Five years ago, Shumpei Chosa didn’t see the value of the videos he posted with his friends to YouTube beyond the momentary rush they’d get from filming them. But when Chosa traded his native Tokyo for Newtown’s George School, he was encouraged to see his hobby as something more.
Now, he’s months away from his freshman year at New York University, where he’ll major in media business and production. Along the way, the 18-year-old, like countless other teens before him, was given a boost by a grassroots filmmaking program in Montgomery County.
The Greenfield Youth Film Festival, which hosts its 11th annual awards ceremony on Wednesday at Upper Dublin High School — complete with red-carpet treatment — has long encouraged Philadelphia-area students to harness their creativity for a greater purpose.
“Film is a medium that attracts people, and I’ve learned that I’m passionate about conveying a story that I feel is important to today’s society, to try to make a change for the better through my films,” said Chosa, a senior, who helped create an award-winning documentary last year and has four films entered in this year’s contest.
“And the skills I’ve learned in filmmaking aren’t just holding a camera," he added. “You learn how to lead a project, how to communicate, and how to build a team that wants to work together. All of that is useful beyond filming.”
The festival is backed by a $100,000 grant from the Greenfield Foundation, a family-run nonprofit. Jill Feldman, one of the foundation’s board members, said the festival began with a suggestion from an Upper Dublin High teacher who, in 2008, had the foresight to see that students had an increasing interest in filmmaking.
“In the beginning, we wanted to give an opportunity to kids who didn’t express themselves through writing or other academic means,” Feldman said. “But we’ve seen it encourage parents, and even people who aren’t connected, to take an interest in what motivates these students."
That first year, students from five schools submitted films. Wednesday’s festival features more than 300 entries from 24 schools throughout the region, from Roxborough High all the way out to West Chester.
“Some of the entries are personal, some are funny, and some are sad,” Feldman said. “They really provide an insight into what’s on these teens’ minds that I don’t think you’d normally get.”
This year’s crop of films include a dispatch from Rwanda from students who took a service trip there, a heartfelt look at one student’s journey through life with a disability, and various music videos for original songs. The entries are grouped into categories, with the top three in each receiving “Greenies" from judges with industry experience, including screenwriters, directors, and producers.
The entries’ subject matter, varied as it is, has a unified goal, according to Bryan Quigley,an Abington High School film teacher, who has referred his students to the film festival since its second year of awards.
“Some kids who win an award, that made their decision for them. That pushed them over the edge to say ‘I’m good at this. I can pursue this,'” he said. “It’s a major validation.”
Quigley’s experience isn’t unique. Alumni from the program routinely reach out to Feldman and the other organizers, serving as judges or mentors during the festival’s complimentary workshop, held every fall. Some, like Nelson Vicens, become a concrete proof of concept for the entire program.
Vicens, 26, worked on Creed II and is soon to end production on Servant, M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming Apple TV series. But in 2008, he was a junior at Upper Dublin High with a budding interest in film and a sister patient enough to star in his experimental films.
He was one of the inaugural winners in the Greenfield festival, held that year at the Ambler Theater, and the experience of seeing his work screened for hundreds in a place where he had watched feature films ignited his ambition.
“Today, with social media, you can always get your stuff out there, but it’s not going to put you on a giant screen,” Vicens said. “And even if it doesn’t play, you’re surrounded by people your age who want to do the same thing, and it’s not easy to find that community, even at my age.”
It’s a process that Quigley has seen every year since latching onto the Greenfield program. It’s one of the main reasons why he continues to funnel his students toward it.