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There is something about documentary film that narrative cinema will never be able to touch. The anxiety of understanding that everything you see on the screen really happened to someone. The odd feeling of knowing that — while a narrative film has a script that is followed from point to point until the conclusion — when the cameras start to roll on a documentary project, the filmmaker is often just as clueless as the viewer about where it will all end up.
There's quite a bit of healing power in the documentary form, a quality on display in two short films created by eStem High Public Charter School students Laura Rangel and Christopher Scribner. Rangel and Scribner were the inaugural class of the Little Rock Film Festival's Teen Filmmaker Lab. Their films, "Flowers in Concrete" by Rangel and "Three Wishes One Choice" by Scribner, will be screened at 10 a.m. Wednesday, May 13, at the Ron Robinson Theater as part of the Little Rock Film Festival.
Mami Kuwano Renaud is the founder and primary instructor of the Teen Filmmaker Lab. Having run youth filmmaker labs in New York before moving to Little Rock with her husband, festival co-founder Craig Renaud, three years ago, Mami Renaud says that the medium of documentary film allows young people to say things they normally wouldn't be able to.
"It's designed to give voice to young people who really don't have another way to express themselves," she said. "We focus on the teenagers from difficult backgrounds or a confusing environment. When I worked in New York, typically I would focus on kids from the projects or kids who were living in homeless shelters — people who are marginalized and who have experienced so many hardships for their age."
Renaud said the idea of doing a teen film course in Little Rock came about after she read a September 2012 cover story in the Arkansas Times about a study that had uncovered widespread reports of Latino students being bullied in the Little Rock School District. Eventually, with the help of Chris Forster, a longtime friend who works as a teacher at eStem, Renaud was introduced to Laura Rangel, an eStem student who had been brought to the United States as a child.
Rangel said that she had been subject to bullying when she first arrived in the U.S. because she did not speak English. After convincing Rangel to join the project, Renaud did a search for another eStem student to join the lab, selecting Christopher Scribner after an interview.
The process of telling their own stories, Renaud said, was powerful for both: Rangel and Scribner said filmmaking had helped them deal with their hardships. Rangel's film, which set out to explore the issue of Latinos being bullied, wound up being a powerful piece about the uncertainties faced by undocumented children, featuring interviews with several kids who haven't seen their parents in years.
"In documentary filmmaking," Renaud said, "especially in the style we do, we [start with] a small idea of something like, 'OK, this is going to be about bullying.' But once we start doing actual production, it usually uncovers all these different things and it turns into a completely new story. That process, I think, is a huge growth for the young filmmakers."
Christopher Scribner agrees. Now 17, he was 16 when he started the process of making his film, "Three Wishes One Choice," which deals with his family's lingering pain over losing Christopher's sister Roshundalyn and his cousin Xavier to separate car accidents, and his younger sister's ongoing fight against Tuberous Sclerosis Complex, a rare genetic condition that causes non-malignant tumors to form in various organs.* The film went on to win a Student Television Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the organization that presents the annual Emmy Awards.
Scribner, who will graduate from eStem this spring, said he originally wanted to be an FBI agent. Because of the Teen Filmmaker Lab and the process of making his documentary, he now hopes to become part of the film industry. He plans to move to California after he graduates from college.
"I realized that the thing I want to do in life is make a change in someone's life, and to have somebody tell me, 'You really made a change in my life,' " Scribner said. Watching his film during a private screening for friends and family last month, Scribner said he felt like "Three Wishes One Choice" accomplished that goal. His family, he said, was moved by the film.
"For a year straight, they always asked, 'What are you doing now? When is it going to be done?' " he said. "Afterwards, everybody was speechless. Everybody cried. My sponsors, too. They said it exceeded their expectations, so everybody was proud of me."
Renaud said she is in talks now to expand the Teen Filmmaker Lab. She said the process of creating a documentary film can be therapeutic for young people with very adult problems. "These kids make these incredible films that actually teach us a lot of things, and teach us about the society that we have created," she said. "The problems they are going through, a lot of time, are the illness our society is going through, like a mirror reflection. ... They make their film, then they put it on a big screen and watch it in a theater. That kind of puts things in perspective. It seems to help them move on."
*Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly said that Christopher Scribner's sister Lirit has a form of cancer. After the story went to press, Sheila K. Dodson, Christopher and Lirit's mother, wrote to say Lirit actually suffers from a rare condition called Tuberous Sclerosis Complex, or TSC. TSC is a genetic condition that causes non-malignant tumors to form in various organs. We regret this error. For more information about TSC, visit the webpage of the National Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance.