Young filmmakers explore family ties and faith 

Ties that bind

On the night of Nov. 4, 12 local teenagers screened their short documentary films in front of a sold-out — and extremely enthusiastic — crowd at the Fine Arts Center at Colorado College.

This was the final work of the class of 2017 of the Youth Documentary Academy, a groundbreaking film program founded by award-winning filmmaker and Colorado Springs native Tom Shepard in 2013. YDA filmmakers have been racking up the awards since the program started, including an Emmy for Madison Legg's 2015 film, Under the Wire, about her brother's attempted suicide. The film was the foundation for an episode of Insight with John Ferrugia that took the honors for "Children/Youth/Teen Program/Special."

YDA films have also been shown at film festivals, including the All American High School Film Festival, and some of them were part of a Congressional screening. Others have been used by nonprofits to broaden the understanding of youth issues, from mental illness to disability.

If you missed the FAC screening, five of the 2017 films will be shown at the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival, on Nov. 11 at Colorado College. They are: Love me, by Joshua Sun, which explores finding self-love; Labeled, by Hadassah Nix, which looks at Christian stereotypes; Finding Home, by Yolande Morrison, about adjusting to a new life as a teenage immigrant; For Better or for Worse, by Angel Baeza, about a loving single mother's struggle to raise four kids who are conflicted about their absent father; and Surviving, by Téa Santos, about the filmmaker's struggle through childhood brain and heart surgery, depression, suicidal ideation, and a broken mental health system.

Other films from this year's class include:

• two biographical films, Roy, by Matthew Long, about his Navy chaplain grandfather, and The Machinist, by Russell Bowen, about a local man who fixes race cars;

• two films about disability, Twice Exceptional, by Samuel Faux, about his struggle with a disability and being a math genius, and More than A.D.D., by Taylor Novak, about a family with two children with ADD and ADHD;

• one film about the history and struggle of LGBTQ people, We Exist, by Anabelle Martinez;

• and two personal films, Meet Me in the Pale Moonlight, by Avon Schultz, a poetry-infused art film about heartbreak; and White Chocolate, by Dan Robinson, about the struggles of being a African-American nerd in a culture that has certain expectations of black men.

All of these films — and the dozens that have come before them — owe their existence to Shepard's own frustrations as a young man. When he graduated from Palmer High School in the 1980s, Shepard says he didn't feel he could stay in Colorado Springs — both because he was a gay man and because he wanted to launch a film career. He left town and later made his first film, Scout's Honor, the story of a straight 13-year-old boy fighting the Boy Scouts of America's ban on gay participants. The film won the Audience Award for Best Documentary and Freedom of Expression Award at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, Grand Prize at the USA Film Festival, and Best Social Issue Documentary from the Council on Family Relations. Shepard went on to make a variety of documentaries, from Whiz Kids, which follows high school seniors preparing for the nation's toughest science competition, to Knocking, which is about Jehovah's Witnesses. He is currently working on Unsettled, about gay refugees and asylum seekers, which will air on PBS in 2019.

These days, Shepard splits his time between Colorado Springs and San Francisco, his longtime home. It's the kids that drew him back here. At first, he says, he wanted simply to give them an opportunity he never dreamed of — and one that is generally only available to youths who live in big coastal cities. But he says he's also come to realize that the kids grow mentally and emotionally through making their films.

"We can see the progress that they're making — I don't think it's unlike therapy," he says, adding that YDA recently added a psychologist to its board, with hopes of exploring the phenomenon further.

And he wonders if he too would have benefited from a chance to examine his life through film at an early age. "I have a feeling," he says, "I would have resolved those issues much younger and gotten on with my life."

Shepard's role at YDA is expanding these days. While the actual academy takes place over the summer, Shepard and YDA's staff and new advisory board, led by Amber Coté of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, are working throughout the year to get the films more recognition, awards and screenings. Shepard also hopes to create a way for all YDA films to be viewed on the website (youthdocumentary.org) soon. The point, he says, isn't just getting recognition for these young filmmakers, but making a difference in the community by bringing these young people's wisdom and perspective to bear on important community issues that impact them.

YDA is also working hard to secure more ongoing funding, including from individual donors. Each film costs about $4,000 to produce, and YDA — a nonprofit project of the Pikes Peak Community Foundation housed in the FAC's Bemis School of Arts at Colorado College — currently relies on a mix of foundational grants.

For now, though, Shepard says he's just incredibly proud of the Class of 2017. We sat down and chatted with four of this year's filmmakers, each of whom explored issues of family and faith.

click to enlarge Yolande Morrison - JANA LILIAN KAISER
  • Jana Lilian Kaiser
  • Yolande Morrison

Finding Home, Yolande Morrison, 17, Widefield High School

"My grandmother, she's just always telling us and reminding us that we're not in Jamaica anymore," Yolande Morrison's voice says over historical film reels of her home country.

It is remarkable, that after living here a little over a year, the voice holds none of its native accent. Yolande says it faded naturally, but when she's at home she still speaks as she always had on the island.

