By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com
Spotlight: Outreach and Education at the Sarasota Film Festival
I’ve been meaning to check out the Sarasota Film Festival for a long time now, and it looks like this year I’ll finally be heading to Florida (my first time ever to set foot in that state, believe it or not) to check it out and serve on a jury for the fest.
One of the things that intrigued me the most about SFF as a regional fest is that it has one of the most expansive and impressive Outreach and Education efforts I’ve seen at a fest of this size. Since I’m particularly interested right now in the role of regional fests in reaching young people and exposing them to a world of cinematic experiences broader than what they’d likely be exposed to in mainstream theaters, this seemed an important fest to take a closer look at.
Allison Koehler, SFF’s director of Outreach and Education, very kindly agreed to take some time out of a very busy schedule prepping for the fest to allow me to pester her with a few questions. I’ll be checking out some of the fest’s education programs myself while I’m there, too, so there will be more to come on this later. In the meantime, here’s our interview, conducted via email:
KV: What was the impetus for Sarasota to develop such a strong O&E program?
AK: Sarasota is widely known for being a community passionate about the arts. Between the Sarasota Opera, Sarasota Ballet, Sarasota Symphony Orchestra, Ringling Museum of Art and the College of Art and Design, the Historic Asolo Theatre, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and many, many other arts organizations and venues, Sarasota is truly a hub for intelligent, enthusiastic, and media-literate art supporters and consumers. The Sarasota Film Festival very naturally fills the role of offering the very best in film. As a non-profit organization, we have an obligation to our community to provide outreach and education opportunities that would otherwise not be available.
The school systems in Sarasota and in neighboring Manatee and Charlotte counties put a very strong emphasis on arts education. There are a great deal of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) programs and a high number of television and video production courses available at all grade levels. Again, very naturally, SFF is able to support the innovative education that is already happening here in Sarasota by providing additional opportunities for the area’s promising young media-makers.
We also do outreach in the community through extensive partnerships. Over the past few years, we’ve partnered in programming with the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee, GCC UN Women, the Sarasota Opera, and Sarasota’s LGBTQ Fabulous Independent Film Festival by offering film sidebars, networking opportunities, workshops and panel discussions, and conversation series within our festival to strengthen the fabric of the area’s arts community and introduce visiting artists, industry, and press to each other and to our local constituency.
KV: You do O&E both in and out of classrooms. In what way do you coordinate with school districts to reach students in the classroom? Do you partner with other educational not-for-profits in outreach?
AK: We work closely with the Board of Education, school principals and other administrators, and more often than not, directly with individual educators who are looking to integrate film studies into their curriculum. We also partner with local community and not-for-profit organizations to collaborate on film and event programming, promotional support, and outreach opportunities to strengthen and unite our community as a whole.
The festival’s community partnerships have included: ALSO Gay Youth Services, Community Foundation of Sarasota County, First Step of Sarasota, Florida Film Commission, Florida Studio Theatre Improv Troupe, Florida West Coast Symphony, Film School of Florida State University, FSU/Asolo Acting Conservatory, Girls Inc., John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Manatee Community College, Manatee County Arts Council, Museum of Asian Art, Ringling School of Art and Design, Rowlett Magnet School for the Performing Arts, Sarasota County Arts Council, School Board of Sarasota County, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, United Nations Development Fund for Women, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, YMCA Community Coalition for Children, Young Professionals Group of the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce among others.
Kim Voynar: Has your fest developed an actual written curriculum in some format, a template that you follow year to year? Or do you develop a new curriculum each year depending on the interests of the students?
Allison Koehler: Our Outreach and Education Department designs curriculum based on the program offerings for the year. We have a general outline for each program and then tailor the curriculum specific to the year’s focus.
For example, our Reel Life Studio program at its most basic is a hands-on filmmaking program for high school students. Each year, we place special emphasis on a niche area of filmmaking in an attempt to introduce areas that students may not have exposure to in their school media arts classrooms. In 2009 we focused on documentary filmmaking. Last year we chose Dogme 95 and this year we’re taking a closer look at the audio/visual relationship by having students create a short film around a piece of instrumental music. The structure of the program remains the same. Generally, the program starts a little over a month before the festival and we meet as a large group two or three times where we outline the program and its guidelines, teach the history and theory behind the program’s focus, and hold workshops that include screenings, writing and pitching sessions, and review.
