Boston filmmaker and educator Nerissa Williams Scott thinks a sign hangs over her head that says, “Go talk to Nerissa, she’ll give you a job.” College students constantly track her down and together they figure something out.
Usually, those opportunities come through Williams Scott’s production company That Child Got Talent Entertainment (TCGTE) because it gets busiest during college students’ time off. But this spring, COVID-19 ground filming to a halt. Antsy, bored students still needed to make rent. As usual, Williams Scott jumped in to help.
From the midst of that chaos, as Williams Scott calls it, the inaugural New England Cellphone Film Festival was born. A trio of MassArt students dreamt up a festival that requires using widely available technology — a cellphone — and gives young people ages 15-24 something creative to do. Williams Scott offered to advise and house the festival at TCGTE.
Miguel Rincon, 17, had no thought of making a film until he heard about a summer youth job program that taught filmmaking. The program run by All Aces (with TCGTE and others as partners) outfitted participants with a cellphone, tripod, microphone and light. Now a senior at Roxbury Latin School, Rincon’s first film, a documentary short called "LoPresti Soccer," livestreams on YouTube as part of the festival. His film and the five other selections made by young people from Greater Boston stream on Oct. 1 at 6 p.m. and will be available to view online after the event.
Festival organizers called for shorts made by New England young people in four categories: documentary, narrative, rapid-fire (a la TikTok) and music/dance video. Williams Scott was surprised not to receive entries for the latter two categories. Yet the public reception for the idea overall, and the quality of selections the festival received, has made the team move from thinking this is a one-time local event to possibly making it national next year.
Rincon says he likes the concept that “anyone from any background can create and share” a cellphone film. He immediately thought of the soccer field in LoPresti Park near his East Boston home as a worthy subject. He says he used to go there every day during the summer. “Soccer and sports allow people to escape from anxieties,” he says. “I really wanted to show this special community we had.” In his film, Rincon talks to players from all walks of life about why they value the park’s ongoing pick-up soccer game.
Mae Dupré, a 24-year-old graduate student studying film at Emerson College, had only made one film entirely on a cellphone. That was five years ago. She heard about the cellphone film fest from a friend “in the know” and decided to shoot her cheeky narrative, “Home Movies,” while in lockdown. Dupré’s film-within-a-film pokes fun at the Western and other genres including the general trope of an uppity artist who orders her friend around. (Dupré plays the artist.)
“Home Movies” experiments with sound dubbing, effects and layering images. Dupré lets the audience in on the process by telling the other character not to worry about playing the guitar correctly because “we’ll dub that in later.” Dupré says she’s shocked by the lack of conversation around cellphone filmmaking in academic settings. This time around, she says she learned that “you can’t rely on being painterly, you have to really say something and not beat around the issue.” And she adds, “I think it’s the future. I think it’s liberating.”
Catarina Aragon Lopez, the educational coordinator at TCGTE, organized three film webinars as part of the festival to help young people understand the current environment. Conversations covered the effects of the pandemic on the film industry, the import role of women of color, and filming on a budget. For her, the pandemic brings special significance to a cellphone festival because young people “can’t shy away from what’s happening online. They’re using tech as a way to cope.” Because she knows young people can and do shy away from taking risks, she encourages adults to support young people who want to try creating content and sharing it on platforms like this festival.
Madelyn Taylor, a 15-year-old sophomore at Boston Latin School, calls making her short documentary about COVID-19 and education an “eye-opening” experience. For "Perspective: The Effects of COVID-19," Taylor conducted socially-distant interviews with peers and several adults, from her own head of school to a Wellesley professor to the general manager of the MBTA. Some subjects preferred Zoom, some talked to her in person.
She says making the film helped her realize how race factors into educational opportunities in particular. “I’m not a person of color so I don’t have to deal with the challenges people of color face.”
Like Rincon, Taylor also learned filmmaking as a participant in the All Aces summer youth job program. She says her family encouraged her to submit her first-ever film to the festival so she went ahead. “I wasn’t expecting to get selected,” she says. “I’m pretty excited.”
One takeaway that Williams Scott hopes to impress upon young people is that no matter what’s going on, “you can still be creative, allow the world in, and use your voice to be let out into the world.”
The 2020 New England Cellphone Film Festival begins streaming on YouTube at 6 p.m. on Oct. 1.