length, and pertain to either a theme of "a strength our country has" or "a challenge we face as a country."
The students began working on their films in mid-October, and final cuts were due Jan. 20. On average, the student filmmakers worked for 10 hours to produce each minute of a final film.
On Friday, the 84 student filmmakers sat proudly in the front rows, as Calzaretta welcomed parents and community members to the film festival. He then introduced Jeffrey Townsend, who delivered the opening remarks.
Townsend spent 20 years working on movies in Hollywood and teaches film and filmmaking classes at Walla Walla Community College. He discussed the recent emergence of digital video, which has made filmmaking more accessible, as well as the documentary's remarkable ability to bring about change.
"It is such a persuasive and important medium," Townsend said.
After Townsend spoke, the lights in the auditorium dimmed, and the festival began. The films were shown in three groups: first, a series by the Pioneer sixth-graders, second, those by the Garrison eighth-graders and finally, over a dozen films by seventh- and eighth-graders from both schools. After the screening of each group of documentaries, Calzaretta and Clearman handed out certificates to each filmmaker, and the "Student Choice" winner for each group was announced.
In the documentaries, community members, teachers, professors, volunteers, doctors, police officers and fellow students were interviewed on a wide variety of issues. Animal abuse, smoking, house foreclosures, the Iraq War, problems in education, gangs and teen pregnancy were just some of the topics tackled in the films.
Jennifer Cho, a seventh-grader at Garrison, and her group chose to make their documentary, "Dependency on Technology," on what they saw as a problematic increase in the use of technology in everyday life.
"It popped into our heads that the world was using too much technology," Cho said. "You can see it's overused because people are getting in car crashes by texting, and we saw a kid texting in class."
Pioneer eighth-grader Sonia Calzaretta worked on the film "The Dark Side of the Forest," and explained the reason her group chose their topic.
"We decided on deforestation because it affects so many things," she said. "We chose it because people don't think about it, but it's a big issue."
Madyson Gabriel, a seventh-grader at Garrison, said it was important to her to raise awareness through her group's documentary, "Cyber Bullying."
"There's an increasing number of kids being bullied online, and a lot of people don't know about it," Madyson said.
Wiley Townsend, an eighth-grader at Garrison and one of the makers of "Obesity in America," wanted his documentary to open up a conversation on the topic.
"We were trying to find something not many people talk about, or that people skip over," he said.
In addition to learning about their individual topics, the students learned the importance of time management and hard work in the long and tedious filmmaking process.
"You can't procrastinate on it," Pioneer eighth-grader Tansy Schroeder said.
"The filming was my favorite part, not the editing," said Pioneer seventh-grader Kaitlyn Calhoun.
"Editing takes a lot of time, just sitting for a long time at a computer, but you have to do it," one of Kaitlyn's filmmaking partners, Kurt Funk, said.
The screening was a success, and Calzaretta and Clearman were thrilled to see the hard work of their students on the big screen.
"This (was) a fun night," Calzaretta said. "And these documentaries show a voice that these kids have, things they're passionate about."
Calzaretta and Clearnman also expressed gratitude to all of those who helped make the immense project possible.
"I want to thank the staff of Garrison and Pioneer Middle Schools," Calzaretta said. "I'm sure we drove them crazy, running around with cameras ... And this would not have been possible without the people from this community, who were willing to be part of these documentaries."