Pittsburgh Teens Make Movies to Change the World

In honor of the 85th annual Academy Awards, we take a look at programs for young filmmakers in the Pittsburgh region, where teens are using innovations in digital media and production to create their own award-winning documentaries about changing the future of Pittsburgh.

Hollywood is rolling out the red carpet for the 85th annual Academy Awards this Sunday. But in Pittsburgh, we’re celebrating our own local film talent – the city’s young people – who through a variety of innovative programs in the region are becoming accomplished filmmakers in their own right.

Teens in the Pittsburgh region are using digital media to write, edit and produce their own films, building skills, experimenting with new technologies, and expressing important ideas about the most pressing social and cultural issues of their generation.

The Steeltown Entertainment Project, for example, is encouraging budding filmmakers through their Take a Shot at Changing the World video contest. Now in its third year, the contest awards prizes to local middle and high school students for films that  “tell stories about people and movements that changed the world, and how they are inspired to act.”

The contest was inspired by Steeltown’s film, The Shot Felt ‘Round the World, which tells the story of how Jonas Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh pulled together with the city to conquer what was once the most feared disease of the 20th century—polio. In 2011 schools were given copies of the film and asked to make their own short movies connecting what happened locally with the development of the vaccine to present-day eradication efforts.

Since then, over 400 students from over 60 schools have made videos about how Pittsburgh has changed the world and what they would do to change their own communities, winning over $20,000 in prizes for themselves and their schools. Lenique Huggins, a middle school student at Falk Laboratory School, won the Heinz History Center Pittsburgh Innovation Prize last year for her short film “Lawrence’s Fight for Green.” Huggins wrote (& performed) an original song about Pittsburgh’s former mayor David Lawrence who fought for heavy restrictions on air pollution in the city in the 1940’s.  The film also suggests ways her peers can help continue Lawrence’s fight for a cleaner community by taking public transit, for example, planting trees or buying green electricity.

Awards this year will be given for videos in three categories: The People Speak Social Action Prize (a partnership with Voices of a People’s History), Pittsburgh Innovations, and Polio: Then and Now. Special prizes will also be awarded to films about the environment or nonviolence.

Organizers are hosting a Teen Oscar Party this Sunday at the Heinz History Center where local youth are invited: “Don’t just watch the Oscars, make your own movie!” The free event includes a Pittsburgh-Hollywood trivia contest and filmmaking tips from professionals. More information is available here.

Experts say these programs are crucial to building the critical thinking and media literacy skills young people need to succeed in today’s media saturated culture. They stress the importance of encouraging teens to be producers not just consumers of new media.

These programs are also an important part of the region’s unique learning model which aims to connect learning in and outside of school and encourage learning that is peer-supported, interest-driven and makes sure all young people have the opportunity to experiment with new technologies.

Steeltown is far from the only such media-making program in the region. If you have budding young filmmakers in your life, here are few more programs to check out:

  • The i5 Digital Video Competition at the Carnegie Science Center, a partnership with Pittsburgh filmmakers, is a digital video competition for middle and high school students. Students are invited to make a video of five minutes or less that shows how science, technology, engineering and/or math (STEM) are an important part of their lives. Watch this stirring documentary about natural gas drilling in the region by then high school senior Juliana Stricklen, who won the grand prize in 2010.
  • For the budding cub reporter, Pittsburgh Youth Media is an intensive youth journalism project that engages high school students in globally focused, investigative journalism and innovative media making.
  • The Pittsburgh Filmmakers/ Pittsburgh Center for the Arts Youth Media Program provides hands-on classes and workshops on everything from digital video to animation. They also provide media literacy and outreach programming to schools and other community partners.
  • And last year the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh held a OneMinutesJr workshop where participants, ages 12-17, where taught how to capture their viewpoints on video. OneMinutesJr is a youth arts initiative run by UNICEF.

More information on all of these programs are available at the Kids + Creativity Network directory.

Published February 22, 2013