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Trio of girl filmmakers ‘rock the world’ with strong voices

Audiovisual teacher Julie VanderLaan saw something interesting happen in her Byron Center High School classroom this year: When presented with opportunities to create and enter videos in competitions, her students — specifically the girls — stepped up to the challenge.

And they racked up the awards.

In their films, ranging from documentaries to short pieces packed with symbolism and catchy public service announcements, sophomore Alayna Arms, senior Emily Halverson and sophomore Morgan Weststrate are advocating for change and building awareness around big societal issues.

“These girls started taking on so many different causes and just really, really rocked the world,” said VanderLaan.

While a lot of ground has been gained since the days when women in film conjured images of  damsels in distress tied to a railroad track, females remain underrepresented in filmmaking. According to data from the New York Film Academy, of the 250 top-grossing films of 2017, women made up just 11 percent of directors, 11 percent of writers, 19 percent of executive producers, 16 percent of editors and 4 percent of cinematographers.

“You always see a lot of males jump into this field but not a lot of females, so to have strong voices from these girls … is a big deal,” VanderLaan said.

Alayna Arms

Taking it Global

Alayna, Emily and Morgan are young faces in what could be the next generation of filmmaking.

Alayna won a bronze level honor for her video “LGBT Rights In America: A Documentary” in the The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Video Competition. The international contest included entries of hundreds of films from across the globe.

“I personally have a connection with the community. I am gay and I have family members who are also in the community,” Alayna said. “This is something I am passionate about and I loved that I could show this story through film, which is also something I am passionate about.”

“That was huge because, again, this is an international competition (where) she turned around, took the initiative, entered it and ended up winning a bronze medal,” VanderLaan said. “Alayna is one of those individuals that can really change the world through her vision.”

A member of the school’s diversity club, Accept.Unite.Act, Alayna has also created a documentary about the group for new students.

Emily Halverson

Her Pictures Tell a Colorful Story

Senior Emily Halverson, who graduated in May, was a two-time “Best in Show” winner at the Michigan Student Film Festival for her animated videos, “Our Colorful World,” about diversity, and “Window,” about anxiety.  She also was awarded Best Animated Film for “Window.” The contest is often referred to as the “Student Oscars,” VanderLaan said.

Emily received a scholarship from Kendall School of Art and Design, where she plans to attend in the fall to possibly pursue digital media. Emily also won first prize in the K-6 – Celebrating Diversity category, targeted for a K-6 audience in the Meijer Great Choices Film Festival for “Our Colorful World.” Morgan and Alayna were top 10 finishers in that contest.

Meijer Festival winners also included Noah VanderMyde, who took third in K-6-Diversity, and top 10 finishers Gabriel Houseman and Peyton Hendges.

Emily said she started creating animated film this school year.

“I have a mental illness. I have anxiety and stuff and I just like to talk about it,” she said.  “I’ve always kind of kept to myself. I’m super introverted so I don’t really talk to people a lot. With my art I can express myself a little better, like through some of the characters I make and what they mean and by drawing stories. It’s kind of how I can communicate.”

From left Alayna Arms, Morgan Weststrate and Emily Halverson were all honored at the Meijer Great Choices Film Festival

Voices Share Perspectives

Sophomore Morgan Weststrate won second in the Spectrum Health Mosaic Mobile contest for her film, “Silent Voices.”

Morgan’s film touches on reaching out, and noticing when others do.

“Sometimes people don’t realize so many people are doing things for them and putting them first that they don’t even think about it,” Morgan said of the message she aimed to convey.

She and her classmate Lara Johansen also won the People’s Choice Award in the Mosaic Mobile 2019 juried short film competition for their video, “Through Different Lenses.”

“Anytime a student takes the initiative to go out and do something on their own, as a teacher it’s like, ‘Ahhh, they got it. Success!’” Vanderlaan said. “Morgan’s thinking at a higher level than you would expect a sophomore to think. She’s very perceptive on how people are seen and she’s also very perceptive on including everyone.

“Programs like Mosaic help students rip the blinds from their eyes and use different ways to see the world and convey their feelings.”

She is also a go-to producer for BNN news, the high school news program.

From left Alayna Arms, Emily Halverson and Morgan Weststrate have all won awards for filmmaking this year

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.


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