Mentoring Māori youth through film

Issue: Volume 94, Number 1

Posted: 26 January 2015
Reference #: 1H9cqF

Phyllis Callaghan, a teacher at Gisborne Boys’ High School, knew something had to be done in 2006 when she became aware that a group of boys wanted to get into film school, yet had minimal local options that could give them an introduction to the art; her concern was that this left their applications to institutions like South Seas Film School on shaky ground.

Phyllis and her colleague Shannon Leef run a film and digital media company in Gisborne. A proportion of their earnings from this venture go toward supporting an extracurricular – though NCEA-linked via Gateway – programme called Mentoring Māori Youth Through Film, which does just what it says on the can: through the medium of film, Phyllis and Shannon have since 2006 inspired many young Māori boys to have confidence in their dreams, to become effective team players, and to believe in their own creative instincts.

The programme has met with spectacular success; at least as judged by many youth film competitions throughout the country, including Movie Fest in 2009, which landed the boys a trip to Wellington’s Weta Workshop by way of an audience with the Prime Minister. Google ‘Mentoring Māori Youth Through Film’, and the number of hits should give readers some clue as to the level of media admiration this inspiring programme has attracted.

Outcomes of the initiative go beyond a bursting trophy cabinet. Several graduates of the programme have forged successful careers in New Zealand’s burgeoning film industry, and have been inducted into South Seas Film School, among other institutions.

There are currently 10 boys on the programme, all senior Māori students at Gisborne Boys’ High School. Every Friday over the course of MMYTF’s duration, the group get together to develop and produce ideas. The boys are involved in every aspect of a production - from concept development, to script writing, acting, shooting, editing, and titles. Phyllis says that this is a particular strength of MMYTF, and that’s straight from those who should know.

“We’ve had some great feedback from South Seas Film School; they were saying that our students were arriving with a well-rounded range of skills, rather than just strength in one area.”

The programme is at a level of maturity these days, says Phyllis, that hers is now more of a facilitation role – she finds herself driving the van and organising lunch more than she does actually mentoring, but it’s not that she’s retired from the job; these days it’s past graduates who, of their own volition, are returning to Gisborne in their downtime to teach the next generation. A phone call from an ex-student wanting to help out is the highest compliment she can think of, says Phyllis.

“I think I know that we’ve done something worthwhile when the boys who have moved into careers in the film industry ring me up and say ‘oh Miss, do you want me to come back and run a workshop or something?’ That to me means that we’ve made a difference in their lives, and they want to give something back themselves.

The next step in the evolution of the Mentoring Māori Youth Through Film programme is to open it up to students from other schools in the area, including Gisborne Girls’ High School.

“The programme has in the past been linked to Gisborne Boys’ High School where I teach, but now we’re opening it up to Gisborne Girls’ High as well, which I think is great. They don’t have any film facilities there, so we feel really good about being able to offer some of these girls who are passionate about film the means to get started. From there, we eventually want to open it up to other schools in the area. There’s just so many talented kids in our region, I don’t want any to miss out,” says Phyllis.

One feature of the initiative that’s not going to change, says Phyllis, is its cost to students, which will remain at more or less zero. Passionate and committed film-makers come from every walk of life, she says, and those who can’t afford to pay fees shouldn’t miss out. This means that students from all socio-economic backgrounds are allowed to dream big.

“You generally find that the kids who really want to get into film are really committed and passionate, no matter where they come from. They’ll take their little hand-held cameras, they’ll put films together on their own. So there’s no problem with motivation, and that means none of them mind giving up their own time.

“The other thing is that we get a lot of students who sometimes can’t afford the fees and expense that’s involved with getting into film. I mean equipment is really expensive. Most other courses and workshops that I know of charge fees, so we get a great mix of people from all walks of life, because there’s no cost associated with our programme, yet we’ve still got great equipment and facilities. We want the door to be open to everyone, not just people from privileged backgrounds.

“I think the programme opens their eyes to the world that’s out there. Sometimes the boys will say, ‘Miss, we can only dream about this stuff, we watch these films, we see these actors’, but that all changes when they see themselves on screen for the first time. First they get all shy and have a bit of a giggle, but then they realise that getting involved in this industry is a realistic dream, no matter your background.”

Film is also the perfect vehicle to help students get to know their region, and vice versa. It’s a medium that can encourage everyone to reflect on issues that affect the whole community, says Phyllis. A great case in point is the Students Against Driving Drunk national youth film competition.

“The SADD Film Competition is a really interesting one. Members of our group have managed to get into the top three in that for the last three years. The wonderful thing is that Gisborne’s always had a high young drink driver death rate. The boys really latched onto that, and we put a Māori swing on what can happen when you drink drive. It affects whānau: your one action, just starting that car up after drinking, can have such far-reaching consequences for your family. I think that yes, we’ve done some great films, we’ve won some prizes, but I think the entries I’ve seen for the SADD competition have been the most powerful things, for me, that we’ve done.

“In 2012 the boys did a documentary called Lou’s Legacy, which was about a real-life crash that killed three men. It was amazing, because one of them gave us the actual footage of the crash scene, that we were able to use in the documentary. We interviewed the families, and the whole thing had a huge impact. They took out the national award for that one.

“I realised that the medium of film can be so powerful, and I think so did the boys.”

Phyllis believes that the programme she and her colleagues started is transferable to any community around the country. All you need is passionate kids, says Phyllis, and in her experience there’s no shortage of those.

“I think that people don’t actually realise just how interested kids are in film, and just how creative they can be. Unless a school has the facilities, which many don’t, I think that creativity can lie dormant, and the student may never discover it within themselves. Film is a medium that is exciting for these kids, it’s something that inspires them.

“The other thing of course is that film is a collaborative and cooperative process. So it helps kids to become confident in their dealings with each other, it breeds good teamwork, and it encourages kids to get out into the community.”

Her advice to other schools who might be inspired to start something similar in their community is very simple. It’s not about having money behind you, says Phyllis; that will look after itself in time.

“I’d just say start basic. When we first started, all we had was this funny little video camera, we had seven really keen boys, and we chucked them in the van and headed up the coast to make our first movie which is called ‘Horror Movie 101’. I look back on it now, and it’s the most basic thing, you see all the technical flaws in it, but we took out a national competition with it!

“So I think it’s more important just to do it, rather than let a lack of funding or equipment put you off. Use what you’ve got, get the community involved, and honestly it will take on a life of its own and grow.”

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 12:51 pm, 26 January 2015

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