Other programs like our Junior Jury and Classroom Critic programs also keep the same basic structure and curriculum but have changing content relevant to the year. Both programs focus on film review and our goal is to expand the curriculum in each program each year as our department continues to grow.
Traditionally, the Junior Jury is responsible for screening all of the youthFEST short films programmed for the year’s festival and charged with determining the winner of the official Best Family Short Film Award presented each year at our Filmmaker Tribute. Over the years, we’ve developed and continued to modify screening review forms specific to the program and add elements that further increases student participation. For example, this year, the Junior Jury members are also responsible for writing written reviews, conducting interviews with filmmakers, screening and reviewing feature films, assisting in curating the youthFEST short film programs, and blogging about the process.
Classroom Critic was developed as a supplement to Junior Jury so we could reach more students. For this program, we design a film review curriculum and distribute it to participating middle school educators who incorporate our materials into their existing teaching format. This began with a simple guide to film review and now has the original guide plus additions like a screening review form, film analysis question prompts, film review suggestions and tips, and a glossary of film terms.
KV: You also do a lot of O&E that seems to be year-round — the young filmmakers and screenwriting programs, for instance. Are these programs entirely run by Sarasota staff? Volunteers? How do you manage such a large O&E program?
AK: The majority of our educational programming runs from December through the end of the festival month (April). Our goal has always been to expand into full-time, year-round operation, but with the way the economic climate has been over the past few years, as I’m sure is the case for many arts organizations, our dream has not been able to be fully realized yet. However, things are looking up! This year we were able to bring back our popular Moonlight Movies series which provides the tri-county area with evenings of free family-friendly film programming. We had a fall/winter line-up at the end of last year, a full spring schedule, and are working on finalizing the summer series now.
Many of our programs and much of our curriculum has been integrated into area classrooms which, of course, operate outside of the festival timeline. Phoenix Academy, for example, has created a screenwriting mentor group within their school to continue supporting the student writers who have participated in our programs and those who have a general interest in the subject. Booker Middle School educators are using parts of our curriculum throughout the year as a way to merge film and media studies with the english, literature, and language arts curricula they already have in place.
Our programs are created, designed, managed, and taught entirely by our Outreach and Education Department staff which currently includes two full-time staff members– myself as Director of Outreach and Education and our Production Manager George Denison– with support from part-time Program Coordinators Lacey Sigmon and Datev Gallagher, and Production Assistant Mohamed Younes who work for either intern credit or stipends. Volunteers are also essential to the successful operation of our department as they provide valuable support with distributing curriculum, organizing outreach efforts, event staffing, and more. How do we manage such a large list of programs? We put in a lot of hours!
KV: Your fest offers a really broad scope of educational programming at no cost to students. Is your program entirely funded by AMPAS grants? Do you have a staff person(s) dedicated to researching and writing grants to fund your O&E program?
AK: To my knowledge, we have received an AMPAS grant every other year since the department was created. We also receive funding from the Famiglio Family Foundation, Amicus Foundation, Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice, Publix Charities, and the Woman’s Exchange, and part of our department’s budget is paid for by the Sarasota County Tourist Development Tax Revenues. Additionally, a portion of our funding comes from corporate and individual donors. Our festival staff works closely to research and write grants to fund the O&E Department.
KV: And finally, looking at regional fests generally, what do you see as the role of O&E in building and growing a solid regional film fest?
AK: Generally, hmm. I think the role of any Outreach and Education Department, generally, is being the roots– the foundation of the building and growing of a regional film festival into a solid one. Two of our overarching goals in the department are to promote and proliferate community involvement in the arts and, through our programs, cultivate media-literate individuals. As our lives and the lives of young people are surrounded by, saturated in, and oftentimes overwhelmed with media, being able to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, and compute becomes increasingly more essential. Being a media consumer is unavoidable. Media literacy makes the situation an empowering one for individuals of all ages. By offering all of our educational opportunities for free– keeping them accessible for all– and focusing outreach on integration, we’ve really done a nice job in Sarasota of building and growing a solid festival and supportive community.
The Outreach and Education Department is also important in building a strong film festival because it establishes relationships with talented filmmakers very early on and continues to be a role in their success far beyond the time young people spend within one program or another. We’ve had so many students come through our programs and then, years later, submit fantastic work to the festival. They are making films and coming back. Our festival is not only part of the foundation from which they came, but we’re also a big part of their future as successful filmmakers.