As the Seattle Jewish Film Festival gears up for its 10th anniversary of showing Jewish-interest films, the American Jewish Committee’s sister program, FilmTalks, is getting ready as well.
Now in its eighth year, FilmTalks brings 10thñ12th graders from high schools around the Puget Sound area to spend a day watching a selected film and then discussing it with their peers and program facilitators.
“We’ve got journalists, we’ve got people from the American Civil Liberties Union, we’ve got teachers, we’ve got people who are into conflict resolution, we have people that are working with Seattle Young People’s Project,” said FilmTalks coordinator Leslie Fried of her facilitator volunteers.
Around 300 students from approximately 20 high schools will participate in the March 14 film discussion at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle. Over the course of the program, more than 2,000 students have participated in the program. This year, however, will have an added twist: several kids from Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets, a local program that helps homeless teens, will participate in FilmTalks as well.
The program lasts for a full school day, and comes at no cost to students or the schools—with the exception of transportation. The AJCommittee, through sponsorships and other funding, uses FilmTalks to teach awareness of diversity and social issues, then urges students to apply what they have learned to their own lives. Bringing together students from different backgrounds to learn about different cultures, whether Jewish or not, fulfills the agency’s mission.
“FilmTalks is a diversity training program, and it does not have to be a film by or about Jews,” Fried said, though it is held during the same week as the AJCommittee’s Jewish Film Festival.
Fried said the program is special because of the way it’s presented. “They’re getting diversity they wouldn’t ordinarily get in the classroom,” she said. “They’re getting a chance to see a film on the big screen and have it discussed by people in the community and have it looked at very seriously.”
This year’s film, In America by director Jim Sheridan, is an autobiographical look at a family that immigrates to New York City and the hardships associated with coming to a new country. The 2002 film also examines the death of a child, birth, and the loss of a friend to AIDS.
“Through their experience in this new life, and through this particular person that they meet who’s also suffering,” said Fried, “they come to a heightened awareness and a resolution.”
Originally, FilmTalks had been preparing to show Ararat, Atom Egoyan’s groundbreaking 2002 production about genocide in Armenia. When Fried came on board, however, she decided that showing such a graphic movie to high schoolers with so little discussion time could be traumatic to some students. Her committee, which is made up of several of the facilitators and AJCommittee members, agreed.
“We decided that there were so many layers in this film,” Fried said, “that’s just not enough time to deal with rape and genocide. If the program had been a full weekend maybe we could.”
Though the committee agonized about dropping a film because of its graphic and difficult content, ultimately she feels they made the right decision.
“The two little girls in this film are so direct and honest and touching, hopefully [the students] are going to be thinking about family and love and how people could possibly get over something as horrifying as the death of a child in the family,” said Fried, “and through death can come life.”
When Fried first walked through the AJCommittee’s door at the beginning of year, she had planned on doing volunteer work, like she’d done in previous film festivals. Due to a last-minute staffing change and Fried’s career background, however, she ended up walking out with a job.
An artist by trade, she has spent many years working in the film and theater industries as a set painter. She also owns her own business, as a decorative painter. She said her life has always revolved around deadlines working with architects and designers, so getting FilmTalks prepared has been nothing new, at least from that direction.
Her training in cultural sensitivity comes from her personal life, however. For nearly 20 years, Fried has lived in a housing cooperative in Seattle.
“It’s the kind of situation where we have to constantly facilitate situations of mediation, we have to be aware of diversity,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for so long, I also have experience working with different kinds of people: different nationalities, different ages, different sexes, different sexual orientations.”
Fried is also hoping to put her artistry into a mural that students would work on. She said the details were not yet finalized, but she envisions a participatory project where students could write down their feelings about the film, and possibly extending the effort to the larger film festival.
Whether the mural gets off the ground remains to be seen, but Fried said she feels that In America, and the program as a whole, will be successful in making the students walk away with a new understanding of people different from themselves.
“We have hundreds of kids, and we want a point to be made,” she said. “There’s something for everybody in this film.”