Home News and Features An Afternoon with the Vermont Youth Documentary Lab

An Afternoon with the Vermont Youth Documentary Lab

Noam Hessler, Violet Russell and Mira Pompei. Photo by John Lazenby.
When young people create a “Social Issue Tree” to help them choose a topic for a documentary, what stories emerge? The Vermont Youth Documentary Lab, created by Dave Littlefield and Christopher Wiersema, helps young media makers hone their skills and create films that make a difference. On Saturday afternoons at the Center for Arts and Learning on Barre Street in Montpelier, students work on the final editing of their film exploring attitudes toward street art and graffiti in the capital city.

Water quality on the Winooski River, climate change, food and farming, and the signs in downtown Montpelier also show up as branches of the Social Issue Tree, and perhaps will result in other films, but the two filmmakers, Mira Pompei, a tenth-grade student at Montpelier High School, and Violet Russell, a Twinfield High School senior, have chosen to interview citizens about their views on public art. From the co-owner of the Main Street Rabble-Rouser chocolate and craft company, to artist Ryan Geary, to Dan Groberg, Executive Director of Montpelier Alive, supplemented by “on-the-street” reactions to graffiti and “unsanctioned art,” the resulting hours of film need to be crafted into a final product. “It’s all about making choices,” says Wiersema, who also emphasizes the ethical implications of filmmakers’ choices. “It’s a Michael Moore kind of thing.”

Mira and Violet edit their documentary with guidance from Youth Documentary Lab teachers David Littlefield and Chris Wiersma. Photos by John Lazenby.
“Grab the gems first,” instructs Littlefield, a film producer for Vermont PBS, as Violet Russell edits the end of remarks by Ryan Geary. “This would be a good transition, with the tattoo.” Using about 10 percent of the raw footage as they edit is a particular challenge. The students confer about the B roll choices, which adds a music underlay and establishes context for the story. Wiersema explains the origin of the term, from the early work with 16-mm film, to these adolescent “digital natives” who appreciate background in the technological history of story-telling. 

Woodbelly Pizza across the street has donated hot pizzas for the students’ lunch. As they eat, the students discuss “art everywhere” — at the skate park by the municipal pool, the cement walk across from Shaw’s, an old train car, a highway overpass, the parking lot behind Positive Pie. The process of making the film elicits concerns about the barriers to “sanctioned” public art: who makes the decisions? Who is left out? 

“There is art everywhere. It’s really cool to see tons of opinions,” says Russell, citing neurodiversity as one way of valuing people who think in different ways. She also reflects on the confidence making a film has given her during a difficult time: “Art is a coping mechanism,” she asserts, helping her to engage in problem-solving and to process feelings. 

Mira Pompei became interested in filmmaking in ninth grade at MHS, when she helped film for the drama club, she remarked while selecting clips of a filmed interview with Dan Groberg.

Mira Pompei edits a video. Photo by John Lazenby.
The lab is a project of Onion River Community Access (ORCA) Media and was funded in part by Vermont Afterschool, Inc., providing photo and video equipment. The solar energy company SunCommon, in Waterbury, has donated instructional space and also sponsored a film screening of “The Ants and the Grasshopper” on the State House lawn on Sept. 2. Matt McLane from Montpelier High School’s Flexible Pathways program has partnered with the Youth Documentary Lab. Wiersema, a Montpelier-based media artist and educator, also works with Uprise Youth Action Camp in Marshfield and with new American youths in My Brother’s and Sister’s Keeper in Burlington. He cites the diversity of youth voices in their work: the youngest student at 14 and the eldest at 19 studying film at the Community College of Vermont. “We facilitate telling stories, whether about a grandmother or video activism about the environment.” He cites Witness, a global movement using technology for human rights change (witness.org) as a model. 

“Our mission is to lift up and celebrate the voices of Vermont youths,” founder Wiersema asserts. This summer session of the documentary lab has ended, but the work continues with a 35-mm photography lab led by Taylor McNeely. Instruction in audio podcast production is also in the works. 

For more information, visit vermontyouthdocumentarylab.com

Linda Radtke lives in Middlesex.