High school students take in a screening at San Francisco International Film Festival 2011.

Celebrating a Reel Education

Jennifer Preissel June 9, 2011

In the era of the autodidact, the time of YouTube triumphs and iMovie masterpieces, why should a film institution care about educating the public in media? What’s left to be taught? Aren’t both children and adults knee-deep in all things digital?

Spend a few minutes with Joanne Parsont, San Francisco Film Society’s Director of Education, and you’d find out that there’s more to moving images than can be captured on a hand-held device or taught via a monitor.

“You get 500 elementary school students in the Kabuki Theater and it’s like the whole place is moving,” Parsont says. “They’re bouncing in their seats because they are so excited to ask questions. For some of them, not only is it the first time they have met a filmmaker, it’s the first time they have been in a theater.”

Since 1991, the San Francisco Film Society has been educating youth in film, but it’s not all elementary, or middle, or high school-oriented: What began as a K–12 Schools at the Festival program that brought students and international cinema together has, 20 years later, grown into year-round educational programming that serves not just under-18s, but lifelong learners, professional and novice filmmakers and university students. What students of the 21st century need, the Film Society has found, is not the hardware to make media, but the intellectual tools to create and appreciate great work: a more sophisticated understanding of communication strategies and the art of storytelling, skills in working with a team on production, a better sense of context for/ critique of the media landscape.

While San Francisco Film Society’s Youth Education department serves students under 18 through screenings, filmmaker classroom visits, youth media instruction, teacher trainings and curriculum support, its Film Craft & Film Studies programming for the adult population brings emerging artists, film professionals and cinephiles under the aegis of SFFS to not just learn better ways to make and “read” films, but to build better connections for bringing the films to audiences.

Both youth and adults have dynamic programming being rolled out for them this summer, with July’s Young Filmmakers Camp, now in its second year, creating an environment for teens, age 13-18 to learn from high level professionals key tools to produce films, and adult classes and workshops running the gamut from screenwriting to grant-writing essentials to shooting digital video to appreciating “femme noir.” Instructors for this summer’s Film Craft & Film Studies classes include San Francisco State documentary historian Bill Nichols, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker David L. Brown; its Master Class teachers include cinematographer Hiro Narita (Apocalypse Now…) and Disney animator John Musker (Aladdin, Hercules…).

What’s been most interesting in the past year is how the programs, which arrived at the San Francisco Film Society through varied paths, have been brought together and integrated into the entire institution. Perhaps the best evidence of this can be seen through the lens of its artist-in-residency program, an initiative to bring international filmmakers to the Bay Area to connect with local film lovers, makers and students. This winter, the Film Society inaugurated the program by inviting Ido Haar, the Israeli documentary filmmaker best known for the film 9 Star Hotel, to San Francisco. According to Parsont—who has been involved with the Festival’s media education initiatives since 1997—“It was huge, the first time we have had the chance to engage a filmmaker across every facet of our programs.” Haar visited eight university classes, two high school classes, taught a master class, met with FilmHouse filmmakers-in-residence, presented a public screening of his work and met with senior students at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. “He engaged with every community that we work with,” sharing his expertise with school kids, university students, working filmmakers and retirees in a testament to the breadth and depth not just of the SFFS education programs but to their integration into the Film Society as a whole.

Michael A. Behrens, who runs the SFFS Film Craft & Film Studies program for adults, points to his classes as fostering a collaborative spirit between professionals and amateurs, beginners and veterans, giving these learners and experts a forum to impact each other’s work. “In any given class we run, you could have somebody from our FilmHouse residency program, a Film Society grant recipient and people from various walks of life engaging and talking with each other about how to make art.” He points to success stories—like editor and director Richard Levien “who studied, has taught classes for us, received grants from us and screened films at SFIFF, Sundance and other festivals”—as proof in the pudding that the program has functioned as an incubator of talent for the local filmmaking scene.

