My generation: Youth Bring the Truth at SFIFF52 offers under 18s a platform. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

SFIFF52: Wisdom of the Underages

Jonathan Kiefer April 16, 2009

Where would cinema be without friendly curiosity, mindful empathy, political engagement and impish wit? In other words, without good, old-fashioned youthfulness? Hence: Youth Bring the Truth, a showcase for promising pre-adult media-makers—including several local teenagers—from this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.

Part of the idea here is for people old enough to remember vintage Whitney Houston lines like "I believe the children are the future" with ironic fondness to be reminded that it’s true, they are.

Youngness is conducive, for example, to filming how it feels to witness what may be the most historic election of your lifetime while still just a year shy of voting age. All Oakland’s Sydney Paige Matterson knew during last year’s frenetic campaign season was that she couldn’t just sit back and watch. Instead, she could listen. Matterson decided to build a simulated voting booth, in which she set up a camera and recorded the Election Day musings of several fellow under-18s.

The resulting video, aptly titled Youth Voices ’08, feels like a bubbling fountain of political curiosity. Even at only 7 minutes long, it has plenty to say.

"The hardest part was editing it," Matterson recalls. "I had hours of footage and great responses, but in order to make a short film I had to cut lots of stuff out ... but I made sure that everything in the film reflects some aspect of what every participant said."

Matterson is thrilled for the Festival exposure and proud of what her project represents. "I think I affected at least one other person," she says. "A little cheesy, but it feels good to know that the people in the film ... got their opinions out to the public. I know somebody will watch this and say, ‘Wow, those kids do know what they’re talking about.’"

No less articulate or ambitious is 19-year-old Oakland native Yianeth Saenz, whose 25-minute film, Daily Bread, investigates the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement on Mexico, where her parents were born.

"For months, all I did was research," Saenz says. "The story sort of evolved. Since it was a documentary, I didn’t really have an outline or anything like that—it was more of a question that I was trying to answer. At first [it] was going to be about day laborers, but the more I researched them, the more I realized that the story I was trying to tell was much deeper. I began learning about NAFTA and globalization and I immediately saw a connection between it and the increase of immigration over the years."

Like Matterson, Saenz discovered that her own inquisitiveness turned up an abundance of raw material. "There was a point where I had so much footage to look through, and I had no idea how to string everything together to tell a clear and coherent story," she says. "I went through so many cuts, so many beginnings, it was crazy."

That might daunt even an older, more experienced filmmaker. But Saenz learned, as she explains, "that it’s absolutely important to be patient and persistent. No matter what, there will always be a time when the project slows down. You just have to keep going at it."

In fact, she still is. "This project isn’t finished," she adds. "It is the beginning of something much bigger that I intend to pick up in the future. I hope to travel to Mexico one day and continue the research."

This isn’t to suggest that profundity negates brevity. Consider Headphone Harold, a quick-hit movie adaptation of the slyly cautionary Shel Silverstein poem of the same name, by Novato High School senior Jason Kummerfeldt.

The poem begins like this: "Headphone Harold wore his headphones / through the night and through the day. / He said, ‘I’d rather hear my music / than the dumb things people say.’" That’s understandable. And potentially unwise. It ends like this: "Down the track at the railroad crossin’ / he heard the trombones—not the train." The movie version takes that last line as a dramatic visual opportunity.

Kummerfeldt admits his interest in filmmaking began with an interest in special effects—as he puts it, "the whole idea of doing whatever, whenever." But eventually, he says, "I learned that special effects are cool and all, but the real challenge is writing and shooting a good story."

For this class project, he knew he could count on Silverstein. Now, if people ask what his movie is about, "I tell them it’s an epic story about a kid who died trying to listen to music. So all my friends figure it’s a lengthy action-packed film that’ll be intriguing or something, but they end up getting short-changed because it’s only 40 seconds or so."

Or do they? Efficiency can be its own reward. P. Roxanne Smith, a senior at San Francisco’s School of the Arts, also demonstrates this in her deftly expressive pair of 4-minute claymation shorts: The Beginning, about a lone space traveler’s long, strange trip; and The Freeze, about a young man’s deeply exasperating computer crash. The former, Smith says, is "about finding a place in the world and feeling like you belong somewhere," and the latter is "just a very simple story, a thing people can relate to." True enough: As I was watching The Freeze on my increasingly crash-prone laptop, at just about the moment when the little clay guy completely loses it, a friend came up behind me, snuck a peek, and said, "Hey, is that you?"

Smith, who has traveled to several countries, appreciates the challenge of making movies not driven by dialogue. "I like that about animation," she says. "You can appeal to a wide audience. So anyone anywhere can see them and get the story."

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