Last fall, President Obama invited schoolchildren from all across the U.S. to create a short film on “The Impact of Giving Back,” and enter it into the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Young filmmakers responded enthusiastically, sending in more than 1,500 films.
Hollywood at the White House
Fifteen of those films were officially selected and screened at a special event in the East Room of the White House earlier this month.
“This is the second year we’ve hosted the White House Student Film Festival and it’s a great example of what happens when we unleash the skills and the imagination of America’s young people,” President Obama said in his opening remarks.
“These aren’t just great films but they’re great examples of how young people are making a difference all over the country,” he added.
The president was joined by educators, movie stars and other prominent members of the film community, who congratulated the students for their extraordinary achievements.
“I'm deeply honored to be joining all of you in celebrating the impressive artistry of these young filmmakers,” said two-time Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank.
Actor-filmmaker Kal Penn told the students, “You’ve done a lot that most people can never say they’ve done before and you’re here to win the accolades of that and we applaud you for that.”
Conservation from a child’s perspective
Among the 15 films screened at the festival was “Through My Eyes,” starring six-year old Noah Gue, who also narrates.
Against a wintery landscape in his home state of Montana, Noah talks about the importance of preserving the planet “from a kid’s point of view.”
The blond-haired boy with a missing front tooth is seen trying to ski on a thin patch of snow as he laments, “February in Montana at 9,000 feet... What a shame,” referring to the lack of heavy snow that’s typical for that time of year.
“My hope is that the pictures we are taking will inspire others to protect the environment,” he says at the end of the film that his parents helped produce.
Eight-year old Ewan Drum dresses up as a superhero and helps the homeless in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan.
His efforts inspired his friends, family and neighbors to join him as he hands out lunches, water and even warm coats to less fortunate members of his community.
“I know I’m making a difference when my super-friends smile and give me fist bumps,” he says in his film “Super Ewan,” which captures many poignant encounters between the caped superhero and some of the city’s homeless residents.
'The Impact of Giving Back'
While each film selected for the festival is unique, all shared a common theme - “The Impact of Giving Back.”
Set to a catchy tune, the film “We Starts With Me” stars second grade students at the Friends’ School in Boulder, Colorado, who share their thoughts about how they would make the world a better place.
Eight-year old Sadie Menendez says the project evolved from an original song into a film.
“We made a song and it was originally that song, then we figured out the White House Film Festival and then we started to make it into a movie, and then we won!” she said.
The film "C.H.A.M.P.S." is set to rap music. It was made by participants in the C.H.A.M.P.S. (Culturally Helping And Making Positive Success) Mentoring Program at Gary Comer College Prep on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois.
“We have 100 young men in the C.H.A.M.P.S. program and our number one goal is to expose the world to the positive message,” said the founder of the program, Vondale Singleton. “So you hear about the violence, you hear about the gun violence, the sleepless nights, the gangs, but these young men have proven to the world that they’re going to be the future leaders."
“We’re really proud and honored to be one of the 15 out of the 1,500” Singleton added.
C.H.A.M.P.S. participant and filmmaker Rishard Bournes, says he and his fellow filmmakers worked hard on the film project.
“If we can put in time and work some hours in the south side of Chicago,” he said, “and we can come to the White House, it shows that we can do anything we put our minds to and we can change the world.”
Fellow filmmaker Steven Burres concurred.
“400 hours is a lot of work, but watching that three minutes over and over again is almost the best feeling you’ll ever have in your life because you accomplished it,” he said.
“Chicago is perceived as being a very violent city,” said Pedro Almaguer, “so we wanted to show them that it has a positive side too.”
"When I look in my room and see the C.H.A.M.P.S. certificate on my wall, I'm going remember this day forever!" he gushed.
'The Archer Hadley Story'
High school student Archer Hadley, who has cerebral palsy, had a difficult time navigating the doors at his school in Austin, Texas. That frustration led him to raise money so his school could install automatic doors.
“I got stuck out in the rain and that was the inspiration for my project. I needed to raise $40,000 and I raised over $87,000.”
Hadley’s classmates made a film about his achievement.
“Archer Hadley did something just amazing,” said Ben Root, who produced, directed and edited the film. “He raised $87,000 to change our school and you got to capture stories like that. You got to tell stories with film and that’s what film is all about; telling a story.”
Telling a good story... and inspiring others to make a difference in their community, as these extraordinary young people have done, so effectively.
Away from the red carpet, just outside the White House, members of the C.H.A.M.P.S. team walked over to Archer as he was finishing up his interview with VOA, surrounded his wheelchair and broke out into the rap song from their film.
Archer Hadley smiled throughout, and afterwards was speechless.
That simple, spontaneous act of friendship and support captured perfectly the central message of the festival; to reach out to one another with selfless gestures both big and small, to make the world a better place.
Adam Greenbaum contributed to this story.