Youth Media, from the Beginning

The Film Society’s legacy as an institution that supports the study of film can be traced back to a charismatic do-it-yourselfer who pioneered the San Francisco International Film Festival’s Schools at the Festival program. Today, the Film Society and its Youth Education programs serve over 10,000 K–12 students annually. But back in 1991, Robert S. Donn, a retired English and French teacher from San Francisco’s public George Washington High School and a longtime Festival volunteer, came to the Film Society with a novel proposition. Why not take advantage of the influx of filmmakers from around the globe during the annual San Francisco International Film Festival by bringing students into the theater to create a whole new kind of classroom experience? High schoolers studying French could interact with Francophone directors; history students could go beyond textbooks by watching documentaries chronicling personal experiences of cultural change or warfare. For five years, Donn ran the resulting Schools at the Festival program largely as a one-man operation, drawing on his connections to local schools and the district to bring students to theaters and filmmakers into the classroom.

In 1997, Parsont—who had previously coordinated Mill Valley’s Children’s FilmFest—joined the Film Society staff to help expand the Schools at the Festival program. Of Bob, she says, “He was a sweetheart. He believed in the power of film to connect students to the world.” The two worked side-by-side until Donn—who, according to his daughter Nicole, watched over 200 films in the last year of his life—retired from his volunteer post in the early 2000s. He passed away in 2003. Parsont, who ran the program until 2004 and returned to the organization to oversee its expanded Education department in 2009, says, “I always felt personally responsible for carrying on Bob’s mission and his legacy because he was just so passionate about it. He had started this program from nothing and created something really significant.”

Not content to simply connect filmmakers and students, the Festival also became a home for films made by high school and middle school students. In 1995, a.k.a. Don Bonus, a chronicle of the struggles of a teenage Cambodian refugee by Spencer Nakasako—codirected by its subject, Sokly Ny (“Don”)—took the Golden Gate Award for best Bay Area doc. The Schools at the Festival screenings of the film were such a hit with students that Rachel Rosen, then an associate programmer for the Festival and now its director of programming, suggested creating a showcase for films by youth filmmakers. The GGA Youth Works program debuted at the Festival in 1996, giving young viewers a forum to see their experiences reflected on screen. Max Strebel, a junior studying film at NYU Tisch School of the Arts who aspires to work at Pixar, directed shorts that were screened many times over in the series. As a fifth grader, he submitted an animated film called Children of the Dustbowl, which was not accepted, though his 2003 film, Eclipse, was. “That was the first time I realized you can actually make films—that it’s a doable profession. It doesn’t just have to be a hobby.” In the ensuing years, he screened three more projects at the SFIFF where he also met fellow filmmakers like Pixar’s Brad Bird and documentarian Nanette Burstein (American Teen). The Festival, he says, “continually reaffirmed that my passion was worthy and because of that it influenced my decision to go to film school.”

Both these programs—curriculum-based screenings for school audiences and showings of films by youth media makers—are now staples at many film organizations. But in the early 1990s, these were pioneering efforts to connect youth to media content.

A Permanent Department

SFFS Education took a circuitous path from school screenings to an all-inclusive, year-round education department. The beginnings of its expansion could be traced to 2005, when the Film Society entered a transitional year, with the departure of Executive Director Roxanne Messina Captor. The Film Society’s board started the hunt for a new leader, one who would fulfill their goal to expand the organization’s programming from a two-week festival to a robust 365-day slate of screenings and events. A key component of this expanded repertoire would be a year-round Youth Education program.

Melanie Blum, a former board president and a board member for more than 15 years, was a firm believer that the Film Society ought to commit itself to a year-round education program. “I had always loved the Schools at the Festival program. I thought it was a great idea to bring independent and international films to school kids to show them there was a whole other world out there. And as technology has advanced and it has become easier for more people to get involved in filmmaking, I think that educating kids about media literacy has become so important since it plays such a pivotal role in their lives.”

In the spring of 2005, Blum and fellow board members John Diefenbach and Pat McBain paid a visit to the Jacob Burns Film Center and Media Arts Lab in Pleasantville, New York. The trio, Blum says, was blown away by the educational programs the center had to offer. After they returned, Keith Zwölfer was hired to develop the beginnings of a year-round program with Parsont’s consultation. “Working with the staff,” Blum recalls, “we started the search for a new Executive Director. Graham Leggat’s name had come up a number of times from some folks, including Rachel Rosen, who is our current Director of Programming. He hadn’t applied for the job but I was kind of curious. So I gave him a call. Just talking to him in ten minutes, it seemed like he said more than anyone we had interviewed for weeks. He understood and believed too that the education program was an important component of year-round expansion. And the rest, as they say, is history.” Shortly after, the Film Society secured a sizeable grant from the Hearst Foundation to support the department and Zwölfer was hired year-round to manage the Youth Education program.

