Giving Young People a Voice

The Youth Documentary Academy gives high school students in under-served communities valuable media and documentary film training.

I was impressed and moved by the work of the first class of students, a remarkably vivid and personal set of films.

I asked YDA founder Tom Shepard about how his program got such remarkable results.

“Young people have great stories to tell,” Tom told me recently. “If you create an environment where they feel able to dive into their own lived experiences, and help them articulate these stories, first to themselves and then to each other, you hear incredible material.” Teaching filmmaking techniques gives the students the skills to share their stories through film.

Tom points out that students have “insider access” to their own stories, and can make films nobody on the outside could. In a powerful documentary about the effect of his father’s PTSD, student Bailey Francisco, through “unearthing and telling his story” was able to take ownership of that story and shine a light on a topic often avoided or hidden, even in military communities. The film has screened in several festivals, and earned Bailey the Pikes Peak Art Council’s ‘Rising Star’ Award. He’s also been able to use the film in his college applications.

YDA-1colYDA creator Tom Shepard is a documentary filmmaker and producer whose work includes Scout’s Honor, about the Boy Scouts working to overturn the ban on gay scouts (top awards at Sundance), Knocking, a film about Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Grove, a film he collaborated on with Andy Wilson about AIDS and the politics of remembrance. Before filmmaking he was a journalist, including working at NPR with Linda Wertheimer.

Tom grew up in Colorado Springs, and realized he couldn’t be a filmmaker in small town America. After 20 years in the Bay Area film community, he decided he wanted to try and bring documentary film skills to small town kids. Specifically his hometown, where he still visited family. “I wanted to find out if there’s room for professional apprenticeship and filmmaking in Southern Colorado,” Tom told me recently.

Working with the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and the Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Institute, the program’s first session was the summer of 2014. Helping Tom create a website for the program was a great project, because the students had so much to say. We foregrounded student work and let it speak for itself.

This year recruiting is going well, in part because the website gives potential students a visceral impression of the program. “It’s been a very energizing tool for us” says Tom, “as well as a great platform to help our first year students share their films.”

When we’re surrounded by such a frivolous media culture, I find it incredibly encouraging to see serious, earnest films being made by young people. I’d love to see YDA’s success expand, and look forward to this next generation’s stories.

By David Kerr | Filed Under: Client Stories

David Kerr Design