A day before viewers gathered around their televisions to see who would take home the Oscars at the 91st Academy Awards, teen filmmakers, judges and spectators gathered at Celebration! Cinema North to watch another film fête: the 13th Kent County Teen Film Festival.
“People get really excited just seeing what these teens can do,” said Tricia Hetrick, festival coordinator and an adult librarian at Kent District Library’s Cascade branch. “They’re extremely talented. It’s a chance for them to really shine.”
The festival, founded by KDL librarian Kelaine Mish, features films produced by Kent County residents in sixth- through 12th-grades. A panel of four judges — all local filmmakers — chose the winners in each category.
This year’s festival featured 23 short films, chosen from among 43 entries. Films varied from thrillers to a claymation documentary about the environment created by middle school students from North Park Montessori, to the one-student silent short “A Southside Journey,” which tackles the subject of gentrification in a city neighborhood.
The Teen Film Festival was the film-acting debut for Lee Middle School eighth-grader Jose Manuel Zavala, 14, who played sidekick Heath Hill to protagonist Jerry McHoover — played by former Lee High School student Luke McGee — in the film “In a Court of Life,” which won the People’s Choice award.
|Kent County Teen Film Festival 2019 Winners
People’s Choice: “In a Court of Life” (Lee, Rockford high schools)
Best Live Action Short: “Hidden History” (Rockford High School)
Best Director: Mariah Barrera, “A Southside Journey” (City High/Middle School)
Best Actress: Alina Pawl-Castanon, “Isolation” (Northview High School)
Best Actor: Luke McGee, “In a Court of Life” (Lee High School)
Best Ensemble: “Fight for Freedom” (Homeschool)
Best Documentary: “Deforestation of Amazon Forest, Copper Mining in the Upper Peninsula, Sandoz Chemical Fire…” (North Park Montessori)
Best Editing: Brian LeClair, “fly” (Homeschool)
Best Cinematography: “Pleasantview” (Rockford High School)
Best Original Music: Viet Tran, “Whispering Eye” (Byron Center High School)
Best Screenplay: “Hidden History” (Rockford High School)
Jose Manuel said it took the crew of teens one week to film the piece, which was written and directed by Luke. The film is equal parts comedy, crime drama and action.
“I just love acting, and acting is something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Jose Manuel of his experience. “It was really fun.”
He added that there were many good films, and he was both surprised and excited to have won the People’s Choice award. The experience is one he’d like to repeat.
“I could see myself doing this a lot more,” he said.
A Spotlight to Shine In
Hetrick, who organizes the festival with help from KDL staff Monica Whalen, a youth specialist at the East Grand Rapids branch, and Greg Lewis, a teen librarian at the Kentwood branch, said that the festival instills confidence in participants. It also gives them an opportunity to network with teens and representatives from film departments at local colleges, who are on hand at the awards event.
She added that the festival is a chance for students who may not get the spotlight for their athletic or academic prowess, but who excel creatively, to be recognized for their talent and work.
“My hope is that kids make friends who share their interest and they go on to make movies together,” Hetrick said. “That they find that they can take their talent somewhere.”
Winners took home a statue and a gift card to either Celebration! Cinema or the Apple Store. While the event is usually held the same weekend as the Oscars, next year’s festival bucks that trend and will be a once-every-four-years opportunity: It’s set for Saturday, Feb. 29.