Film on College Access Makes a ‘Statement’ at AFI DOCS Festival

By Mark Walsh — June 18, 2018 2 min read
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Every spring, the AFI DOCS film festival brings some of the best new documentaries to Washington, with several each year having themes of education or youth.

This year’s festival, held June 13-17 by the American Film Institute, upheld that tradition, and even put education documentaries in two of its most prominent slots.

“Personal Statement,” a film about three high school seniors at different school in the New York City borough of Brooklyn who serve as peer college counselors at the same time they are going through the admissions process themselves, was the subject of the festival’s opening night screening and party at the Newseum. I have more to say about that film below.

Another prime festival slot went to the filmmaker Steve James, a co-director of the classic 1994 documentary about high school basketball and more, “Hoop Dreams.” He was honored at the festival’s Charles Guggenheim Symposium for his body of work.

As I have discussed in this blog, James has a documentary series airing on the cable channel Starz this fall called “America to Me,” about the year he (and his multiple documentary crews) spent at Oak Park and River Forest High School, a single, racially diverse school in Oak Park, Ill. James aired the first, hourlong episode at AFI DOCS. I’ll have more about that and the conversation with the director in another post, as well as discussions of some of the other education-related films in additional posts this week.

Personal Statement,” by director Juliane Dressner and co-director Edwin Martinez, seeks to focus on college access and the lack of meaningful offerings of college counseling at too many schools. The film follows its three subjects at a critical time in their young lives. Karoline, Christine, and Enoch are trying to keep their own college admission plans on track while spending time with slightly younger peers in their low-income Brooklyn high schools.

PERSONAL STATEMENT Trailer from Julie Dressner on Vimeo.

We see Karoline, an immigrant and a lesbian, adroitly confronting anti-gay attitudes in a classroom discussion. Christine has a natural interest in political activism, but she has to convince her mother of the wisdom of some of her college choices. Enoch, meanwhile, lives with his sister and has to track down his mother to get the forms he needs to complete a scholarship application.

None of these hurdles keep the vibrant, personable subjects from doing what they can to instill college goals in younger high school students who might not naturally be on the higher education track.

There is joy and heartbreak when the colleges respond to the three subjects’ college applications. Such moments always provide for drama in film, but “Personal Statement” is about much more than those responses.

The film will air on PBS in the fall, the directors said after the AFI DOCS screening.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.