Zwölfer, a former Festival intern and Mill Valley Film Festival staffer, developed a set of innovative programs that embraced the idea of outside-the-classroom learning. For one of his first non-Festival screenings, Keith convened a theater full of middle school students—and some very special guests—for a showing of Caroll Ballard’s Duma, a film about a family that rescues the eponymous cheetah. Zwölfer contacted a haven in Marin that sheltered former performing cats and feline rescue cases to see if their trainers could bring a few animals to the Balboa Theater screening. [Caretakers Rob and Barbara Dicely] who ran Leopards Etc. [now called The Wild Cat Education and Conservation Fund] had been doing this for 20 years and they had experience specifically with classroom settings, so while I was a bit nervous, I knew it would be a great way to engage the kids.” Kamau and Kgosi—whose growls had been recorded by the Ballard’s sound team to double for Duma in the film—thrilled an audience of 300 kids from seven different Bay Area schools. Zwölfer recalls, “That event got me started on the idea of how to make the screening a different kind of experience for students.”

Zwölfer also remembers the Schools at the Festival showing of Thomas Riedelsheimer’s Touch the Sound, a documentary about world-renowned percussionist Evelynn Glennie—who also happens to be hearing impaired—as a watershed event. “We had about 300 kids at the screening and 50 of them were hearing-impaired students from Bay Area schools. The director and I asked the tech to turn up the sound so there were more vibrations coming from the speakers in order to replicate Evelynn’s aural experience—she says that there’s a little spot in the back of her ear where she hears the vibrations. After the film, we had a taiko drum troupe perform. And the kids got to play the instruments and put their hands on the bottom of the drums so they could sense the vibrations. It was a neat experience for the hearing impaired kids because they don’t normally get to see a film that’s about them, but also for the other kids in the theater, because it might have made them more sensitive to the kids who live with hearing difficulties.”

Classroom engagement does not end with the drop of the theater curtain, Parsont notes. The Youth Education program reaches out annually to over 3,000 local teachers and homeschooling parents. “It’s never just a field trip or going to a movie; every event that we do is an interactive experience and we work with teachers to connect these programs to their curriculum. We write study guides so they can have those resources and can work with them in the classroom.”

The department has made a concerted effort to make their programs as widely accessible as possible. The majority of Youth Education programs are free and, for the last two years, the Film Society has been able to further lower the already discounted price of tickets for Schools at the Festival screenings. Zwölfer states, “Even with reduced ticket prices, it’s hard for some schools to get kids off campus and cover the cost of a bus. When we know it’s prohibitive for a certain school, we will target them for school visits.” These screenings not only expose students to foreign cultures and narratives, but in many cases offer opportunities to see themselves represented in images that are typically absent from the screen. Stuntwoman Zoë Bell came to speak to an audience of girls after a screening of the documentary Double Dare; she spoke inspiringly to the students about body image and success for women in male-dominated Hollywood. Director Jeff Zimbalist encouraged students at screenings of his documentary Favela Rising to share their experiences with gang violence, a topic his film examines.

In recent years, Zwölfer and Parsont have worked with outside partners to create new offerings for K–12 students. The two collaborated with Danielle O’Hare of Lucasfilm to develop The Art & Science of Lucasfilm, a pre-professional series of multimedia presentations for high school students. Over the course of the school year, representatives from the company’s different divisions—Lucas Animation, Industrial Light & Magic, Skywalker Sound and LucasArts—give students a behind-the-scenes look at what they do on a day-to-day basis to bring films, animation and video games to life. Zwölfer notes, “It’s kind of like career day. At one event, we had an art director and a video game programmer from LucasArts speak and show how their skill sets complement each other. The kids can see how they might be able to someday apply their algebra or, if they are artistic, how to turn drawing into a job.” Students have attended lectures presided over by representatives from the licensing and publicity divisions, and a foley artist from Skywalker Sound even gave a live demonstration of how to conduct a sound effects recording. The Youth Education team started a similar program with Pixar about a year ago. The emphasis remains on professional development, but the peerless animation studio is working with the Film Society to bring artists into classrooms for more intimate how-to sessions.

