The Philadelphia Youth Film Festival is free and open to any high school student — key to the inclusive mission of the Germantown Friends School students who run the competition.
It also presents some interesting challenges. “We get a lot of submissions from Iran, and no one here” speaks Persian, said Ben Rosin, a senior at the private Quaker school.
The festival, now in its third year, likely draws global interest because there is no cost to enter, students said. Many other contests charge to enter, and for aspiring young filmmakers, the fees can be prohibitive.
What that means is a lot of submissions — and work for the students preparing for the festival on Feb. 22. In addition to screenings and awards, the event will feature free filmmaking workshops.
Any high school student can attend the sessions, which focus on screenwriting and lighting as well as topics particularly tailored to the audience — like one titled “Making a Feature Film as a High Schooler: It’s Possible.” (That session will be led by a student in the University of Southern California’s film program who previously participated in the festival.)
All of it is managed by about a dozen Germantown Friends students, who get experience not just in film, but everything that goes into making the event happen — from developing a website and publicizing the festival, to writing grant applications and making connections with industry professionals.
This year, the festival will feature Nicole Kassell, a producer for HBO’s Watchmen. Last year, the students invited filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan to speak. While he didn’t take them up on their offer, his assistant sent a personal reply — “a solid step,” said Songqi Pu, a senior and co-director of the festival. "We have learned a lot about how to utilize the resources of the school.”
While professionals judge the submissions — divided into screenplay, narrative, experimental, and documentary categories — students pare down the field.
Of the 450 submissions this year, they determined 191 were eligible, said senior and festival co-director Tommy Victor. To ensure entries are from high schoolers, student IDs must be submitted. Films in other languages must have English subtitles, and students flag submissions that might violate copyright law or contain graphic content.
The films provide a window into the stories other students — in Philadelphia and around the world — are interested in telling.
Victor recalled a submission from a filmmaker in India who interviewed other kids there about using glue to get high. “It just really opened my eyes to this thing I had no idea about,” he said. Rosin was struck that some students who submitted entries seemed to be using the filmmaking process as therapy to deal with loss, which was “kind of a foreign concept to me.”
Some entries were “just really impressive,” said senior Leo Kastenberg, like one that appeared to be inspired by the Academy Award-winning film Birdman, presented as one continuous take. There’s “a lot of effort that went in.”
Faculty adviser Sarah Kappel described the process as “a little bit intimidating,” but “inspirational” for students to see what their peers have produced.
She also sees their pride in putting on the event. “It’s something real," Kappel said. "It’s not school — it’s not a paper, or a film class.”
Some students involved in the festival have made movies or taken film classes at Germantown Friends. But a number said they were just as drawn to branding, event planning, or entrepreneurship.
“It’s hard in high school to find places to really apply what you’ve learned,” Rosin said. “This is one of those outlets.”