Austin youth honored at community film festival

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Teen filmmakers from Austin’s Academy of Scholastic Achievement and other alternative high schools throughout Chicago were honored at the 5th Annual Chicago Youth Community Film Festival Thursday in the Chicago Cultural Center’s Claudia Cassidy Theatre.

Representing 11 Chicago alternative schools, 475 teens participated in a semester-long filmmaking class conducted by the Community TV Network. Sponsored by the Alternative Schools Network and Chicago Film Office, the films are intended to debunk urban youth stereotypes and are completely student-made, from writing the screenplay to directing and editing.

Thursday’s festival, titled “A Reel Look at Their Neighborhoods,” premiered 36 student films and presented filmmakers with awards such as Best Screenplay, Best Film on an Issue of Urgent Concern and Best of Festival.

“Our video shows other kids that it doesn’t matter what other people think; everybody’s the same, we all come from the same place, and nobody is better than nobody,” said 17-year-old Princess Seamsper.

A student at the Academy of Scholastic Achievement, Seamsper contributed to the creation of “High School Lows,” winner of Best Public Service Film.

Seamsper, who grew up in Austin and lives there now with her brother and son, said she acted in the film and helped write the script, which confronts the subject of peer pressure.

“I think I’m going to be helping people because a lot of people try to impress other people, which you shouldn’t do,” she said. “You should try to impress yourself.”

Seamsper came to the award ceremony confident her video would win.

The non-profit Community TV Network, founded 37 years ago, works in alternative schools throughout Chicago to give students access to digital media equipment and enable them to promote issues in their neighborhoods. All of the films produced through the program are required to be solution-oriented.

“This is necessary for our young people so they are able to articulate their issues and bring them closer to being good citizens,” said Denise Zaccardi, Community TV Network’s founder and executive director.

“To produce the video, they have to look around and say ‘How do I resolve this? What role do I play?’ That’s what good citizenship is,” she said.

Outside the alternative schools’ film program, Community TV Network has a number of programs that provide students with access to digital media throughout the summer and after school. The non-profit’s annual budget of $450,000, largely obtained through fundraising by Zaccardi, also allows for production of a weekly cable access show,Hard Cover: Voices and Visions of Chicago’s Youth,” one of nation’s longest running TV shows created entirely by students.

Community TV Network is in need of upgraded equipment though, Zaccardi said: “Having the best tools for our young people is the biggest challenge.”

“We want kids to be creative and use story-telling techniques, but our real goal is to look for solutions from positive images,” she said.

“When our kids finish a project, they graduate having produced these great videos and having won these national awards which promotes them to the next step in their education and makes them stand out.”

Several films produced by students through Community TV Network have received awards at national film festivals, including the Talented Teen Film Fest in Seattle and the Do It Your Damn Self!! National Youth Video and Film Festival in Boston.

Last year, the student film “Home Sweet Home” was selected a winner at Do It Your Damn Self!! Sponsored by Alternative Schools Network, a student and teacher team from Austin’s Academy of Scholastic Achievement traveled to Boston for the award ceremony.

“Most all of these young people have gone to public school and dropped out or been pushed out, which is a hell of thing to go through and can be very damaging,” said Jack Wuest, executive director of Alternative Schools Network. “This is a chance for them to expand their voices.”

“We give these kids a chance to succeed … We honor them for their hard work,” he said.

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