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Let’s make movies: high school filmmakers in Schenectady.

The Sidewalks of Schenectady

Has anyone noticed the flyers plastered all over Schenectady informing the public of the city’s first annual film festival? Excuse me? Following in the footsteps of Schenectady’s filmic forefather, acclaimed director John Sayles, are a group of pioneering Schenectady High School students and three visionary teachers.

The idea for a film festival evolved out of the high school’s Blue Roses Theatre Company’s annual summer program of plays. During the school year, acting teachers Bill Ziskin and Tim Dugan, along with visual arts teacher Tom Sarnacki—none of whom had any formal training in film—began discussing a new approach to their summer program. They started recruiting students from their classes and advertised throughout the school. Some students were interested because they wanted to pursue a film or acting career, while others just thought it would be a fun activity. Under the guidance of these teachers, students wrote, directed, produced, edited and acted in six original short films focusing on life in Schenectady that, according to Dugan, “hit a bunch of different socioeconomic levels to represent the diversity of the city.” He explains that “these films are a celebration of Schenectady, versus a scrutiny of it.”

Thanks to the generosity of the Henry M. Butzel Family Foundation and a brand-new state-of-the-art Fine Arts Wing, students are granted the rare chance to portray Schenectady through their own eyes. “Many people perceive the city to be dead or in the gutter,” laments Dugan, “so it’s good that young people have an outlet to have their voices heard.”

The program has been an enriching and intensive learning process for the 40 some or so novices. Maureen Gaitor, the assistant director for the film Making Dinner, took a light and sound design class but was amazed by “seeing what exactly goes into making a film. I mean, we are using professional equipment that people in the real world use.”

Even more so than with the technical training, the students were able to learn a lot about themselves and their peers. Damar Brown, who would like to continue acting at college, enjoyed “the interaction with people and meeting new classmates.” Amy Hochmuth, the production manager for Making Dinner, thrived in her behind-the-scenes role, where she developed a knack for “dealing with different situations and having to solve them on the spot.”

Throughout the process, the level of commitment and motivation shown by the students has impressed the teachers. “The kids are very independent and creative,” marvels Ziskin. “We set them up and they take the bull by the horns.”

Not only was the program a unique opportunity for high school kids to get a taste of an academic area that is not normally available to them during the year, but it was also a chance for them to interact closely with the community to which they belong. From the onset of the program, the kids were sent to scout possible shooting locations, which forced them to talk to businesses around the city.

Gaitor states that the program is an excellent way to “showcase what we have in the city, and makes the businesses feel like they are involved with the students.” Apart from making new connections, some students were exposed to certain localities they usually avoid due to negative stereotypes associated with them. Gaitor was wary about shooting in Hamilton Hill: “I was nervous at first. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to find, but the houses there aren’t any different than anywhere else. That surprised me.” Hochmuth succinctly expresses the group consensus that “the hill isn’t as scary as it seems.”

The films encompass a wide range of genres, including two dramas, two comedies, an experimental non-narrative film and a documentary. City Sound Sight is an experimental collaboration between one music and one visual-arts student to “combine the two media into a nice marriage of images and sound,” explains Sarnacki. Senior Will Senisi composed seven original pieces and Kaitlin Isabella directed. Another film, Mosquito Girl, is a parody of the action-hero genre, about an urban legend who foils the evil plots of the criminal Rosloff. Schenectady Film Festival, or What You Will is a satire on a fictitious film festival modeled after the Eugene Levy-Christopher Guest comedies, such as Best in Show. The film documents the trials and tribulations of three filmmakers in their attempts to create their works of art. In good fun, the film also serves as a self-deprecating mockumentary of the students’ own efforts.

The other semi-autobiographical short, Making Dinner, is a serious portrayal of a low-income family who reside in a troubled section of the city. In an effort to reconcile with her father after a fight, a teenage girl from Hamilton Hill must take a taxi to the grocery store and buy the less-expensive store-brand food to make dinner. The film hits close to home for one of the writers, Ebony Sawyer, and the lead actress, played by Randolyne Mason-McGraw, who takes the bus to on-site locations. Dugan believes the film will “resonate with a lot of people because it is a true story. Her [the protagonist’s] objective and goals are noble and realistic.”

The documentary is an in-depth look into the history of Perreca’s Bakery, located on North Jay Street. The film is personally significant for Dugan because he use to live in the neighborhood. He frequented the establishment regularly, and cultivated a friendship with the owners: “It is a jewel in the city. When you walk in you feel like you belong. The family deserved to have their story told.” As Dugan discovered, Perreca’s is synonymous with Schenectady: “They represent an admirable tradition. It’s been an institution here since 1913.”

Unknown to many present-day inhabitants, Schenectady played a vital role in many historical eras. Borrowing a thematic device from The Red Violin, Patchwork uses a quilt as an extended metaphor to illustrate Schenectady’s integral presence throughout the generations; in each scene something takes place that lends character to the quilt.

The film begins with a young couple moving into their first apartment on Jay Street and the woman discovering the quilt at an antique store. Breaking away from a linear narrative, the film flashes back to the quilt’s genesis at a quilting bee on the Mabee Farm in Rotterdam during the 1750s. The next scene takes place in a house in the Stockade that is part of the Underground Railroad. The narrative then jumps ahead to the Roaring ’20s, the age of radio and flappers. Next stop in the journey is 1971, when three Union College students are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand, who are on location for The Way We Were. Sarnacki proudly declares that the purpose of the film is to “remind people of Schenectady’s rich heritage.”

The six short films will premiere Aug. 26 at the Agnes Macdonald Music Haven Stage in Schenectady’s Central Park, and will be shown again on Aug. 28 at the Black Box Theatre in the Fine Arts Wing at Schenectady High School. Showtimes are 7:30 PM. Admission is free.

—Tanya Leet

John Whipple

Arts Celebration

Local artist Yacob Williams (pictured) at the Celebration of the Arts Block Party this past Saturday in Albany’s Arbor Hill, working with teens on the design of a mural to be painted in the neighborhood. The party, cosponsored by Albany Restorative Community Justice, Albany Underground Railroad and Ten Broeck Triangle Preservation League, was held on North Swan Street between Ten Broeck Place and Livingston Avenue. This site, notorious in the press for its problems with crime and violence, was chosen to show how members of the community are trying to improve their neighborhood.

—Shawn Stone

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