Making connections through film

SHP students launch high school film festival

By Rye Druzin

Special to the Almanac

When many people think about Sacred Heart Prep, the small school's sports teams are one of the first things to pop into their mind. At a school where 75 percent of students participate in athletic programs, arts and film have have drawn less attention. But a newly launched enterprise led by two students may raise visibility of the arts on the Atherton campus to a new level.

Juniors Brenten Brandenburg of Woodside and Justin McWilliams of Hillsborough have organized the school's first annual International Film Festival, which will debut on Thursday, April 10. Tapping into Sacred Heart's network of 154 schools in 45 countries, the two boys wanted to see what movies their cohorts from the rest of the country and around the world could make.

"As the films came in from other countries, we were able to see the differences along with the similarities," Brenten said. "We started feeling connections with these people we had never met before, and we were able to see not only why they put things into their films but how these films illustrated parts of their lives."

The two friends have each been making films since middle school, and have made the Spirit Week video for their grade every year since they started at Sacred Heart. Their latest project began after they attended film summer camps in 2013.

"We came up with the idea because we had seen a lot of film festivals online for adults," Justin said. "We had been into film for a while, so we had been talking about getting into the adult festivals, but they're pretty competitive. So we started researching high school film festivals, and we realized that there weren't many in the area."

The two were given support from Sacred Heart's administration, and over the following few months set about contacting the school's various art departments. The boys also contacted local schools from Menlo Park down to San Jose to urge their students to contribute.

"It's been a pretty long process, especially with junior year and all the homework," Justin said. "But the most time-consuming thing was finding the right email addresses and getting in contact with them."

Brenten and Justin ended up with 45 films to choose from, taking the best 12 from the group. They broke them down into three categories: documentary, social justice, and narrative film. Brenten, who commented that he enjoyed the narrative films the most, said that he was able to "see the fiction side and what the kids were able to think up versus what we would think up. That's when the creativity really gets to the highest level."

But it was a documentary that left the biggest impression on both students. Set in Connecticut, the short followed an adopted man, filmed by his daughter, as he sought out his birth mother. The film shows the man, with his family in tow, finally meeting his biological mother after 40 years of separation.

"I think that was touching and demonstrated that you don't have to be in Connecticut to feel that connection," Brenten said of the movie.

While the films on their own can be moving or tell compelling stories, the festival itself is seen as a way to bring the students closer together.

"We have a strong national and international Sacred Heart community, and the film festival is the perfect way for students to connect in a creative and supportive way," said Peggy O'Leary, the fine arts department chair at Sacred Heart.

Ms. O'Leary, along with exchange coordinator Deborah Farrington-Padilla and SHP film making instructor Patrick Neary, served as the faculty contacts who helped the students get in touch with Sacred Heart schools nationally and abroad. But Ms. O'Leary said that it was the two students who did the lion's share of the work, and that the faculty's involvement was minimal.

"This film festival is entirely student initiated. Both students involved ... have a lot of passion for film," Ms. O'Leary said. "What I admire about their idea is that they knew they were creating something that would be long-lasting."

Justin said that one of the comments he heard from other schools in the area was, "Gosh, why didn't we think of that?" Both boys believe that the festival will leave a lasting impression on the school.

"I felt that after we graduate, the festival will be a great thing for Sacred Heart to continue to have, and so I feel that it was definitely worth pushing through that little extra work after school just to create something new that students didn't have," Justin said. "You have a lot of sports, but you don't have a lot of things for photography or film, for people who are into the arts."

One observation both boys shared regarding the movies they reviewed was that having money did not equal a good film.

"You could see that even if a person didn't have access to the nicest camera, they were better able to tell a story," Justin said. "It was really interesting to see that you don't need the best equipment to make a good movie."


Sacred Heart Preparatory's first annual International Film Festival will be held in the Campbell Center for the Performing Arts at Sacred Heart Prep, 150 Valparaiso Ave. in Atherton, on Thursday, April 10, from 6 to 8 p.m. The event is open to the public; the school welcomes local high school students in particular. Admission is free.


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