Friday, April 8, 2011

Walbrook Film Project Teaches Students About More Than Holding a Camera

Filmmaker and volunteer instructor Josef Sawyer addresses the audience.

Arts, community, violence, conflict resolution, history, memory: these were some of the topics explored in three short films by 10 young artists whose work was screened yesterday afternoon at the Walbrook Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

The films were part of the Walbrook Project, a student filmmaking initiative created by Felicia Pride, founder of The Backlist, and her sister Fellina. Using the Walbrook library as a hub, the Pride sisters recruited film instructor Josef Sawyer and other volunteer mentors and armed a group of middle- and high schoolers to document aspects of life in West Baltimore over a six-month period. Support for the project came from a $1,500 Ignition Grant* awarded to Felicia Pride in September 2010.

Learning the fundamentals of filmmaking gave the young participants a new perspective on the media they consume. "I learned how to properly take an interview, how to ask questions and film it," said one student. "[The project] changed my view of media and when I watch the news, I think about how to set up the cameras, how people don't hold cameras anymore -- everything's automatic."

Another student picked up the theme. "When I watch the newscast, I'm thinking about things like headroom, how to focus on person when they're talking," she said.

The experience taught the young filmmakers more than just the basics of framing, blocking, and editing.

"We learned to work as a team," enthused one of a trio of young women who collaborated to produce the film 'Walbrook: Heart of the Arts.' "I learned how friends can operate together in a work setting."

"I learned that Walbrook used to have a lot of businesses," reflected a young man who interviewed older community residents for the film 'Through Their Eyes: Elders of Walbrook.' "I didn't know we used to have streetcars. I learned that Walbrook can be a better community."

About 60 people, most of them community residents, attended yesterday's screening. Audience members praised the students for they way they applied the skills they had acquired, and encouraged them to dream big.

Felicia Pride (far right), Fellina Pride (second from right), and other mentors applauded the young people's accomplishments.

"You never know where [the study of filmmaking] might take you," said volunteer mentor Dankwa Brooks, who works in the media unit of the Baltimore City Police Department. "Media literacy impacts how we look at messages and the media we consume."

"It's good to see that youth who don't go to Baltimore School for the Arts can still create good art," asserted a man in the audience during a question-and-answer session, drawing heartfelt applause from the crowd.

Participating in the project gave the students an opportunity to delve into particular aspects of their lives and the life of the city.

"We wanted to see how arts impact the community," explained one of the filmmakers behind 'Walbrook: Heart of the Arts.' The film features interviews with members of WombWork Productions, a grassroots company that promotes healing and empowerment through dance, theater, and other forms of creative expression.

Another film, 'Two-Way Mirror: Walbrook,' opens with a shot of two teenage boys playing ball on a grassy field on North Hilton Street, while police sirens blare in the background. The boys are approached by another pair of young men who demand the ball. When the demand is refused, a chase and scuffle ensue, culminating in a fight scene that is unsettling in its realistic depiction of violence.

"We wanted to present what we see every day in the 'hood'," explained one of the filmmakers, who put air-quotes around the word 'hood.' "This is what happens outside of school, and sometimes in school. The violence is getting worse and worse, closer and closer to where you live."

Despite its grim subject matter, 'Two-Way Mirror' ends on an optimistic note. After the beating scene, a title card appears that reads, "what should have happened..." The film then rewinds to the point where the "gang members" (as they are listed in the credits) ask for the ball. Rather than refusing them outright, the owner of the ball agrees to give it to them, on the condition that the four boys play with it together. The film closes on a scene of both pairs of young men tossing the ball back and forth.

While 'Two-Way Mirror' shows a reflection of West Baltimore's youth, 'Through Their Eyes: Elders of Walbrook' offers a portrait of three of the community's older residents.

"I love the city," says S. Bunjo Butler in the opening scene. "Everbody I love is here." Butler, who is the manager of the Walbrook Library, and who was on hand for yesterday's screening, goes on in the film to lament the "heartbreaking" changes he has witnessed to his community over time, i.e. increases in crime, drug activity, and poverty.

Despite these concerns, Butler and his fellow older adults express hope for the future. "In twelve and a half years, I'll be 100 years old," says a surprisingly spry-looking Herman Pittman in the film. A local businessman who owns several properties in the area, Pittman envisions the restoration of North Avenue into "a Main Street." Education is the key to that revitalization, he says.

Some of the reminiscences of the older people profiled in 'Through Their Eyes' provoked warm responses from the audience. "We had Arundel's Ice Cream," recalls an interviewee, who goes on to talk about how racism kept her from going to certain schools and eating at a particular restaurant. The mention of the now-defunct ice cream parlor prompted fond chuckles and murmurs of "Oh, yeah!" from the crowd.

Asked what he learned from interviewing older adults, one of the filmmakers responded, "One of the things I learned is how Baltimore was back then. And Baltimore is still changing now, so hopefully...I'll be able to tell someone who's sitting in my seat how it was back in my time."

Another young project participant said that listening to older members of the community caused her to see the economic potential in her neighborhood, and that she was now inspired to obtain a college degree in order to help realize that potential.

One young woman admitted to feeling overwhelmed by the choices facing her. "When someone asks me what I want to do when I go to college, I don't know what to say, because I want to do everything," she laughed.

Such sentiments were clearly music to the ears of the adults in the room, particularly the many proud mothers in attendance. One after another, family members, mentors, neighbors, and visitors rose to commend the young filmmakers on the works they had produced, and to encourage them to keep achieving.

The young dreamers blushed and smiled.


The three short films will be available for viewing online in the near future. They will be linked from this site.


*Full disclosure: I am a member of the Ignition Grant review team.


  1. Thanks so much for this wonderful article and for supporting the young filmmakers. We appreciate it!


  2. A job well done ladies. Its nice to see that the world is noticing all that you do and are achieving.