Srwsht Abarash (in baseball hat) shooting “Missing Facts”
Most aspiring filmmakers can point to one or two seminal movies that served as their inspiration for pursuing careers in the industry. Harrison Allen of Bethel had a somewhat different motivational experience.
"When I was 15, I saw a college filmmaker's film, and it was really, really bad," recalls the 18-year-old homeschooled graduating senior. "I thought to myself, I'm pretty sure I can do better than that."
Even before he heads to Emerson College this fall to study television and film, Allen is well on his way to achieving that goal. His entry in this year's Scout Film Festival in Stowe — a nine-minute live-action drama called "The Yellow Block" — is one of three films nominated for Best Short Made in Vermont. Produced last year on a $200 budget and filmed in Bethel and Randolph, "The Yellow Block" has been an official selection in 17 film festivals and nominated for five awards. Says Allen, "I'm really excited about this festival."
"The Yellow Block" is one of more than 600 entries from 50 countries received by the Scout Film Festival, which launches this year on June 17, reports founder and director Anna Colavito. The three-day fest, whose motto is "Celebrating teen filmmakers through short film," has assembled for its inaugural year an impressive slate of 129 international films to be screened. All the filmmakers had to be under the age of 18 at the time of their film's production.
"As soon as our submission window opened last November, that very day, we had 26 submissions from three countries," Colavito says. "And it just sort of blew up from there."
This year's entries range in length from 30 seconds to 22 minutes, averaging about five minutes. They were produced in a variety of styles and formats: animated shorts, comedies, documentaries, music videos, experimental films and public service announcements.
Before launching Scout, Colavito, 42, already knew a thing or two about the challenges of telling short stories visually. She spent 14 years in the advertising world in Boston and New York City before taking a hiatus after 9/11 to work for New York's Gen Art Film Festival. Six years ago, she and her family relocated to Stowe.
There Colavito conceived the idea of a Vermont-based film festival that would focus exclusively on the cinematic visions of teens. Her many professional contacts in the film industry helped spread the word about Scout; teens' social-media networks did the rest. The festival's name, Colavito explains, is a nod both to film location scouts and to the child narrator of the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird, which was based on the novel by Harper Lee.
"Our mission is all about connection," says Colavito. The impetus for the festival, she explains, was her growing concern about the technology in which kids are immersed these days. She has a 7-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter.
"While access [to technology] is a beautiful thing, it's also a little bit desensitizing," Colavito says. "I felt that if we could get these kids together, telling their stories to each other, it would remove a little of that disconnect and reconnect them as a generation."
The films Scout has accepted should put to rest any preconceived notions that adolescents produce only amateurish, unsophisticated or sophomoric works. Among the projects to be screened is a four-and-a-half-minute documentary from Nepal called "Dhartiputra," created by then-16-year-old Aditya Khadka. Nominated for best documentary, "Dhartiputra" tells the story of a mother whose 4-month-old son was trapped for 22 hours in the rubble of their collapsed home following Nepal's April 2015 earthquake.
"Ever since [I was] a kid, I had this dream to become a great filmmaker. I often get lost into my world of imagination," Khadka has told Glocal Khabar, an online publication based in Nepal's capital, Kathmandu. "Through films, I can present my imagination to everyone. This fills my heart with immense pleasure and joy."
Another film, "Missing Facts," is one of six nominated in the best horror category. As Colavito explains, it's a psychological thriller written and directed by Srwsht Abarash, a now-19-year-old Iraqi Kurd whose life has been rocked by years of war, terrorism and violence.
"Filmmaking gives me euphoria. With short water and electricity supply in this region, schools and public places keep closing and opening again because of financial [crises]," Abarash writes in his director's statement. "Filmmaking is my escape [and] is the way forward for me. Without it, I vanish [into] the thin air like a particle."
For Colavito, films such as Abarash's and Khadka's reinforce the importance of this medium to youths around the world.
"Getting to know these young filmmakers and getting to know their backstories, beyond the films they've submitted, just raises the mission of this festival," she says. "Exposure is really important to them, but it means more than 'I made a great film.' Sometimes it's literally the one thing that keeps them going."
Not all of the submissions tackle weighty or somber subjects. One film, by the festival's youngest participant — a then-9-year-old American named Cameron Scout Bontrager — is a three-and-a-half-minute PSA called "Friendship," which includes humorous outtakes by the child actors. Colavito describes it as "an adorable PSA" that's "really well done and thoughtful."
Such exceptions aside, Colavito has observed big themes cropping up repeatedly in the submissions, including the overuse of technology, gender and sexuality, social acceptance, depression, anxiety, and suicide. One animated short, titled "I'm Afraid," by Kate Reid of Markham, Ontario, is an illustrated list of sources of teen angst as provided by her high school classmates. It includes fears of dentists, sharks, spiders, boys, the future, intimacy and zombies.
"Even the comedies have some sort of underlying social commentary to them," Colavito notes. "Time and again, these films, and the beautiful way these teens have been able to express themselves, keep proving their desire to be heard and reconnect with people."
Scout won't showcase teens' artistic creations solely in cinematic form. To "get my feet wet" with the festival, Colavito says, she held a logo contest for students in Matt Neckers' graphic design class at Green Mountain Technology and Career Center in Hyde Park. Colavito says she fell in love with the very first logo she saw, created by Emily Wylie of Hyde Park.
"I thought, There's just no way! It's like buying the first house you go look at," she says. "I originally thought I'd have a new logo contest every year, but I love this logo enough to keep it forever."
Students' artwork will also be featured on the festival's posters, T-shirts and other merchandise.
Adriana Teresa Letorney, who cofounded Stowe-based Visura, an international online platform that connects photographers, editors, journalists and other visual artists, is a founding sponsor of Scout. Letorney now serves on the fest's board of directors.
"We were definitely not expecting over 600 submissions our first year," she says. "It definitely shows the impact that film and video have today on the lives of teens and the medium they use to communicate."
Judging this year's submissions was a jury composed of film-industry professionals and others, including Sara Shepard, author of the Pretty Little Liars, The Lying Game and The Perfectionists series. All the winning films have already been selected and will be announced at a red-carpet awards ceremony Saturday night at 8 p.m. at Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center in Stowe.
Colavito notes that after her judges began reviewing the films, many immediately emailed or called her to express their amazement with the quality of the productions.
"What these kids are able to produce with the smallest video tool is unbelievable," Colavito adds. "I don't remember having so many friends doing these types of elaborate projects when I was their age."
The original print version of this article was headlined "Talent Scouting"
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.