Hailing from cities and towns across the tri-state area, young filmmakers aged 13-19 gathered at the historic Bardavon Opera House in Poughkeepsie on Friday, Nov. 4, to participate in Spark Media Project’s Reel Expressions International Youth Film Festival, an event held annually since 2013.
Spark Media Project–formerly Children’s Media Project–curated the youth component of the Hamptons International Film Festival for almost a decade, until that program was cut from the festival in 2008. A few years later, the organization decided to start its own youth film festival right here in Poughkeepsie.
Spark Media Project Executive Director Nicole Fenichel-Hewitt said of the yearly event, “We were looking for a way to promote the work that our youth—and youth working in media in general—were creating, and to give young people a voice [so they could] share their creative perspective and talent with the community.”
At 4:45 p.m. on Friday, City of Poughkeepsie Mayor Robert Rolison introduced the festival as part of the city’s monthly First Friday event, which also featured a silent auction fundraiser for the Poughkeepsie Skate Park, a pop-up shop mixer at the Mid-Hudson Heritage Center, and special discounts at several downtown restaurants.
In his speech, Rolison highlighted another of Spark Media Project’s programs, in which students each created a unique media project using aerial drone footage filmed by the Walkway Over the Hudson, a nonprofit that works to support and improve the eponymous bridge. These works were part of a contest judged by Walkway Over the Hudson, Scenic Hudson and the City of Poughkeepsie. At the opening of the festival, Rolison presented certificates to the participants.
A few minutes later, at 5:00, the festival began with an interactive media reception, which involved several exhibits for guests to visit. These included a virtual reality film that the Spark Media students produced last spring, as well as a station where guests could play around with Adobe Character Animator, a software program that allows users to build an animated character that mimics his or her movements and facial expressions.
This year, the festival received about 130 submissions from all over the world, including India, France, Canada and Australia. Only 10 percent of the submissions made the final cut, including two shorts produced by teenagers in Spark Media’s local programs. Though no international submissions were chosen for the festival this year, previous winners include young filmmakers from India and Belgium.
Fenichel-Hewitt said of the international nature of the festival, “It gives the local youth in our program perspective about what other youth are creating in the world.”
At 6:00, the film screenings began: 13 youth-produced short films, all under 10 minutes, of various genres: music video, experimental, animation, documentary and narrative. The films featured important themes and topics such as the Black Lives Matter movement, water purity and gay rights, to name a few.
“The film festival gives [these young filmmakers] a platform to see their films on a big screen. I think there’s a magic that comes in a theater, in a crowd full of people, where everyone’s focus is on the film,” commented Spark Media Project’s Head of Production Kyle Bahl. “[The experience] gives them a renewed sense of credibility to the work they’re doing, to the art form. It helps them realize that they can do this in the future, as a career, and as a way of life.”
After the screening, 16-year-old South Carolinian filmmaker Azure Allen’s short, “One Day on Carver St.,” was awarded the prize for best film. “One Day on Carver St.” has also been shown at the Newport Beach Film Festival in California, the Woodstock Film Festival upstate, the Grenada Afterglow Film Festival in Mississippi, and the Indigo Moon Film Festival in North Carolina, among others.
Though Vassar is not directly involved with the film festival, Spark Media Project is a recipient of Vassar’s Good Neighbors Grant. The Good Neighbors Grant was founded in 2001 by Vassar President Emeritus Frances D. Fergusson in order to support collaborations between the College and community organizations in the City and Town of Poughkeepsie. The Grant is funded by a gift from an anonymous donor. Grants are awarded up to $500 for Vassar students, up to $1,000 for faculty, and up to $5,000 for long-term, three-year grants. All grants that are not specified as long-term are semester-based.
In 2014, Elizabeth Dunn, a former administrative assistant in the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, applied for a three-year grant for a stop-motion animation workshop run by Spark Media Project for campers at the Christ Church Camp run by Poughkeepsie’s Christ Episcopal Church.
Athena Wyatt ’17, a student intern with the Good Neighbors Committee and a former counselor at the Christ Church Camp, commented in an email, “[The Good Neighbors Committee was] excited to fund a project that aimed to encourage local youth’s creativity and technological skill development. Spark Media Project uses arts education to encourage local children’s creative storytelling and to bring together all sorts of community members to hear and learn from their stories.”
Fenichel-Hewitt added that the work Spark Media Project does matter, explaining, “Today’s primary form of communication is through media. It’s how we get information, how we share information, how we express how we feel about things. Giving young people the opportunity to create and share their ideas—their perspective—provides a much-needed venue for young people’s voices.”
Spark Media Project students’ videos can be viewed on YouTube or Vimeo.