Ten years ago, Joyce Bower saw real talent coming out of the Byron Center High School audio-visual department. But Bower, who was then the managing director of Van Singel Fine Arts Center, realized it wasn’t getting the attention it deserved.
|Meijer Great Choices film festival
Submission deadline: Feb. 8
Judging: March through April
Winners: Announced late April
Awards event: June 1 at Van Singel Fine Arts Center, 8500 Burlingame Ave. SW, Byron Center
More info: Visit Meijer Great Choices
She and other members on the Van Singel Fine Arts Council who saw students’ work submitted for scholarships from the council, put their heads together. Could a student film festival become a new statewide outlet for students to showcase their work?
Two years later, what Bower remembers as “a grand idea” that required many partnerships soon became reality. Thanks to local connections to Meijer Inc., plus several colleges and other institutions, the Meijer Great Choices Student Film Festival was launched.
Students are challenged to create 30-second videos that are judged by college film school representatives and come with a big prize purse. The contest awards more than $21,000 in cash prizes to high school students, and more than $2,500 in K-8 classroom grants. The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, Vander Laan Family Foundation and Chemical Bank are legacy partners.
After several years, elementary school teachers wanted to get in on the action. The contest added the K-8 Junior for classrooms category, which require classroom entries.
“It is amazing, and it’s a real source of pride that it’s still growing and there’s still room to grow,” said Bower, who is now retired.
“The stars aligned in a really great way,” added Sara Bower, Joyce’s daughter and current managing director of Van Singel Fine Arts Center.
Celebrating Character through Video
Now in its 10th year, about 400 students statewide submit videos in the form of public service announcements in the categories of healthy living, celebrating diversity and building character.
The pillars of character — established because Joyce Bower wanted to tie the contest to education and skills that aren’t part of the curriculum — have remained the same, despite rapidly changing technology.
Many students use iPhones to film, and entries are uploaded and sent in online, compared to initial years when entries were mailed on DVD.
“For a lot of students it is not only a good way to dip your toe into filmmaking and inspire a new generation of filmmaking, it gives spine and real substance to a passion that could otherwise be seen as frivolous,” said Sara Bower. “It shows how powerful film and art can be when it’s applied in a really productive, community-driven way.”
Byron Center High School visual arts teacher Julie VanderLaan helped create guidelines for the contest. VanderLaan has had students enter the festival every year, many of whom have walked away with awards. She said students pour emotions into their work, learning to condense stories while creating strong, powerful messages. “I tell them ‘draw from your life,’” VanderLaan said.
Students benefit from having videos judged outside of school by representatives from Michigan colleges and universities that have film and media departments. “This gives them that platform to be seen on a large scale and grow from it,” Vanderlaan said.
Byron Center senior Lydia Oliver entered a video in the healthy living category about dealing with grief. It was a personal story of her grandfather’s death. “It was about how I miss him,” she said. “I put a different twist on it.”
She said creating the PSA challenged her to make a video that followed specific guidelines, which made it easier in a sense, too.