Young filmmakers take on the 'reel' world

After a recent five-week stint at the Center for Creative Youth, Yusuf Jones is excited about beginning his senior year at Bridge Academy in Bridgeport and honing the filmmaking skills he learned at Wesleyan's University summer program. Jones is part of the public charter school's Art of Filmmaking program, offered under the auspices of the Westport Art Center and funded by a multi-year seed grant from the Westport Sunrise Rotary, the Fairfield County Community Foundation, MSG Varsity and the Tribeca Film Institute.

Founded by Sandy Lefkowitz, coordinator of the Westport Youth Film Festival, the curriculum offers urban youth the opportunity to learn the process of making a film, including developing a concept, screenwriting and editing techniques. Lefkowitz describes filmmaking as "a great vehicle for bringing young people together" and a way to learn about life. In creating the program at Bridge Academy, she hoped to share her passion for filmmaking and also expand their knowledge of the world. At the helm of the Westport Youth Film Festival, Lefkowitz noticed obvious disparities between films submitted for inclusion in the festival. "It was obvious that some of the filmmakers were so sadly underequipped that their films didn't have a chance of being accepted," she noted.

But with philanthropic support, she was able to offer students at Bridge Academy the chance to "make magic." Enlisting the help of professional filmmaker and educator Patrick McCullough, the two professionals rolled out a comprehensive film program that was offered to members of the senior class. However, because so many underclassmen were also interested, an afterschool film club, coordinated by Bridge Academy's art teacher Sarah Litty, was initiated at Bridge Academy. "It was supposed to be only once a week but the kids wanted more and asked Ms. Litty to meet with them twice a week," McCullough explained.

Jones and Jonathan Naar, both 17, of Bridgeport, another participant in CCY this summer, were two of the club's strong leaders.

"Yusuf and Jonathan came to us when they were sophomores and said they wanted to join the Art of Filmmaking and because they were so eager we let them come with us on shoots and even on some field trips," McCullough continued. Every summer he operates a series of intensive film workshops through his company Filmmakers Ink. An award-winning screenwriter -- McCullough was a finalist in the Sundance Film Festival Screenwriting competition -- he spends the school year dividing his time between education commitments, such as the one at Bridge Academy, and developing projects.

A native of Westport, McCullough knew Lefkowitz as a colleague as well as from being part of the Westport community. When she needed someone to oversee the Art of Filmmaking program, Lefkowitz called upon McCullough's expertise.

Both Jones and Naar enthusiastically touted the Bridge Academy program as well as their recent experience at CCY. "I feel like I learned a lot about filmmaking this summer, but I also learned how to be a man," Jones said. "I was living on my own and it was very different than being at school where everyone tells you what to do. Being at CCY is the greatest experience of my life so far, that's for sure."

While their morning classes were focused on filmmaking, the two young men were able to choose electives for the afternoon. Naar said he enjoyed learning ballroom dancing, stage combat and slam poetry. Jones concentrated on playwriting and songwriting as well as the course in poetry.

Before they left for the five-week program, McCullough offered a workshop in screenwriting to make sure that they were ready. "They did very well there," he commented.

Lefkowitz agreed. When she visited them at Wesleyan, she was pleased to hear positive reports about her young students. "They did spectacular," Lefkowitz said. "In fact, Yusuf's film was one of the four that was chosen to be made." As school begins in a few weeks, both students are excited to now be officially joining the Art of Filmmaking as seniors. They both hope to pursue their studies, too, at college and eventually develop, write and direct their own films.

Jones' dream is to work on independent films about "real people." "I have a whole bunch of ideas," he said. "Being at CCY made me more determined and helped me to really focus on what I want to do in filmmaking."

Naar agreed. Noting that his favorite directors include Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Spike Lee, he said he aspires to make "dramatic films" that elicit emotional responses from audiences. "The most important thing I learned from CCY is to pursue your dream as best as you can and also to appreciate the arts more," he added.

Lefkowitz's vision is to continue the filmmaking program at Bridge Academy and attract more young people to the endless opportunities inherent in this art form. Last year she was responsible for securing a $6,000 grant from MSG Varsity and the monies were used to purchase equipment and pay for the program's teaching staff. When the Art of Filmmaking began a few years ago, McCullough used his Filmmakers Ink's equipment. Because of MSG Varsity's generosity, the Art of Filmmaking now has a second computer, new handicams and a small HD camera, McCullough said. "Sandy is amazing at making things happen," he said.