For the past school year, high school students from across northeast Kansas have written, acted in and produced their own original short films in anticipation of this weekend — and now there’s nothing to do but wait.
“When you create art, you’re in kind of a bubble,” says Eddie Loupe, senior at Lawrence High School. “What the film festival does is it forces you to show it to people whose perspective you do not know, and it forces you out of that bubble. It’s the big reason a lot of people are nervous to submit their work, but it’s extraordinarily helpful.”
The 2013 Lawrence High School Focus Film Festival has arrived, and at 1 p.m. Saturday, the general public can see the 85 short films that scores of Kansas-based teenagers have toiled over for so long. Lawrence High’s Room 125 will be showing all the films submitted for the festival Saturday. That room is also ground zero for the high school’s film/media department of the same name, headed by film teacher Jeff Kuhr.
“It’s a great way to support them, but it’s also a great way to create a dialogue with the wider world,” Kuhr says. “It takes the student films out of the classroom and puts them in a public setting where parents, community members and other students can engage in a conversation with the work the kids are putting out.”
Then comes the big day. At 1 p.m. Sunday, Liberty Hall will host the Focus Film Festival Award Ceremony, where top honors in all different kinds of genres are handed out, and all the winning films are screened. Admission is free and last year was almost capacity, so it’s clear that the word of mouth about Focus is really starting to grow.
For the last five years, director Debra Granik — whose movie “Winter’s Bone” was nominated for the best picture Oscar in 2011 — has judged the drama category. This time around, she’ll again be watching the top three to five short dramatic films of the festival and offering up her own constructive criticism for the young filmmakers.
The other three judges — who will be viewing all the films submitted — are local filmmakers Patrick Rea, Jon Niccum, and Marc Havener.
“Last year, I was really surprised that we won,” says senior Savannah Jones who won best in show in 2012, along with senior Keyty Ashcraft Galve, who goes by the name Q. “I was really nervous. But this year, I’m less nervous because I’ve been through that experience.”
Loupe, Jones and Q — who helped organize the 2013 Focus Film Festival with seniors Joe Ryan and Mitchell Eifler — all agree that winning isn’t the end goal for the film festival anyway. What is really exciting for these hungry film students is to be able to learn from everybody else’s work.
“When you play football, you can go and watch other teams play and see how good they are, what their weaknesses are and how they are overall as a team, but with us we don’t really get that much exposure to other schools and their films,” Q says. “This is the opportunity for us to see how they’re doing, how they’ve grown throughout the year, what they’re working on, and where they are in film.”
Eight years ago Kuhr took over the film department at Lawrence High and since then, with the help of his enthusiastic students, they have built the Focus Film Festival into quite an impressive event. In its first year, Focus attracted 11 films from four schools, but this year, there are 85 shorts from 14 different schools across the state.
For Kuhr, the film festival is less about the competition and more of a showcase for students to express how their feelings and their identity. Above all else, it’s a reflection of what the teenage experience is like for them.
“It doesn’t matter what genre your film is in. What matters is the truth behind all that,” he says. “Art is there to help us not feel alone. No matter what the genre, is there’s a universality to those experiences. Art is both call and response that way — where you’re calling out for others and you’re also replying back. It allows for that kind of bridge to be created.”
Jones, who was recently awarded a scholarship to the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, echoes Kuhr’s sentiment and is thrilled that the teacher pushed her creatively with her own writing and visual storytelling.
“Wednesday,” her newest short, is a continuation of her growth as an artist in many formats. In both her film and art career, she says, her goal is to “get better at writing stories and being truthful with myself.”
Loupe can’t remember exactly how many films he has worked on, but he put that number close to 30 or so. This year, he has two films, titled “Pizza for Lovers” and “An Interview,” submitted for the festival. He will be continuing his obsession with making movies this fall when he attends the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where he’ll be majoring in film production.
Along with Loupe, Q has taken every single film class at Lawrence High School, and she is taking the kind of self-examination that her teacher and classmates speak of to more experimental heights in her latest and most personal short, titled “Autorretrato: Self Portrait.”
“It’s important to push yourself and go outside your comfort zone,” she says. “I just wanted to get it out there so I could let all these feelings go, and I think film is the best way to do that.”
Q will likely attend Johnson County Community College and pursue a teaching degree, perhaps becoming a film teacher herself. But she says she’ll never stop making films, and after grounding herself in a career, she looks forward to continuing her acting and filmmaking pursuits.
Even though there will still be film projects to do in the coming month or so, the Focus Film Festival in some ways is a culmination of everything that film students across the state have been working toward. It’s easy to see how proud Kuhr is of his Lawrence High students and how thankful the kids are to be inspired by a teacher with a clear vision for arts education. As the public screening and the awards ceremony approach this weekend, Kuhr is once again focused on the student experience.
“To see all these people from pretty much all over coming to celebrate student filmmaking and to really appreciate the stories the students are telling is incredible,” he says.