Senior year for most high schoolers is an incredibly busy time. Students are applying to colleges, making post-graduation plans, preparing for prom as well as making the most of their final year before heading into adulthood. For 17-year-old, aspiring documentary filmmaker Mia Lazar, her senior year has been busier than most as she diligently set out to create a film festival, giving young filmmakers an opportunity to tackle social justice issues through art.
The following is a discussion with Mia Lazar.
Whose idea was it to create this festival, and what inspired them?
After going to several high school film festivals, realized how many students wanted to discuss anti-bigotry issues. I was also motivated by the right wing attacks in Charlottesville in August of 2017. I wanted to speak out, but more than that, I wanted to provide a platform for other students to have a voice. I decided to start the Filmshakers project, because a film festival would be more powerful than any film I could ever produce. It’s not just one person sharing their views, but dozens of young people talking about issues that are important to them. I believe that sharing films can increase understanding between people and bring them together.
How did you get involved with filmmaking and how long have you been doing it?
I’ve been making films since sixth grade, when I was told to make a yearlong project for National History Day. We could choose to do a paper, performance, website, exhibit or documentary. I picked documentary as my project because I was shy and thought I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. I was very wrong about that – I’d have to talk to a lot of people, mostly strangers — but I fell in love with filmmaking and used it to conquer my shyness! My sister Ava joined me in filmmaking soon afterwards, and we made our first film together when she was in fourth grade. We’ve been able to create films that send messages on things we care about – refugees, the opioid crisis, discrimination and women’s rights.
Why do you feel that a festival like this is important?
My sister and I both believe that film is the most powerful medium, especially among young people. We’ve seen how film shapes society, and how it’s worked to drive many social changes. Film festivals or video contests like Filmshakers, give young people a voice to speak out about current issues, a voice that many high schoolers wouldn’t have otherwise. Our generation is growing up at a time when public displays of bigotry and intolerance seem common, even amongst our leaders. High schoolers are affected by these issues, but we have limited representation in them because most of us are too young to vote. Nevertheless, it is important for us to be involved in peacebuilding and anti-bigotry efforts, because we can help dictate what the future will look like. Film festivals are a great way to empower high school students and give them a strong voice on issues in our nation.
This project received the digital young leaders exchange program grant. What is the grant, how did you get it and what was the process?
The Digital Young Leaders Exchange Program is an online exchange program that I participated in a few years ago. It was an incredible experience. My favorite part was Skyping people in Iraq, some of whom I still keep in touch with. The day of the 2017 Charlottesville events, my friends in Iraq reached out to ask me if I was OK. I was struck by the contrast between the love shown by them and the hatred shown that day.
The DYLEP program ends with each participant creating their own project to implement in their community. I thought of creating a film festival, but the idea seemed daunting. When I heard about the DYLEP grant, I felt it was my opportunity to make this happen.
How long has this film festival been taking place?
This is the first year that this festival has taken place, but I’m hoping that it will become an annual thing. My younger sister, Ava Lazar, wants to take over the project once I leave for college. We’re currently working on fundraising so that we can do it again next year.
How long did it take you to produce the festival?
I started working on the grant last September, so I’ve been working on it for over a year.
What challenges did you face with producing the festival?
I had never done something like this before. The most challenging part of producing the festival was getting the word out. Ava personally contacted high school film teachers across Virginia to let them know about the festival, and she was able to put up the event on sites to showcase video contests. This is where we got the majority of our entries, but we would’ve liked to have more outreach. Despite us contacting many news sources, the first media coverage we got was two days before the festival.
Why do you feel that film is a good platform to discuss issues such as bigotry?
The films in this year’s festival came from across the country – from California to New York to Virginia. Even though the filmmakers can’t all meet together in person, we are still able to listen to each other through film.
The film festival is just the beginning of the dialogue rather than the end. The hard work of the students can continue to be shared with others long after the day of the film festival.
What do you hope to accomplish with this festival
My main goal is to create a space where young filmmakers feel like their voices are heard about these topics. I want to create a place where students from different backgrounds and perspectives can share their experiences. I want people who are fighting bigotry to feel that they are not alone. And I want to create a place where people can spend some time seeing life from someone else’s perspective. This year, our first-place film was from a group of Muslim students who invited their community to join them in celebrating Ramadan, as a gesture of peacebuilding and increasing understanding. We’re hoping more people will watch their film so their message can spread even further.
Can you discuss the topic of bigotry? What does it look like to you? Why do you see it as a problem? Why is this an issue that you wanted to take on through film? What do you think high schoolers can do about it?
I think bigotry is one of the most important issues of our time. We’re still coming to terms with our bigoted past, and yet in some areas our bigotry is increasing. I’m really motivated by Ibram X. Kendi’s books. I have learned in the past year that trying to dehumanize others is the first step towards depriving the “other” of liberty, property or rights. I think we can see it happening in today’s politics. I’m really hopeful for the future. There are many in my generation who are working to change this. We have a lot of ideas and perspectives, but unless we happen to have an enormous social media following, we’re mostly just shouting into the wind. That’s why I feel like our generation needs a program like Filmshakers to recognize and amplify those voices.
My hope is to bring a voice to marginalized people, those voices who don’t usually get heard at all. Next year we’re hoping to increase our funding, and one of our hopes is to award lower-income filmmakers travel funds to attend the festival.