After spending his summer vacation studying what causes conflict, eight-grader Angad Singh decided to do something about it. He picked up a camera.
The result was "One Light," a 22-minute movie in which he and 10 of his Atlanta-area neighbors talk about who they are, where they came from, and what they believe.
"A movie is something everyone can enjoy," says Angad, an audience-award winner at the recent National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NFFTY). "It's something that captures your senses and touches you on the inside."
Easy access to digital technology has caused an explosion in filmmaking, especially among kids who have grown up with it. Organized by young filmmakers for young filmmakers, NFFTY – pronounced "nifty" – offered 73 youth-made films over three days with genres ranging from documentary to animation to experimental to horror. The youngest filmmaker is age 9.
"These are extremely high-quality productions. If you saw them in a theater, you wouldn't realize that they were made by kids," says chief organizer Jesse Harris. The festival's purpose was to showcase the diversity of work being done by filmmakers under 21 and give them a chance to connect with adults in the industry, says the 22-year-old who, at 17, sunk his college savings into his first film, "Living Life." The feature scored theatrical release and distribution. NFFTY cofounders Jocelyn R.C. and Kyle Seago, both 18, were veteran filmmakers before they even left for college last fall.
Others are newcomers.
Seattle's Justin Amorratanasuchad, 18, was an avid skateboarder when he and his friends began filming each other's feats as a way to break into the pro circuit. "We'd watch the professional skateboard videos, figure out the angles, and copy what they were doing," he says. Before long, moviemaking had replaced skateboarding as a career goal.
Fortunately, the opportunities for young moviemakers to distribute their work are increasing – and not just through YouTube and social networking sites like Facebook, though teen-made films proliferate there. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival are sponsoring competitions for high-school-age filmmakers. For example, Matthew Black, a 15-year-old moviemaker from Kansas City, created his suspense short "The Writer" in a week as part of the national Samsung Fresh Films competition. Matt Lawrence of Ballard High School's film and video program in Seattle says shorts now have a real market in part because of the growth in cable TV and home theaters.
Even more important, filmmaking can give teens life skills to use in their community and a chance to see themselves as community leaders, whether they choose to pursue it as a career or not, says Tracy Rector, executive director of Longhouse Media and its Native Lens program for young filmmakers.
Nick Clark, 18, and Cody Cayou and Travis Tom, both 17, came into their Native Lens project thinking they'd make a gangster movie. Instead, they ended up investigating the impact of Tesoro Petroleum's March Point refineries on the lives and health of their families and neighbors on the Swinomish Reservation north of Seattle. The trio talked to tribal elders, health officials, and even politicians in Washington, D.C. In the process, their grades went up, they found new confidence, and they began thinking about their futures. All three teens have been offered paid summer internships at the Smithsonian Institute's Museum of the American Indian after graduation.
The public reaction to their hour-long documentary, which has screened at several US festivals, is still sinking in. "People seem to like it," says Cody, in awe.
The upshot: "March Point" has been picked up by PBS to air in November.