At New York City' s Video Center, Youths Gain Film Experience and an Education
By Millicent Lawton
NEW YORK CITY--Michelle Hernandez is learning firsthand that making a documentary video is not all high-tech fun and glamour. On this day, she and other high-school interns from the Educational Video Center here are in the basement of the New York Historical Society to shoot a documentary on black-Jewish relations. Ms. Hernandez is in charge of lighting.
The 17-year-old must position a floodlight on its tall, cumbersome metal stand, remain at the ready in case adjustments are needed, and then drag the light around as the camera operator and the rest of the crew, linked by cables, wend their way through the hot, crowded rooms.
Ms. Hernandez, a devotee of MTV who plans one day to have her own music-video production company, makes no secret of her disappointment in the relatively menial task, occasionally wearing a frown or rolling her eyes.
Pamela Sporn, an Educational Video Center instructor, takes note and gently reminds her how important each job is to the production of the tape, no matter how tedious or low-profile.
Toward the end of the two-hour shoot, though, Ms. Hernandez has a chance to indulge in her favorite aspect of video production-camera interviews.
Her demeanor changes remarkably as she fires questions with authority at the black and Jewish middle-school students who have just attended an event at the Jewish Museum, which is being temporarily housed at the historical society.
But even this segment of taping is not without flaws. Prepared questions escape Michelle's recall, and the need to wind up their field trip snatches some inter- viewees prematurely.
Although Michelle leaves the shoot visibly frustrated that things were less than perfect, the lessons implicit in such a taping-teamwork, deadlines, preparation, technical skills--are all among those that the E.V.C. staff hopes the students will take with them after their part-time internships.
"One person said they've learned more in a few weeks here than they ever have in school," says Ms. Sporn, the center's program director.
"It's nice," one intern, Richard Fields, 18, says of the program. "It gives you experience and it educates you as well."
Learning 'About the World'
Each semester at the center, 25 high school students, ages 14 to 20, learn to make broadcast-quality documentary videos, many of which have gone on to win awards in national and international festivals.
Through video production, which may take them away on location, the students learn "about the world--things that never would've occurred to them to try," says Ms. Fatimah Bennerson, 17, a student at Pacific High School in Brooklyn, supports her teacher's point.
Ms. Bennerson, who was a first-time director on the Jewish Museum shoot, recently found herself interviewing a fire chief. "I never thought I'd be interviewing anyone," she remarks.
During their three-and-a- half month unpaid internship, the students experience all aspects of video production--from research to final edit--and earn course credit at the same time.
The interns tend to be students at the city's alternative high schools, which serve at-risk and other students who have chosen a nontraditional school setting.
"Part of our mission," says Steven S. Goodman, the E.V.C.'s executive director, "is to serve students who ordinarily wouldn't have this kind of opportunity."
Unlike some students, whose affluent schools may even have television studios, "their schools don't have this," he says.
And alternative schools have traditionally been flexible about how students earn credit, Ms. Sporn points out.
Internship candidates need not have perfect grades or previous experience with video, but Ms. Sporn says the schools tend to look for applicants with a certain level of maturity and responsibility.
"The main thing I tell them is they have to be consistent in their attendance and they have to work as a team, listen, and share ideas," says Ms. Sporn, a former social-studies teacher.
The semester's group of 25 is split into two groups, with each team simultaneously researching, taping, and editing its own 5- to 30- minute video. Students work three hours each afternoon, Monday through Thursday.
The educational goals are fourfold, Ms. Sporn says. The students are to become critical media viewers, to use analytical skills to examine social problems, to improve their literacy skills, and to learn the technical points of producing a video.
Almost as important, it seems, is the life the tapes have after they are made.
The @.v.c. sells and rents its tapes to schools, libraries, and community centers through a mail-order catalogue.
The videos--which have addressed such issues as AIDS, crack, racism, homelessness, abortion, and the environment often have more relevance for their student viewers than commercially made films. By comparison, says Ms. Sporn, commercial videos "seem so corny, so formulated."
"The tapes the students do are very fresh and have a power that actors can't give to the topic," she says.
The student-made documentaries, whose awards line the walls of the center's Greenwich Village loft, have also been broadcast on local and national television, including PBS, ABC, NBC's "Today Show," and the Learning Channel.
In addition to the high-school program, the E.V.C. runs a summer institute for local teachers to learn how to use video in their classrooms, as well as a small project for college students who are graduates of the high-school program and who are now working on a documentary project for Bill Moyers to be broadcast on PBS next fall.
The idea behind the E.V.C. grew out of a documentary on South Bronx street gangs that Mr. Goodman produced years ago. Forgoing his planned journalism career, he began in 1981 teaching a documentary workshop at Satellite Academy, a Manhattan alternative high school, which is now a traditional source of students for the E.V.C.'s high-school program.
"I found that, putting cameras into the hands of the young people there and having them go out into the neighborhood, it had a tremendous impact on them," he says.
"They became very engaged in what they were doing," Mr. Goodman says of that early group of students, "because the issues were things they were directly involved with," including homelessness, drugs, and education.
After the program became clearly successful-the tapes were winning awards, the students were getting scholarships, other teachers wanted to learn how to use videos--Mr. Goodman scraped together enough funding and equipment to launch the Educational Video Center as an independent entity in 1984.
Funding for the center, which has an annual budget of $375,000, is a "patchwork" of state and private grants, the executive director says.
Cameras in Hand
True to Mr. Goodman's experience, interns at the @.v.c. get their hands on a camera early, according to Ms. Sporn. "Like on day two," she says, as they learn the basics in camera and sound workshops.
For these videophiles, the cameras and other equipment are not the typical home-video tools. The center uses the three-quarter-inch format of television news, rather than the lower-quality VHS format.
Once they feel comfortable with the equipment, interns work on small-scale "practice projects" so that they can learn the video production process from start to finish. All get to try their hands at glamorous tasks, like interviewing and directing, as well as more mundane jobs like lighting and "logging," or transcribing tapes.
"To shoot effectively, you have to understand the editing process," says Ms. Sporn, who has made her own documentary and has been both a student and instructor at the E.V.C.'s summer institute for teachers.
One big challenge the young filmmakers face is getting a dozen independent minds to agree on how to shape the documentary.
Although those at the E.V.C. do not label it "cooperative learning," Ms. Sporn says, "That's what's going on."
Agrees Ms. Bennerson, the student director: "A lot of different opinions have to work together, all have to come together as one mind."
If the group has a disagreement, she says, "You have to come together. You have to solve it."
'People of Worth and Value'
Similarly, the center also places an emphasis on writing, in addition to its visual focus, in order to help develop the students' critical-thinking and analytical skills.
The students make daily entries in a journal, and may also write about their reactions to footage shot that day or to supplementary material they have read.
Once a week, the center hosts a more formal writing workshop conducted by a representative of the Institute for Literacy Studies at Lehman College of the City University of New York.
In addition to helping build students' skills, the center provides an opportunity for the interns to experience--perhaps for the first time--success and recognition.
Producing a video "gives them a certain amount of power," Mr. Goodman says.
Not only can they immediately watch the product of a day's shooting, they can also take a completed tape home to show family and friends. "If they're recognized," Mr. Goodman says. "[They can show] they're people of worth and value."