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Winning top honors in a nationwide film competition was the culmination of four years of dedication for a talented, enthusiastic group of students from Williamsburg Christian Academy (WCA).
“Like most creative projects, [winning the contest] didn’t happen because they just did one good thing,” said Dianna Lindsay, an honors-level history and civics teacher at WCA.
The Duralife Unlocker Challenge national video competition asked middle and high school students from across the country to submit films demonstrating the theme of inclusivity. WCA’s winner team received $7,500 worth of scholarship money and $50,000 worth of new lockers for their school.
A group of 14 students in a leadership class at WCA decided to try their hand at the challenge, which required them to braid together in just two minutes of video 10 concepts relating to inclusivity at WCA.
Though the leadership class were the masterminds behind the project, the entire school got involved in the filming. The winning team members believe the sense of community they captured in footage taken throughout the school is the key to why, out of the 340 schools across the country that competed in the Unlocker Challenge, WCA took home top honors.
The $50,000 prize will buy the school about 250 new lockers, which Lindsay hopes will be installed over the summer. The $7,500 in scholarship money will be divided among the all the seniors who worked on the project.
The Unlocker Challenge earned the students their largest prize, but it was not the first national film competition they have entered. In fact, it was not even the first one they entered this school year — the group also took home honors in C-SPAN’s StudentCAM competition.
Both projects the WCA students worked on this year built on the skills they began developing four years ago with the creation of a journalism class that required them to create virtual docent videos for some of America’s prominent monuments, memorials and museums. The students’ enthusiasm for working behind and in front of the camera guided the class into its current iteration — a leadership class with an emphasis on filmmaking and civics.
Filmmakers first entered contests in 2014
The class first entered a national student filmmaking competition in 2014, when Lindsay challenged her students to create a submission for C-SPAN’s annual StudentCAM competition. Each year the contest challenges middle and high school filmmakers to create a video around a specific theme, usually relating to a political issue.
That first group of WCA students used their own footage and clips from C-SPAN’s archives to create a video focusing on problems with the nation’s infrastructure. The group took third place in the East Coast High School division of the competition that year. Their entry in 2015, focusing on Historic Triangle’s Colonial Parkway, received an honorable mention award.
Four students who have been in the class since it began returned this year as seniors, and they came prepared for one last try at the C-SPAN competition.
Joshua Wert, Caroline Nice, Elisabeth Powell and Isaac Davis comprised the core group of filmmaking veterans who set to work on their final entry last September, as soon as this school year’s contest theme — What issue would you like to see the presidential candidates discuss? – was announced.
Joining the returning seniors for the 2015-2016 class were Carter Bruck, Mae Balco, Logan Winger, Kyle Cardenas, David Cook, Lindsey Flanagan, Ryan Lopez, Amy MacLean, Anah Taylor and Abbey Terracina. Together they worked on both the StudentCAM contest submission and, later in the year, the Unlocker Challenge film.
The group’s first hurdle for the StudentCAM submission was deciding what issue to tackle.
“We all came together and searched the hot topics right now in the presidential race,” Davis said. “What we were trying to do is find something that isn’t talked about that is quite controversial — something we can look into that we don’t know a lot about. It took us two weeks.”
After compiling a master list of 50 potential topics, the group settled on “death with dignity,” a consideration of the ethics and advisability of physician-assisted suicide.
Many of the students had never heard of death with dignity, but some were quick to take a personal stance.
“I remember when it came up on the board, I was like, ‘We actually have that? That’s a thing?’ ” Davis said.
The students had to set aside their gut feelings, either for or against the practice, and dive into researching the topic so they could fairly portray both sides of the argument.
Team built on strengths of each member
After researching the subject, they brainstormed the execution of their project. It was at this point that each team member’s unique strengths came into play.
“We all play a very different role,” said Nice, who was considered a specialist in scriptwriting and editing.
Powell, who described the team’s process as “each person using their own skill set to the max,” was tasked with keeping the production organized and coordinating visits with community members who participated in the video. Local faith leaders, doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals all shared their voices for the film through short interview segments.
“It was countless hours of setting up, filming and making sure our guests were comfortable with the topic,” Powell said. “There was so much help from the community.”
Some students helped out with filming and editing, while others got in front of the camera to guide the narrative.
The process didn’t challenge the students just as filmmakers — it pushed them beyond their comfort zone as thinkers. For Nice, who originally opposed the idea of physician-assisted suicide, that meant appreciating the nuances of the issue as she conducted her research.
“I wouldn’t say I have a set-in-stone stance on the topic now,” Nice said. “Originally, I thought it shouldn’t happen, but I see now (the issue) is more grey than black and white.”
The class spent the fall semester working on its seven-minute film and submitted the finished product in January.
No sooner had they wrapped up the C-SPAN submission than Lindsay asked them to switch gears and begin work on their submission for the Unlocker Challenge.
Though exhausted from the effort they put into StudentCAM, the students were enticed by the impressive grand prize and intrigued by the idea of taking on a more light-hearted project.
“It was much easier to write about this one because this is our school,” Powell said. “We’re all about family, all about helping each other out.”
While already proud of their work, regardless of the competition results, they gratefully received the news that came in March that they had once again received an honorable mention for their StudentCAM submission. Nearly 3,000 films were entered into the contest, of which only 150 placed or received honorable mention awards.
A month later they learned they’d won the Unlocker Challenge grand prize, capping off a banner year for the class.
“It’s been a beautiful process,” Davis said. “I don’t see many other high schools that have the opportunities we have here.”
Those who are headed off to college are confident they’ve learned valuable lessons through their involvement in the leadership class.
“When you’re younger you’re very embarrassed and (too) shy to shoot out ideas and worried about getting rejected,” said Nice, this year’s WCA valedictorian. “But we’ve gotten so much more comfortable.”
As their teacher, Lindsay is most proud of what the students have gained in terms of their intellectual development and confidence.
“You’ve got to teach kids how to stand up to a world that isn’t always polite,” Linsday said. “These students will be able to debate, discuss, slap ideas up on a board and defend them. That’s going to distinguish them from others.”
Click to see the C-SPAN StudentCAM submission, and check out the Unlocker Challenge video.