Yolande's film explores her transition from Jamaica to Colorado, her yearning for her home country and hopes for her future. Yolande's family's migration started with her grandmother, who moved to Colorado to work for Cheyenne Mountain Resort, leaving her two daughters in Jamaica, in 1999. The matriarch of the family had struggled in poverty her whole life, but in America she faced another struggle: separation from her home and her family. In 2008, she became a citizen, and filed paperwork to have her daughters and grandchildren join her. On August 11, 2016, that paperwork came through and Yolande and her family flew to Colorado.

It was the big thing — that once in a lifetime opportunity that knocks you down with its power of possibility.

"I want to be financially independent, I just, I want to make it out of this life," Yolande says in the film.

In an interview, the slight, wide-eyed girl, who looks years younger than she is, says she's tried not to grieve her old country, or all the friends she left behind without even a goodbye. She's sworn off boys and is focused solely on getting into a good school and making something of herself — breaking free of a cycle of poverty that has left her family to struggle for generation after generation.

She says she hopes to go to college in Southern California, to study visual effects animation, music producing or audio engineering. She also hopes the warm climate and the ocean might make her feel more at home.

One day, she says, she hopes she can work for DreamWorks, creating fictional landscapes like the one in her favorite Harry Potter movies. But these alternate realities would be of her own making.

"It's yours," she says of these imaginary worlds, "your beliefs, your personality, your everything."

click to enlarge Matthew Long - JANA LILIAN KAISER
  • Jana Lilian Kaiser
  • Matthew Long

Roy, Matthew Long, 16, The Classical Academy

"It's hard, 'cause I kind of feel even closer to him now," Matthew Long says of his grandfather, Roy Bebee, a retired Navy chaplain.

When Matthew was deciding what to focus his documentary on, he had recently found out that his grandfather had terminal colon cancer. He decided to make a film about his life.

"I think he liked it a lot," Matthew says of his grandfather. "... I think he was a little embarrassed too."

Matthew follows Roy from his childhood in Oklahoma, to meeting his future wife and becoming a pastor, to his time as a Navy chaplain, and even preaching a Thanksgiving sermon for then-President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara. Roy is a charming storyteller, clearly proud of his family and of his career in the military. But there are also touches of sadness, including the years he spent away from his family while he was deployed.

"You miss your family, we had 102 days at sea, that's three months plus," Roy says in the film.

And, of course, there is the uncertainty of how much longer he has with his family now.

Matthew says the experience of making the film, while heart-wrenching, was powerful. He'd like to study film in college he says, though he'll likely stay in-state, even if that means he can't major in film.

The most important thing, he says, is to keep creating — he's been doing that since around the age of 7, when he used to make home videos and try to sell them to his neighbors. He still has some of the tapes.

click to enlarge Hadassah Nix - JANA LILIAN KAISER
  • Jana Lilian Kaiser
  • Hadassah Nix

Labeled, Hadassah Nix, 15, Rampart High School

The youngest of four children in a deeply religious family, Hadassah Nix says film has been a passion for her since she was about 11.

At first, she says, she saw film as a way to be anything she wanted to be — which, at the time, was a Power Ranger. While that dream has passed, she's still an imaginative young woman, who's working on several novels. And when she was given a choice of subject for her own documentary, she says she needed her mom's help to decide among several subjects: her youth pastor's story, two Christian tattoo artists she had recently met, and her old hip-hop dance teacher. It was her mom, she says, who helped her realize all her subjects shared a bond: They were Christians. What's more, all four men were a bit on the untraditional side. Her film explores that tension — and the way all her characters have navigated passions that at first didn't seem in line with their faith.

Interestingly, Hadassah, a young black woman, ended up making a film about the search for belonging and fight against prejudice of four males, all of whom appear to be white or at least light-skinned.

"I got to say, I kind of like that element of surprise," she says. "I wanted to make that film that people didn't think I could make."

Hadassah says that she identifies with the various challenges of being Christian — it's been a struggle for her in high school. And though she doesn't appear in her film, all of her subjects are a part of her life: Pastor Conor Craft is her youth pastor; she's considering getting a tattoo from the guys at R U Tattooed; Pastor Joseph Cantor of J&J Hip Hop used to be her dance teacher.

Hadassah says she hopes to make more films in her future, and wants to major in film at New York University.

click to enlarge Josh Sun - JANA LILIAN KAISER
  • Jana Lilian Kaiser
  • Josh Sun

Love Me, Josh Sun, 16, Coronado High School

Love Me surprises you — sends you on a little emotional roller coaster — and leaves you smiling.

Anyone can relate to the heart of this film: The pressure to be perfect, and the dizzying, electrifying freedom that comes with accepting that you're not going to get there.

Josh Sun is the second son in a Chinese-American family. His parents, both highly educated, immigrated to the United States after his birth due to China's one child policy, and went on to have two more children. Josh's mother, who is interviewed in the film, talks about how her own culture informed her parenting — that it was better to push than to praise, that children must be accomplished to be happy. She also talks about how her views have changed, a shift for which Josh claims some credit.

But Josh says it wasn't just his folks who left him feeling anxious and not good enough — it was him. Part of it, he says, was thinking that since his family had left their country for him, he needed to prove himself. "I felt like I needed to be perfect," he says.

Now Josh is loving himself more. He's stopped doing the things he thought he was supposed to and started focusing on the things that bring him joy (I won't ruin this surprise for you). And, while he hasn't decided on a school, Josh says he hopes to go to college in California one day.

No pressure.


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