By Zoë Bodovinitz and Martina Povolo, The Seattle Medium
Directors watch with megaphones in hand, camera operators stand steady, actors take their places and deliver their lines. It’s a typical film set except for one major difference: every person working on this set is still in elementary school.
Reel Youth is a five-day film camp for children ages 7 to 11 who are interested in learning the basics of cinematography, directing and storytelling. Held at the Rainier Arts Center in South Seattle, the film camp was created by artist-instructors who experienced first-hand the importance of mentorship in the industry. The program had its first session in August and is offering its second session on Dec. 27-30.
Before creating this camp, co-founder Obadiah Freeman developed a curriculum for a film camp in partnership with Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). While it was a positive experience, he noticed one glaring issue.
“We did recognize that there is a lack of opportunity for kids that look like us,” Freeman said.
After being introduced to Tiffany Bennett and meeting Ben Leiataua through SIFF, the three founded Reel Youth to give their community a film program for children.
“Reel Youth is an introduction into film using visual arts to tell a story for BIPOC youth,” Bennett said.
Freeman has a background in acting and is a part of Unexpected Productions, Seattle’s longest running improvisation show. Bennett is a media specialist and teaching artist. Leiataua is an actor with a background in singing and voiceover and does freelance graphics. With all three founders coming from different film backgrounds, they use their skills and connections to create an immersive program.
“We just put our heads together and we just went and did it,” Freeman said. “We had the curriculum design, we had teachers and administrators. We had the experience and we have a community, so it was almost simple.”
Bennett and Freeman hosted their first film camp session in August with nine campers and are excited to start their winter session in December, which is at full capacity of 30 students. They said all nine students from summer are returning.
“In August, I remember looking at the list of names of the kids and usually the names are European American names, but I’m seeing African American names on this list for the first time in my career doing this since 2016 and you feel like, I’m actually doing something that matters,” Freeman said.
“We start out light just so everyone is able to get to know each other,” Bennett said. “Then as we progress throughout the day, we start with basic film shots, and how to tell a story with those film shots. Then we just kind of let them make a movie just to see where they are and how they work as a team.”
At the beginning of each day, the children are cast as a distinct part of the production process. One day a child gets to direct the film, another day that child writes it, another day they act in it, and so forth until each child gets a chance to explore each side of production. The films range in topic and genre but are all inspired by the kids’ personal lives and stories, as well as the world around them. Everything down to the editing is done by the children.
The camp uses a pay-what-you-can-model, with the approximate operational cost of each student coming to $482.50. Most of the funds for the camp come through donations, sponsorships and fundraising.
“It’s just all about fundraising and getting the word out and finding a couple of angels out there that can help us out,” Leiataua said.
Reel Youth is sponsored by performing arts instructor Kibibi Monié with NU Black Arts West Theatre, Island Soul Restaurant, Hard-Out Media, and The Copy Spot. Each sponsor helps out in different ways. In the August camp session, Monié brought snacks and attended the camp every day in awe, she said, of the children’s talent.
“I was so proud and impressed with the instructors,” Monié said. “My God, they were great. And the way they handled the children–the children knew that they were under the care of people that really cared about them and cared about what they produced.”
To keep the camp running, Reel Youth also has a Give Butter donation site where people can donate different amounts to provide for different expenses of the camp. For instance, $25 can feed a film camper for a day.
Right now, it’s all for the kids. Freeman and Bennett don’t take any compensation for their time and all the funds go toward bettering the program. The more money they get, the more cameras, editing equipment and space they can rent–all resulting in larger camps for hosting more students.
“We do it for the love of film and of the children,” Bennett said. “Though we’d like to be paid, we understand that when you start something the focus isn’t on money, but it’s on what you’re doing.”
The kids learn how to use all kinds of complicated filmmaking equipment, most of which was donated by outside sources or the founders’ own personal businesses. At the first camp, Garfield High School lent the equipment for the week, including cameras and tripods.
“It’s a great way to give kids something to do, to keep them out of trouble and not make bad decisions in life,” Bennett said. “It just made sense to create our own program to save the children.”
The young filmmakers celebrate the end of camp by inviting their family, friends and members of the community to see their films. Monié described it as going to a real world premiere.
“I didn’t expect to cry,” Freeman said about the premiere for the first camp in August. “It was touching to see the community come out and really tell us how they felt about it. They were grateful to have a program like this where they are learning something meaningful and impactful and bringing them together.”
“Seeing all the kids on stage getting their little certificate and just being really excited about premiering that film, that’s always really special,” Leiataua said.
Monié catered the premiere, she is also an experienced performer and storyteller with her own theatre company in Seattle. She understands the essential job these kids are doing when making their films.
“Storytelling is extremely important, especially when the stories are about your history or about who you are, who you’d like to be,” Monié said. “Storytelling helps you explore the world.”
Monié watched the films at the premiere and was surprised at their level of professionalism.
“The parents were off the chain,” Monié said. “They couldn’t believe that their children had put together what they were looking at.”
As for the future, Reel Youth hopes to grow so they can reach more children.
“We’ve started working on a basis for the organization,” Leiataua said. “This first year we decided we were just going to do two camps. Next year, based on our financial situation and fundraising, we’re probably going to add two more camps to that list. After-school programs will follow after that year and then possibly a building or some sort of structure to house the organization to keep doing the good work.”
The work definitely does not stop when the premiere is wrapped and the students have their certificates. Reel Youth has goals for their young filmmakers far beyond their camps.
“We continually focus on what we’re doing in hope that Amazon, Microsoft or all of the above would look to us and say ‘Wow, we haven’t heard about you and we’re very curious on what you’re doing’ so that our children can come in and interview or film for them to help the children break out into the film industry,” Bennett said. “Because we are getting older. They’re our future.”