At 16, Siena Tan is on a filmmaker Quentin Tarantino kick. She’s also thumbing through textbooks and reading the works of film editor Walter Murch, who helped bring films like Apocalypse Now and The English Patient to life. She wants to be an editor.
“For the last few years, I’ve been pretty certain I want to work in the film industry, that I want to go to film school,” said Tan, who is a student at The MASTERS Program in Santa Fe. “Movies have just been one of the only constants in my life, I think.”
She’ll get a chance to try it out more, as Tan joins dozens of other students statewide who are getting ready to participate in a short film festival expanding to New Mexico from Louisiana.
It’s called Film Prize Junior New Mexico, and some students are already writing scripts and fleshing out ideas for short films to air at Santa Fe’s Jean Cocteau Cinema in late April.
The effort is backed by the Film Prize Foundation in Louisiana and the film industry nonprofit Stagecoach Foundation in Santa Fe. The Public Education Department is partnering with Film Prize as well.
Stakeholders hope the festival will interest more young people in the local film industry and leave them eager to make the leap to higher education after high school.
Tan is on a student advisory committee for the festival, led by Film Prize Junior New Mexico director Rosey Hayett of Taos.
“I think they thought it was a good idea, and I agree, to have the input of kids my age in how things should be run,” Tan said.
As The Masters Program is a dual-credit option for high schoolers through Santa Fe Community College, Tan and her peers are working under the advisement of the college’s film program department head, Milton Riess.
The students began with a heady film concept: to explore the tensions between natural talent and hard work, the lives of people dubbed “child prodigies” and others who struggle as they move through the education system.
But as October has arrived, Tan said, the group is looking at a comedy-based film about high school tropes instead. They feel it will be easier to capture the theme with the three- to 10-minute time limit they’re working with.
“Because it’s a bit simpler now, it gives us a lot more room to play around visually,” Tan said.
Next, they’ll begin writing their script.
Cameron Sperry, who teaches at New Mexico School for the Arts, is about to start her students on a two-quarter-long unit that will focus on film analysis and screenplay writing. Through it, her students will each develop a short film for Film Prize Junior New Mexico.
“We haven’t started the unit yet, but they’ve gone ahead to start writing their scripts and script ideas,” she said in late September.
Sperry said film is a great vehicle for lessons on author’s choice and to teach students how to back up their arguments with evidence.
“It can more easily involve more students. It’s hard to get a class of 30 to all be involved in a novel, for example,” she said. “So being able to show films in class, there’s more accessibility that way. All of us watch the film together. We can discuss the film together.”
Louisiana-based director and producer Gregory Kallenberg founded the original Film Prize competition in 2012 in Shreveport as an annual short film festival. It’s open to filmmakers from all over, with the stipulation that they shoot their work in northern Louisiana.
“We’re this bright little corner of Louisiana,” he said. “If you’re an independent filmmaker, and you’re in the area and have an inkling to do something, you come to Shreveport to do the work.”
A few years later, his son proposed making an iteration of the festival just for students in Louisiana.
“The idea was to bring kids along through the process of filmmaking,” Kallenberg said. “It’s all about collaboration, it’s all about communication. It’s all about teaching soft skills.
Hayett and Kallenberg are eager to roll out a red carpet at the Jean Cocteau Cinema for New Mexico’s middle and high school students in April. All films are set to be shown before a jury. They will be judged using a matrix, and categories will depend on how many films are submitted.
The students with the top-rated short film will take home a $2,500 media grant for their school, and prize offerings might expand as the year goes on. But Kallenberg stresses that the program is more about the experience gained by completing a film.
In the meantime, Hayett is focused on connecting with participants from Shiprock to Las Cruces to make sure they’re able to access editing software and equipment. He’s also hosting virtual workshops and film nights for students.
Registration opened in early September for students and their teacher sponsors who are interested in joining Film Prize Junior New Mexico.
Hayett noted that while some students might have access to materials, others are in rural areas with no equipment.
“Our goal is to, as best we can, leverage the resources, level the playing field and provide the opportunities so that these kids will have the tools to be successful,” he said. “It may look different in different classrooms.”