Youth Film Jam to put students in the shoes of critics



It's never too early to turn people into perceptive, discriminating moviegoers. Which is why next weekend's Youth Film Jam should prove equal parts public service and a fine time at the movies.

Scheduled for May 6 and 7 at the Maryland Institute College of Art's Brown Center, 1301 Mount Royal Ave., the jam - organizers are promoting it as the first annual, so let's hope this really is the start of something - will bring together students from 10 Baltimore city and county public schools to watch and discuss five films.

The students have spent the past couple months watching and discussing the films; next weekend, they'll watch them again, discuss their merits and deficiencies, then open the floor for questions and observations from the audience.

They'll be watching an impressive bunch of films, some of the best youth-oriented movies released over the past five years.

The list includes 2002's Whale Rider, featuring as Oscar-nominated Keisha Castle-Hughes as a young New Zealand girl challenging her people's male-centric ways; 2005's Mad Hot Ballroom, Marilyn Agrelo's documentary on a program that teaches ballroom dancing to New York City school kids; 2002's Rabbit-Proof Fence, Phillip Noyce's drama of two sisters forcibly separated from their aboriginal parents by Australian law and the girls' determination to find their way home; 2004's Turtles Can Fly, Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi's drama of young children struggling to survive along the Iraqi-Turkish border and facing an imminent American invasion; and 2001's Spirited Away, master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's tale of a young girl who finds herself in an enchanted land where her parents have been turned into pigs and greed seems to be the order of the day.

The jam is being presented by the Maryland Humanities Council, with funding from the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund.

"We're hoping that this really exposes the students to high-quality, youth-oriented films," says Karen Gallagher, a former director of development for the Maryland Humanities Council who is the key organizer for the jam. "They can go anywhere to watch films, but the goal here is to engage them in meaningful discussions about the issues that are conveyed in the films. There are important messages that are conveyed about social, economic, cultural and political issues."

The 24 students who will be on stage at MICA to lead the discussions are primed and ready to go. A few weeks back, they sat down to watch Spirited Away, most for the first time. All were impressed with the film, and their reasons went far beyond how it looked or whether the characters were cool or not.

For 16-year-old Marlena Weiss, a student at Western High, the movie is about the coming of age of its young central character. She begins the movie a self-centered child, Marlena notes, but is transformed by the sudden responsibilities that are thrust upon her. "All of a sudden, she's not a brat anymore," Marlena says.

For 15-year-old Jeremy Richards, a student at Lansdowne High, the movie was about realizing you can't do everything on your own, and that there's no shame in asking for and accepting help. "She had to listen, to get out," Jeremy says.

The Youth Film Jam ends May 7 with a 5:30 p.m. question-and-answer session with actor Giancarlo Esposito, a star of such films as Do the Right Thing and Mo' Better Blues, who is perhaps best known to local audiences for his role as Mike Giardello, the police-detective son of Chief Al Giardello on Homicide: Life On the Street. Here's hoping Esposito is ready for some probing questions from some nascent film fanatics.

The 2006 Youth Film Jam opens at 11 a.m. May 6 with Whale Rider, followed by Mad Hot Ballroom at 1:45 p.m. and Rabbit-Proof Fence at 4:30 p.m. Films May 7 include Turtles Can Fly at noon and Spirited Away at 2:45 p.m. All films are free and open to the public, as are the discussions that will follow. For more information, or to make group reservations, go to or call 410-685-0095.

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