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Austin Film Society Program Trains Students To Direct Their Own Stories

Austin Price for KUT
Film Club students from Hart Elementary School stand on the AFS stage after a screening of their movies Saturday.

On a Thursday after school, Taylor Barron begins a new lesson. She hits play on a YouTube video and the infamous cello notes fill the room. They get faster and faster, then slowly crescendo.

She asks the class of Hart Elementary students what kind of movie the music belongs in.

"It will be in a scary movie," says third-grader Aubrey Macedo, "when something is trying to bite something." 

She's right: The music is from Jaws. It's just one score Barron, a local filmmaker, plays for the class during a lesson on sound design.

Hart is one of 11 schools in the city offering this after-school program sponsored by theAustin Film Society. The program is available to schools with a majority of low-income students.

The film club is one of Hart's most popular after-school programs. Twice a week, Barron teaches the students various film techniques and gives them hands-on activities. 

On this day, she shows the class a silent video she made of herself, doing tasks around her kitchen.

"I recorded this for you guys last night," she says. "I wanted you guys to have a good simple video for you to record sound to."

In the video, Barron walks into the kitchen, pours some cat food, sneezes, opens the back door and turns the pages of a book. Each student is assigned a sound and tasked with re-creating it to add to the video.

One student mimics the footsteps; one opens and closes the classroom door. Another will slurp up water like the cat in the video. 

Throughout the semester, the students build on lessons like these until they make their own short films.

Credit Austin Price for KUT
Hart Elementary third-grader Aubrey Macedo wrote and directed a film about immigration for the AFS film club.

Aubrey, who wrote and directed one of the films the class created last semester, says the hardest part about being a director was managing her classmates.

"I had to make sure everyone was in place," she says. "It was hard work because a lot of the kids weren’t doing their roles."

Her film was different than most of others created in the program, which featured zombie and alien invasions. She says she wanted to write something relevant.

"I wanted to make something serious, because of what’s happening in the world right now," she says. "So, I decided immigration."

Her four-minute film follows the journey of a family immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico illegally. Soon after the family arrives at a friend’s house in Texas, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents show up and ask to see everyone's IDs. 

The family doesn’t have papers, but one of the agents recognizes the mother. He remembers she was kind to him and decides to let the family stay.

Aubrey says the story stemmed from something personal: A friend of hers was recently deported. She says, however, that she chose to write a hopeful ending. 

"I wanted to end with a happy ending because my friend always writes to me," she says. 

Barron says when the students brought her the script, she recognized how filmmaking could provide a outlet for kids.

"They’re having to think about this in different ways," she says, "and I think that filmmaking and having them create their own stories about this is a really great way for them to deal with that."

To prove to the students that their work is important, AFS hosts a screening of the films at its theater. For an hour, the kids and their parents watch films about Pokemon and zombies.

There’s a lot of slapstick comedy, two evil clowns and a pretty impressive UFO landing. There’s also a lot of laughter. But during Aubrey’s film, it’s quiet.

Yolanda Gamble, who oversees youth programming with AFS, says Aubrey’s film is an example of what they want to see more of: kids telling their own stories through film.  

"We hope to get them to embrace their own stories and understand that they are unique," Barron says.

Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.