Also in the past year, the Youth Education team has piloted the Filmmakers in the Classroom program, partnering local filmmakers with Bay Area teachers. Together, they develop a curriculum customized to the instructor’s needs which aims to equip students with media literacy skills to create video projects related to their classroom work. Kirthi Nath worked with Connie Hendrix’s Francisco Middle School media arts class to develop PSAs addressing close-to-home problems like alcoholism and smoking. “The pilot program allows filmmakers to play to their strengths,” says Nath. “Because I produce social issue documentaries and I have a background in youth media, I wanted to work with the kids to help them create projects that dealt with the issues they are engaged with.” While Nath taught students how to use cameras and walked them through the pre-production process, Hendrix would encourage them to incorporate persuasive argument—a skill they were learning in English class—into their scripts. Myles Jewell, a cinema studies expert, worked with fourth grade teacher Elizabeth Jackson of Bayshore Elementary School in Daly City to teach kids strategies to create their own animated shorts about ways to improve their school. Jewell praised the program for “putting faith in me. Giving me the legitimacy to go into a classroom and share my skills was all the support I could ask for.”

Next Step: Absorption of Film Arts Foundation

Year-round youth programming may have been an obvious step for SFFS, but adult education was more of a leap, one which can be traced to the struggle of a sister organization with very different origins. In 1976, a ragtag team of indie, documentary and experimental filmmakers came together to form Film Arts Foundation, a collective with the aim of giving low budget and avant garde filmmakers the tools they needed to get their projects produced. Initially, this was accomplished through two means: improving access to prohibitively expensive film equipment and expanding opportunities for filmmakers to gain fiscal sponsorship. Conceived in the mode of a classic San Francisco bohemian collective—as Behrens, the current SFFS Filmmaker Education manager and a former Film Arts staffer says, “The story goes that they formed the cooperative around a flatbed editing station”—the organization served as a collaborative for filmmakers who wanted a space to network with colleagues, receive feedback from fellow artists and access the resources necessary to get their projects off the ground.

Gail Silva co-directed the organization from 1979 until 2004. “In the late ’70s,” she recalls, “we would often host talks, say on lighting or we would give a forum to a company that wanted to do a presentation to filmmakers.” Soon after, the organization began to offer classes on topics ranging from how to operate a camera to how to apply for grants to fund your documentary. Professional filmmakers imparted practical skills to new and emerging moviemakers who did not necessarily have the means to attend film school. “We marketed ourselves at the local universities as a supplement or as an alternative to film school. At San Francisco State, you couldn’t check out a camera until you were a graduate student whereas you could go to Film Arts, take a camera class, and qualify to check out one of ours.”

For years, Film Arts thrived, but when the digital revolution changed the filmmaking landscape, it struggled to remain in the black. In 2007, Film Society Executive Director Graham Leggat announced that the Film Society would absorb many of the financially foundering Film Arts’ programs—including its filmmaker education courses. Quoted in indieWIRE at the time, Leggat noted, “The Film Society and Film Arts are thought of as two radically different organizations. [Film Arts] is seen as scrappy, oppositional, and political, the [Film Society] is seen as an Ivory Tower that doesn’t give a toss for filmmakers.” Outgoing Film Arts Board President Steve Ramirez noted in the same piece that “diplomacy and coalition building among groups is vital for indies today.”

Until 2008, the Film Society’s education offerings had only served K–12 students. With the absorption of Film Arts, the SFFS could expand their educational reach to university students and adult learners—both professionals and non. But how would these programs roll into an organization that primarily served audiences rather than makers? Gail Silva recalls, “The Film Society had always invited the local filmmakers to programs throughout the year, especially during the Festival. But I think the missing element had always been … a sense of a filmmaking community. I think the Film Society originally was walking a line trying to figure out how filmmakers who wanted assistance fit in with the service they offered their audiences.”

