PHILIP MARTIN: Skills that make dreams

One of the few practical skills I learned in college was how to take photographs and develop film.

I've forgotten a lot of what I used to know; while I still have a nice mirrorless Sony with an array of lenses, most of the time I use my phone (or my iPad) to snap pictures. I've been strictly digital for a couple of decades. When I do pull down the "real" camera, I use one of its automatic settings as often as I set the aperture and speed myself.

I'm not nostalgic for the old days; technology is liberating. But I'm glad I got the training. It led directly to my first job in this business; if I hadn't had my own camera (a Nikon FE, augmented by an F2 after a couple of paychecks because, being a professional, I needed professional-grade gear) and darkroom skills, I imagine someone else would have gotten the job at the Jennings Daily News.

I know someone else would have gotten that job.

I thought about that while I was watching a couple of films that came out of the Arkansas Cinema Society's Filmmaking Lab for Teen Girls at the ACS's Filmland event last week. The lab is an interesting idea; Filmland executive director Katherine Tucker heard about Hello Sunshine, a Los Angeles-based, Reese Witherspoon-fronted program designed to give teen girls an immersive filmmaking experience. She inquired about maybe starting a pilot program in Arkansas. When Hello Sunshine indicated it wasn't yet ready to expand, the ACS decided to start its own program.

Co-sponsored by Little Rock production company JM Associates--the ESPN South producers best known for their outdoor sports programming--and the Women's Foundation of Arkansas via its Girls of Promise initiative (designed to "encourage girls to continue pursuing higher-level science, technology, engineering, and math . . . courses past eighth grade, with goals towards careers in these fields"), the lab kicked off in late March.

The first class consisted of 11 girls from various central Arkansas high schools who worked with professional filmmaker mentors like cinematographer Gabe Mahan, writer Graham Gordy, director-producer Josh Miller and producer Christina Arquette. They took on different roles on each film in order to sample as many different kinds of behind-the-scenes work as possible.

The idea was to expose them to every step of film production, from developing a script to scouting locations to casting actors (they auditioned and employed local professionals such as Mary Faulkner Turriff, Courtney Baker, Ed Lowry and Gary Newton), costuming, blocking, lighting, recording and mixing sound, editing, etc.

They met twice a week for 10 weeks and in the end produced two short movies--Ensemble and Justitia --that screened before Bert & Bertie's Troop Zero last Thursday.

Both are straightforward feminist stories unfussily told. In Ensemble, a female bass player looks for a way to defeat a rigged system during auditions for a school jazz band. In Justitia, a female researcher who has been wrongly denied credit for a breakthrough epilepsy treatment is offered a cash settlement in exchange for her silence by her male physician colleague.

And they're both impressive, not just for their surprisingly strong production values--well-lit, crisply edited and the audio is glitch-free--but because the scripts don't necessarily default to conventional tropes. While 10 weeks isn't much time and the collaborative nature (and educational mission) of the project might tend to work against expression of an idiosyncratic vision, there's a seriousness and point to both these films. Nothing marks them as student films, much less high school student films.

It was great to hear the girls in a brief talk-back that was conducted after the screening. It's difficult for people who've never followed the progress of a movie from conception to screen to understand how detailed the process is, how much goes into creating these marriages of moving images and sounds. It was refreshing to hear one girl talk about the need to ensure continuity between scenes.

Another noted that the work was more "tedious" than she expected--though "not necessarily in a bad way."

That line drew chuckles, but it's true of a lot of work; only a small percentage of what's done is perceived by the ultimate consumer. Even the most glamorous professions are mostly drudgery. But the work can redeem drudgery.

I don't know whether any of the young women who participated in this program will go on to make movies. But some might, and a lot of the young people who go on to work as content producers will have had experience in programs like this. And that this sort of experience can't help but be valuable to those who participate in it, no matter what they do.

It is good to play on teams and in garage bands, even if our dreams end, as dreams usually do, in heartbreak. Even if we are self-aware enough to have never entertained those dreams at all.

Leaving the theater the other night, my wife said to me she wished she'd had a chance to attend a filmmaking lab when she was in high school. And I hope that the ACS and its co-sponsors find a way to make this more than a one-off, that they can bring the lab back and start other programs, too.

It feels like a scary time to be a young person; they have to negotiate a world that's a lot less forgiving than it was when I was a teenager. I didn't grow up feeling like I had to decide an awful lot; I thought I'd have a little time to discover myself. I certainly couldn't have predicted any sort of career trajectory for myself.

It may be that these girls never again use the skills they acquired in this lab for any practical purpose. Maybe, as with my photography classes, technology will eventually render obsolete some of the practical skills they learned in the lab.

But it might give them a little edge.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@arkansasonline.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

Editorial on 08/27/2019

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