The Middle Distance 10.31.14: In The Heart

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6min 14sec
Credit Sean Cayton

Something remarkable happened in Colorado Springs over the last year. It happens all the time but often remains beneath the radar: someone with a dream pursues it with focus and determination and a vision is realized.

In 2013, Springs native Tom Shepard, a Palmer High School graduate who went on to Stanford and became a successful documentary filmmaker, returned to his hometown over the summer and decided he wanted to start a documentary film academy for high school students. Full disclosure: Tom is a friend and when he first told me his idea, I never dreamed he would pull it together in just a year. But by summer of 2014 when Tom returned to the Springs, Youth Documentary Academy (YDA) had become a reality.

Housed at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center’s Bemis School of Art, the first YDA class comprised a group of local kids ages 14 to 18, some who had little experience beyond shooting video with a smartphone. They came from public schools around the city and were chosen through an application process that measured their desire and level of commitment to the hard work of making a film. For six and a half weeks, they met with Tom, Telluride-based filmmaker Suzan Baraza and Aaron Burns, an instructor at Denver’s Colorado Film School, learning every aspect of documentary filmmaking from identifying a story idea to pre-production, shooting, editing and screening rough cuts of their films at the end of the program.

Next week, on Nov. 5, the final cuts of ten films by ten student filmmakers will see their world premiere at the Fine Arts Center in a public screening.

I saw the films last summer after briefly working with the students at YDA when they were refining their story ideas. The results were nothing less than mind-blowing: beautifully conceived, written, shot and edited, and achieved over such a short stretch of time. Something amazing had taken place in that Bemis classroom and across the city. These kids had gone out with cameras and sound equipment provided by this tuition-free program and captured aspects of their lives, our town and the world that were thoughtful, sophisticated, intimate, challenging, and refreshingly honest. It was a thrill to see such good work, and even more thrilling to see the faces of these young filmmakers and their families as their dreams danced across the screen.

“Young people have an innate sense of story, and giving them the tools allows them to find their voice as filmmakers and as citizens,” says Tom Shepard in an online video promoting the program. Indeed, these students found voice exploring topics and issues close to their hearts that society at large often ignores, shoves under the rug, or shuns.

One young woman, inspired by a family member’s experience as a volunteer at a local domestic violence outreach program, has produced a notably clear-eyed and mature film on stalking. Another goes inside a family’s direct experience dealing with the severe mental illness of a loved one, filming candid interviews that disclose frustration, compassion and fear in equal measures.

Two films are inspired by students’ desires to better know and understand the legacies of their families’ businesses, including economic pressures, historic value, and the difficulty of keeping them going for the next generation.

One filmmaker documents, with an empathetic eye, a transgendered woman’s small daily triumphs and profound struggles.

Another looks at graffiti art in a cultural commentary that asks: How do we determine what is art and what is not? What values, as a society, do we bring to that conversation? Another goes inside the backstage world of local musicians pursuing their passion.

One student captures transcendent images of nature surrounding our city and explores the value of closely observing the real world behind our manmade edifices.

One filmmaker breaks new ground by exploring the impact of a returning U.S. soldier’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on his family from a unique insider’s point of view. This son’s documentation of his own childhood lived in the shadows of multiple deployments, ongoing war and violent injury is loving and honest, harrowing and affirming in ways that news accounts of PTSD and injured soldiers can only fail to be.

“Film really does hit you in the heart,” says one of the YDA filmmakers, and these films hit in a place that is too often hardened and judgmental. Our culture’s frequently demeaning attitudes about youth and what they have to offer are up-ended by these filmmakers’ demonstrations of heart; by their acute, unfettered vision; and their deep concern for the world that made them.

New films from the Colorado Springs Youth Documentary Academy’s first class will be screened in a world premiere open to the public, Wednesday, Nov. 5 at 7 p.m., at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St. (Suggested donations, $10 adults, $4 students).

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.