Film festival features movies by christian teens

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Film festival’s "anti-awards" ceremony is serious business

by Myra Holmes  

Beautiful people in tuxedos and finery spill out of limousines and stroll the red carpet toward the theater. Paparazzi scurry for the best angle. Emcees keep the ceremony moving with humor. Actors, filmmakers and directors view the films, hear the nominations and applaud one another. Some receive the coveted awards. It’s not the Oscars, the Golden Globes or the Tonys. It’s the annual Kern Youth Network Christian Film Festival, held March 8 this year, featuring the finest creative filmmaking by Christian teens in the Bakersfield, Calif., area.

Joe Brown, youth pastor at Heritage Bible Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Bakersfield, gets credit as founder and director of the festival. Brown was on the lookout for ways to reach out to teens and noticed a gap in opportunities in the creative arts. After consulting with other area youth pastors through the Kern Youth Network, a cooperative youth ministry, Brown hit on the idea of a film competition—what he calls “a mockery of the Academy Awards.”

“Movies are just fun,” Brown says. “I saw it as a good, relevant way to minister to kids, and it seemed like no one else was doing it.”

15 years and counting

The first festival featured just a few films at a local church, with local celebrities as guest speakers. It was enough of a hit that Brown thought it was worth trying another year. And another. And 15 years later, he’s still at it.

Each participating youth group may submit up to three 10-minute films, and each film must be produced by a team of teens, not individuals. That, says Brown, is to encourage teamwork. “It’s a great way for the kids to learn to work together,” he says.

Teams work hard together. One Heritage Bible participant explains that the process for their film began in July, included shoots at 3:00 in the morning and lots of caffeine and required at least 100 hours of editing.

Fall workshops, initiated in 2006, give teen filmmakers opportunities to learn from industry professionals as they work on their films. Prescreening ensures that entries are wholesome and appropriate.

Films are judged on spiritual statement as well as creativity, production quality and originality. Integration of a Christian worldview is essential, and the rules encourage entries that “bring into captivity every frame to the obedience of Christ.” Judges include professional actors, producers and directors.

Putting on the ritz

While Hollywood takes the various awards ceremonies quite seriously, Brown says, “We go over the top to make fun.” Organizers and teen filmmakers alike “put on the ritz and the flash” to poke fun—thus the red carpet and paparazzi. The festival’s location, in an ornate historic theater boasting the largest screen in Kern County, adds credibility and “a level of Hollywood atmosphere,” says Brown.

Sponsors, including Fresno Pacific University, the Mennonite Brethren-owned university based in Fresno, Calif., donate cash for prizes, which are awarded on giant-sized checks in odd amounts: $543.21 for first place, $509.87 for second and $465.32 for third. That, too, spoofs Hollywood’s “obsession with awarding themselves,” as Brown says. Oscar-like trophies are awarded in categories such as best actor/actress, screenplay, directing, cinematography, editing and sound, among others.

Folks seem to enjoy the over-the-top fun of it all. This year’s festival drew the largest crowd so far, with over 500 teen filmmakers, friends, family and fans attending.

But all the fun has a serious side. For some, the festival is a creative encouragement. For others, it’s a spiritual encouragement. For still others, it’s a springboard for influencing a not-always-wholesome segment of American culture.

"Encourage all"

Brown’s mantra is “encourage all.” He says, “Some kids, for instance, that might not win anything, learn that it’s not about the fame or the prizes. It’s just doing a faithful job of expressing their creativity and keeping their faith. Hopefully we can encourage them toward that.”

For the sake of encouragement, every nominated entry is recognized and applauded, win or lose. Even those teams that aren’t nominated are told to “keep trying.”

Brown says, “God gifts people in creativity and sometimes it just needs to be kindled, fanned into flame. I’m hoping this will awaken an interest in a gifted area and maybe they’ll just fly from there.”

Although a single annual event has only a limited impact on spiritual growth, Brown sees signs that it contributes. He’s noticed one team, for example, grow from pride in their award several years ago to humility and a deeper expression of faith this year.

He compares spiritual growth to building a wall, brick by brick. “Maybe this is just one of those bricks that helps them build their faith.”

Impacting the industry

Brown hopes that the festival will be a springboard for positive influence in the film industry. “What if we could not only have an expression of creativity, but influence rather than be influenced?” Brown asks. “Hollywood has a tremendous influence on our whole society; why not see if we can pay them back a little, reverse the trend?”

One former participant and current festival judge now works for the major production company DreamWorks, where he boldly proclaims his faith. Others have gone on to careers in acting or film production with local companies, and Brown says they exemplify an uncompromising faith in a sometimes compromising industry.

For this year’s festival, Heritage Bible youth entered two films, one produced by high school students and one produced by junior high students. The high school students walked away with second place for their film, “At the End of Silence,” as well as awards for best directors, best application of a biblical theme and best visual effects. The film, co-directed by Hannah Brown and Patrick Snitchler, follows two friends, one a Christian and one not, who die at the end of the film. As they converse in the afterlife, the non-Christian confronts the Christian about missed opportunities to share his faith: “Why did you never tell me?”

Hannah Brown says the team wanted to go beyond a cliché story about inviting a friend to youth group where he might accept Christ. “We wanted to show the opposite story,” she says.

The junior high entry, “Unheard,” dealt with two teens, each faced with the choice to ignore the needs around them or to help. Although their film didn’t win an award, the festival’s goal to “encourage all” seems to be working; already the students are generating ideas for next year’s festival.

Faith on the screen

Hannah Brown says the festival has encouraged her to share her faith in creative ways. She says, “The movies shown may be the only way one person in the audience will hear the gospel, and if we can get that message across and perhaps help someone come to know Christ, then we have been the tools God has used to bring one more person into his family.”

Hannah has been involved in the festival for about 10 years, first as a trophy girl, then as a filmmaker, but she won’t be back next year. Instead, she’ll be at college preparing for a career in the film industry. “I will be taught not only how to make professional films, but also how to share my faith through the films and my life once I enter the working world, perhaps even Hollywood,” she says.

Maybe, just maybe, Hollywood will learn a thing or two as a result of this “over-the-top” spoof after all. 

Follow plans for next year's Christian Film Festival.

Click here to view 2009 films.

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