For student artists, finding a venue to show their work can be a frustrating dance of submissions handicapped by time, equipment and academic limitations.
The Focus Film Festival cuts out the middle man and creates a forum for and by students where high schoolers from across the state get the chance to have their films viewed, receive feedback and be critiqued by professionals, whose opinions can also help them win prizes.
For the sixth straight year, the film festival, organized by students at Lawrence High School, is providing that opportunity.
“There’s around 85 films so far, submitted. We generally get a few last-minute stragglers, and there’s probably going to be, in the end, 15 schools that have submitted films,” says Jeff Kuhr, film and media teacher at LHS. “That’s everywhere from Lawrence High to Lansing to Tonganoxie to Olathe. There’s a wide range of schools from all over northeast Kansas that have contributed, and central Kansas, too. I think we have some films from Smoky Valley (in Lindsborg), as well, which is cool.”
At 3:30 p.m. April 14, those films will be publicly screened in room 125 of the high school, 1901 La., where snacks will be provided and everyone in attendance has the opportunity to vote for a fan favorite. At 2 p.m. April 17, the winners will be announced and shown at Liberty Hall, 644 Mass. The categories range from best drama to best experimental, and awards will be made for cinematography and editing as well. Each of the awards will be presented by the students who have been busy organizing the event since last semester — licking countless envelopes and fielding submissions from programs all over the map — in order to have everything run smoothly.
“We get to present the different categories (which) is kind of scary, but at the same time that’s really cool,” says senior Zoey Hearn, who will be presenting the winners of best horror and documentary. “We’ve all been practicing our Oscar-winning speeches, so now we get to go and present and kind of pretend we’re in that world.”
The winning films will be chosen by a panel of local judges — Marc Havener, creative producer at Resonate Pictures; Jon Niccum, writer and filmmaker; Tamara Falicov, associate professor and chair of the Department of Film and Media Studies at KU; and Patrick Rea of SenoReality Pictures — but there will also be a major celebrity in the mix. Debra Granik, director of the Oscar-nominated film “Winter’s Bone,” is picking the winner in the drama category.
Granik visited the program last year and has stayed in touch, even as her film earned accolade after accolade. Kuhr says her involvement is just one of several boosts the festival has received since its first year, when it had just three schools participating and only 14 films entered.
“I heard from Debra (Granik) last night, and something that struck me was how cool it was that she was a ‘friend’ of our program,” Kuhr says. “Even cooler, though, is that it’s not just her — with really generous support from places like Adobe, Criterion, New Video, Palm Pictures, Chicago Review Press — as well as all the local businesses who provided items for our raffle — there’s a tremendous amount of support for youth filmmaking, and that’s wonderful.”
But the biggest level of support might come in the experience and confidence gained by the winners. Not only will they have their film enjoyed by peers and professionals alike, but they’ll get to watch it at Liberty Hall like something produced by Hollywood.
Seeing your film on the big screen? That’s priceless, says senior Megan Fleming, whose film “The Sci-Fi Movie” (made with Hearn and Ellie Berland) won the best sci-fi/fantasy category at last year’s festival.
“Yeah, I think it’s really cool to look up at the screen and see not a ‘Black Swan’ at Liberty Hall, but our very own movies up on that same screen,” says Fleming, who plans to study film in college. “It’s like a really amazing experience.”