While the Film Society retained Film Arts’ slate of adult classes, SFFS did not take on Film Arts’ longstanding equipment rental program, the rationale being that modern filmmaking technologies are more affordable and accessible than ever before, rendering such services moot. And the adult courses—rebranded Film Craft & Film Studies in 2010—now focus less on building technological skillsets (though those classes are indeed on offer by SFFS, as well as Bay Area Video Coalition or City College) and more on aesthetics and industry know-how.

It now appears that the Film Society has seamlessly woven its new slate of courses and offerings into its preexisting education initiatives. Behrens recalls, “When we came together three years ago, it was all very new and there were questions of, ‘How is it going to work out?’ There’s no question of that anymore. We’re an integrated part of the Film Society—we don’t see ourselves as separate or programmatically separate at all. It’s probably one of the most successful business ventures I’ve been involved in.”

In fact, the SFFS has expanded its adult education offerings over the past three years to serve 800 students annually. On top of that, the Film Craft & Film Studies classes are self-sustaining; unlike most divisions in this or any arts presenting non-profit, the income produced by the courses pay for their operating costs. The absorption of Film Arts by the Film Society—which also includes fiscal sponsorship, project development resources and a grants and residency program that comprise SFFS’s Filmmaker Services department—has remodeled the Film Society as a vertically integrated organization where a novice might take a class from an expert local director, develop his own project with grant money received from the organization and eventually screen his work in the Festival. This model shares commonalities with the Sundance Institute labs or Tribeca’s All Access programs, where filmmakers receive grants and work with mentors to develop and produce their film projects that often receive play on the Festival circuit.

Behrens believes that the Film Society has ably inherited the mantle of the Film Arts education programs, improving the management of services offered by its predecessor. “Film Arts helped people get access to the knowledge and tools they needed to make films. The philosophy of sharing knowledge and setting trends and being here as a service to Bay Area filmmakers and beyond is still at the core of what we are. We still give our members the skills they need to be successful.”

Looking Ahead: A Permanent Home, Outside the Schoolhouse

What distinguishes the SFFS Education program as a whole is the unique way it accommodates the idiosyncratic needs of the Bay Area filmmaking community. The department brings films and media learning to often under-resourced school kids; connects an engaged and vociferous constituency of film lovers to makers through master classes and courses exploring film craft; and nurtures the sometimes eccentric but always committed heirs to a tradition of collaborative, experimental and documentary filmmaking by enriching these filmmakers through professional development as teachers, residency holders and, of course, students.

But what does the future hold for the Film Society’s education programs?

Parsont wants to implement a plan to comprehensively improve teachers’ professional development around media literacy throughout the San Francisco Unified School District. In 2009, the Film Society received a grant from the Haas Fund to do an assessment of the state of media education in the district. “After conducting that study,” she recalls, “we realized how desperately the SFUSD needs professional development for teachers around media education. We have done some work around this issue, but it’s a daunting thing. We need to create a more sustainable model.” Behrens sees the Film Craft & Film Studies program expanding and meeting the demands of Film Society constituents. “We continue to expand and we still can’t seem to satisfy need with our offerings. Last year we grew at 30 percent, this year we expect to grow another 30 percent.”

But in interviews with staff throughout the department, there was one common thread reiterated by all: The education programs would benefit from the realization of a permanent home for the Film Society. A brick-and-mortar venue—equipped with classroom and workshop spaces—will be the best tool to facilitate cross-platform interaction between filmmakers, students and audiences.

For now, the city is the Film Society’s classroom—the SFFS offers Film Craft & Film Studies courses at the Film Centre in the Presidio, at The Lab in the Mission, at the Ninth Street Independent Film Center South of Market and via local businesses like Purebred studios. Throughout the year, filmmakers meet with elementary, middle, high school and university students in theaters and schools around the Bay Area.

As Leggat told indieWIRE in 2008, “If we can...maintain and very quickly grow our programs and activities, we can create a really viable, energetic, dynamic organization, really making San Francisco that third filmmaking city.” It appears the SFFS is well on its way to doing so.

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