Even after the movie ends, there’s always another strikingly beautiful moment of watching the credits roll for a film you helped bring to life. It always hits me when I see the names of all the people — participants, students, families, teaching artists, and other film advisors — who traveled together on that challenging, yet amazing journey in creating the film. As a media teaching artist and documentary filmmaker, I am reminded with every new project that documentary filmmaking is not easy; you have to let go of control, be a team player, and be ready to adapt to change at any moment during the process. It’s both stimulating and exhausting. But it’s always a joy to see my young students create. My phenomenal film students from Sitar Arts Center fully embraced those challenges last Spring and came out with a powerful and heartwarming film about the importance of community support in the face of struggle: IN THE PATH OF MY FATHER.
It was a Friday afternoon in late April and I was sitting in one of the three packed auditoriums of the SIFF Cinema Uptown in Seattle, WA along with other young filmmakers and moviegoers at the National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NFFTY).
I excitedly turned to my student Ra (14), Director of In the Path of My Father, and asked him “So, how does it feel premiering your film here on the West Coast?” His response “You know, I thought it’d be overwhelming...but, it’s not.”
His level of coolness didn’t surprise me. It’s like he was born to do this. As the lead teaching artist for the Youth Documentary Film Program, a partnership between Sitar Arts Center and Meridian Hill Pictures, I was responsible for teaching a class of 7 students to create a documentary that explored community through their own voice and perspective. This process starts with first coming up with the story. My co-teacher, Kimberly McFarland, and I navigated the fine line between knowing when to step in as an instructor and when to let the students take lead.
When Ra and his sister, Sia (12, Editor & Sound Recordist), pitched a story idea about their close friends who were dealing with the recent passing of their father, they did so with that coolness and confidence. Together, we could all feel the impact and knew this story was meant to be shared to a wider audience. And the students knew that Ra was the one to lead the way.
Renee (Ra and Sia’s mom) proudly sat on the other side of him as we anxiously awaited the lights to come down and get the show rolling with short films in the Guide to Growing Up section. We were the only documentary film in the category, the only film directed and produced by students under 15, and we were sandwiched between other young filmmakers from Hollywood and NYU film schools that had previously won awards at other festivals. Nothing for a 14 year old filmmaker to be intimidated by, right?
NFFTY celebrates the work of creative and talented young people aged 24 and younger from across the globe. Each year, they receive thousands of submissions from emerging filmmakers. It’s no small feat to showcase a film at this 3-day festival. Not to mention, the films also play in the same venue as the renowned Seattle International Film Festival. What an amazing achievement at their age to have a film shared to an audience on the other side of the country AND at the premier film festival for youth media in the nation!
It’s about 6 years too late for me to put in a submission at this festival, but I was so deeply moved by all the incredible stories that were told through this medium.
We saw everything from fictional drama and experimental films to social issue documentary and animation. I was also pleasantly surprised to watch the film of another student I assisted as a teacher at George Washington University’s Institute for Documentary Filmmaking at the festival. The personal documentary film, Hands Up, highlights her voice as a young woman of color involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet another powerful reminder that our youth know how to share stories and their voices are as relevant as ever in our ever-changing communities. Sometimes, we just need to step back, let them create, and watch the magic unfold.
When the lights came back up, the filmmakers were called up to the front of the house to speak about their experiences making the film. I checked in with Ra beforehand to see if he wanted me to prep him with any questions. But again, he led with confidence and approached the discussion with the audience with that same cool and calm demeanor. And I just stepped back and watched. What is so special about this festival is that it puts young people in an unintimidating space to be able to watch movies produced by their peers, and then casually chat with them afterwards in the hallway or outside the theater about their inspiration, backgrounds, process, and challenges in mediamaking. I really wish more young people had these opportunities not only to travel, but to share and talk about their art with other audiences in different areas of the world and feel like they are a part of a larger, supportive arts community.
I remember chatting with one young moviegoer briefly. I asked her “Are you a filmmaker, too?” and she replied with reluctance “Uh, meh, I helped edit a film.” I had to tell her “Yes, then you are a filmmaker. You’re a part of the process. In fact, you put the story together. Own it.” She smiled and said “Yea, I guess you’re right.” It was empowering for me to be in that space as a teaching artist and witness these meaningful exchanges happen around me between emerging filmmakers. It’s validating to know that more young people are embracing the vision of seeing themselves as media makers, agents of change in the media they view daily, and not just as an audience or token of what’s being produced for them.
To top it all off, I was thrilled to find out when I returned home that In the Path of My Father received the Audience Award in the Guide to Growing Up category. What an incredible way to end what was already such an amazing trip seeing my students’ premiere in Seattle. As I’m gearing up to teach documentary filmmaking to more youth this summer, I’m trying to take heed to my own advice and remember to take a step back, let them create, and watch the magic (and potential chaos) unfold.
The gratitude I feel being a part of this experience is enough to fuel my work in youth media for a lifetime. Thanks to Meridian Hill Pictures, Sitar Arts Center, and my students for allowing me to be their teacher in this magical filmmaking journey.
Aqiyla Thomas, a youth media education specialist, worked as the Education Manager at Meridian Hill Pictures from 2014-2015. In addition to leading the creation of IN THE PATH OF MY FATHER through the Youth Documentary Program, she taught and refined MHP's video storytelling curriculum implementing trainings at Mundo Verde Public Charter School, Crossroads Community Network, and GW Center for Engaged Teaching. She received training in documentary arts from Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s in Social Work from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a graduate certification from George Washington University’s Documentary Filmmaking program. Now she's a freelance media educator and documentary filmmaker and can be reached on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/aqiylamthomas