And the Award goes to… A look at the Austin Film Festival


Story by Brent King

And the Award goes to…

Every child has a dream. Whether it’s to become a star athlete, a scientist, a doctor or a lawyer, a dentist, or maybe a pilot, the path can be found within the textbooks of public education. But what about the ones who dream of becoming a screenwriter, or a filmmaker, where do they look? To find the answers, I sat down with Alissa Ziemianski, Director of The Austin Film Festival’s Young Filmmakers Program

“The Austin Film Festival started 17 years ago. There’s always been a youth component at the heart of it, but the major pieces have really been in development more in the last five to seven years,” Ziemianski says. “There was a time when the Young Filmmakers Competition had a Young Screenwriters Competition as well. What we found was that the entries weren’t as strong as we assumed they would be for students writing at that age. We realized that we can’t expect people to submit award-winning scripts if they’re not being taught how to do that.”

In 2005, the Young Filmmakers Program began to change that. Working alongside AISD English teachers they developed a program aligned with the English Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) but designed specifically for the young filmmaker.

Although the course was originally developed for incoming sophomores, the Young Filmmakers Program is working toward including it at the freshman level. Storytelling Through Film “takes them from developing the idea to how to write a short story to breaking that into three acts and putting them into screenplay format, and then finally to peer feedback.” Ziemianski can’t help but smile as she talks, “Students get to interact with local filmmakers and local screenwriters. They sit down and do feedback sessions with them.” But that’s not all.  “It turns into an after-school program where student film crews do productions.”

In addition to the work they’re doing in AISD, the Young Filmmakers Program is busy with the Arts Outreach Program. This branch is a way for high school students across the country to come to Austin and interact directly with Hollywood professionals.

“In the simplest terms, we give high school students free passes to come to the festival. They get conference badges, so they get access to the full four days of conferences, plus they get into the films. We’ve also developed [for] Friday and Saturday a specific program geared to students. Only high school students are allowed in; they get that on-on-one time with renown Hollywood moviemakers.”

For most students, this is a once in a lifetime chance. “They get to sit down with different folks and ask them what it really takes. They’re not hearing it from me or from their teachers, they’re hearing it from the professionals.” The Arts Outreach Program is open to any high school in the nation. Teachers can download the request form online at the Austin Film Festival website.

The Young Filmmakers Program’s Summer Film Camp is always a huge hit. “What makes our summer film camp unique is that it’s a group of students who are die-hard wannabe filmmakers. You have a really intense group of nine- to 18-year-olds. They get really into it, and it’s a lot of fun.”

The camp generally consists of around 20 students. They brainstorm ideas, pitch those ideas to the other students, and then vote for their favorite ideas to narrow it down to just three. They then choose which project they want to work on and are assigned a position, be it director, writer, camera operator, or one of many other jobs required to get a film made. “Everyone contributes to writing the script, arranging all the props, they do it all.  They select all the things they want to do and they go for it. We act as the producers.”  Students of all ages are making films, “The youngest group does claymation. They go through the same process but they make clay figures. We use the stop-motion animation with them.” Whole Foods Inc., who helps sponsor the camp, provides the children with nutritionally balanced, organically grown food.

The Young Filmmakers Program is dedicated to educating the next generation of filmmakers, but that’s not all they do. The Young Filmmakers Competition is a great example. “It’s a part of the Austin Film Festival in October. Youth filmmakers between the ages of 13 and 18 can submit any number of short films that they’ve done in the age period.” There are generally about 100 entries each year; the majority coming from Austin students but still there are submissions from all over the country. There’s a showcase of a selection of the films that shows three or four times during the festival. “The winner is flown in from wherever they are. They get airfare, hotel, and they’re [given their award] at the award luncheon with the rest of the [film festival] awardees.”

The Austin Film Festival’s Young Filmmakers Program is essential to nurturing creativity of our children. As Ziemianski says, “Austin is a film town” and the Young Filmmakers Program is doing everything that it can to help it continue to grow.

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