This interview was conducted via email and is presented here with Tom's own words.
FAITHFUL WITNESS: How did you become a judge for the film festival? Did all the judges have Quaker connections?
TOM HOOPES: I was invited by Andy Cohen, event organizer and BFS teacher. I believe my name was recommended to him by the staff of Friends Council on Education, members of which have been judges on several occasions in recent years. Since several of the finalist films came from PYM schools (George School and Delaware Valley Friends School), I suppose my role -- PYM Director of Education & Religious Education -- related to the festival. There were four judges, two of whom were chosen for their Quaker links (myself and the Kenyan man from QUNO) and two of whom were filmmakers with no Quaker affiliations.
FAITHFUL WITNESS: How do the students at Brooklyn Friends School take part in the event, and what were your impressions of their experience during the festival?
TOM HOOPES: BFS students participate on multiple levels. Most explicitly, two of the finalist films -- one each in the middle school and high school divisions -- were produced by and starred BFS students. And so naturally there was a "home crowd" feeling to the screening. (As it turned out, the middle school entry won the grand prize, and the high school entry was a serious contender.) I gather that there is a feeling of some [justifiable] pride in the BFS video program among students. The event also provided the context for a fundraiser for the freshman class, through the vehicle of popcorn and soft drinks sold at intermission! All in all, I got the impression of the "red carpet" being extended for guests for this event, with school spirit very much in evidence.
FAITHFUL WITNESS: Since a Friends' school holds this festival, can you describe any aspects of it that might make this a uniquely Quaker event?
TOM HOOPES: As the website description states (www.brooklynfriends.org/bridgefilm/index.html), "The festival's goal is to promote value-based filmmaking and broaden dialogue on topics such as integrity, non-violence, social conscience and political justice. The Bridge Film Festival does not seek films about Quaker philosophy but rather films that depict Quaker ideals in action." I would affirm that the subject matter of the 11 finalist films fulfilled this goal, and I would imagine that the pedagogical efforts that resulted in these short films (maximum 10 minutes in length) mirrored the emphases on Quaker testimonies. I confess to having felt some concern about participating in such an explicit COMPETITION in the context of Quaker educational venture. However, my fears were allayed by the overall tone of the festival, the enormous amount of respect and encouragement given to all participants, and the lack of excessive adulation heaped upon the grand prize winners.
FAITHFUL WITNESS: How was the criteria of reflecting "Quaker values" readily evident in all the finalists work?
TOM HOOPES: Of the 11 finalist films, I would say that at least 5 or 6 of them dealt directly with themes relating to the complexity of the human condition, and the importance of honoring and respecting that complexity. In other words, the common thread of our common divinity -- "that of God" in all people -- ran throughout the works. For example, the high school grand prize winner, "Focus," explored the interior landscape of a boy struggling to cope with his Attention Deficit Disorder, as well as the question of how others related to him. One film looked at the seemingly mundane routine of a high school day through the eyes of a deaf girl in a hearing-privileged culture.
Another explored the boundaries and categories of sexual orientation in a way that did not judge or objectify any of the characters as they grappled with their own and each others' identities. A film from the Brumanna Friends School in Lebanon portrayed the anxiety-inducing juxtaposition of extreme wealth and poverty near the school, and raised questions for the viewer about the porous boundaries separating us from one another.Several of the finalist works explored artistic and aesthetic issues more than ethical/spiritual ones, and I choose to conceive of "Quaker values" as broad and flexible enough to include those as valid meditations on the life of the spirit, too.
FAITHFUL WITNESS: What were the criteria used for judging winners?
TOM HOOPES: Each judge was given a "scorecard" with a scoring rubric using 5 categories, which addressed quality in areas of cinematography, narrative, content, Quaker thematics and overall "success" of the work (on its own terms). We did use these criteria, to some extent, within the larger rubric of asking, "What did the filmmakers do with the resources at their disposal?" This was a way of intentionally not privileging students from programs that might have had fancier or more expensive equipment.
FAITHFUL WITNESS: Can you describe the process you and the other judges used to make your choices?
TOM HOOPES: We four judges each made use of the scorecard and scoring rubric that we had been given, but we did not rely upon them for a quantitative ranking of the films. Rather, we used the scoring rubric as a framework for a shared vaocabulary for talking with each other about the films. We gathered as a group after watching the first 6 films, and then again at the end of the final 5 films, to compare notes and make decisions. I was very impressed by the spirit of collaborative decision-making that guided our deliberations. It was clear to me that all of us, Quakers and non-Quakers alike, were comfortable with some variation of the "Quaker decision-making process." That is, I had a clear sense that we were guided by the wisdom of the gathered group, which was larger and deeper than any individual's wisdom. I gained much from hearing the perspectives and insights of the other judges, and I got the impression that they, too, benefitted from what I had to share.
From my vantage point, our process of choosing the two grand-prize winners flowed quite naturally from our discussions. It felt very much like finding a "sense of the meeting," with shared clerking. It never occurred to any of us that we should take a vote, nor tally up our scorecard points as the final arbiter. In addition to selecting the two grand-prize winners, our task was to decide amongst ourselves which judge would present which films to the audience. The presence of this responsibility ensured that we gave respectful consideration to each and every film, both in terms of our process of judging, as well as in our process of communicating our judgments to the audience and to the filmmakers themselves. (When you have to look a young artist directly in the eye, and tell them what you think of their work, you have incentive to take the task very seriously, indeed!)
FAITHFUL WITNESS: What impressed you about the winning films?
TOM HOOPES: I found "Focus," the high school grand prize winner from a senior boy from Delaware Valley Friends School, to be an extraordinarily thought-provoking piece of artistic work. Withint the space of 10 minutes, the viewer was pulled into an engaging and earnest meditation on the internal struggles of a teenage boy. Not being a filmmaker myself, I tend to look for qualities of narrative, character and thematics, as well as how well a film holds my attention. With "Focus," it was so engrossing that I quickly lost self-consciousness that I was watching a film, never mind a high school student film. As one of the other judges, a professor at the prestigious NYU Film School, said, "This is as good as some work I have seen at the graduate thesis level." I believe she was not speaking in hyperbole. Moreover, my colleague was referring, in part, to technical aspects of the filmmaking (light, sound, editing, dissolves, cuts, etc.), whereas I had been paying attention mostly to the non-technical aspects. Both dimensions indicated an unusually mature artist developing an impressive mastery of his craft.
The middle school grand prize winner (the name of which escapes me at the moment) felt to me like a well-done "after-school TV special." That is, it concerned itself quite convincingly with some of the mundane concerns of 8th graders: popularity, peer pressure, budding romance, insecurity, etc. It did so within the narrative framework of a story that did not try to do too much in 10 minutes. Rather, the characters were introduced sympathetically, the plot devices were established early and believably, and the story line ran its course, with a charming surprise ending that suggested more conceptual depth than the light tone had originally hinted. The camera work and filmography were sufficiently expert that my attention was never diverted to thinking about those aspects of the film, which indicates technical success. All in all, it was an entertaining and engaging piece of work that succeeded in doing precisely what it set out to do.
FAITHFUL WITNESS: Did you notice any common threads in the spiritual messages or social witness of the filmmakers?
TOM HOOPES: The theme of affirmation of differences came through in many of the works. It seemed clear to me that these young people, all of whom were students at Friends schools, had well-developed senses of "fairness," which played on many levels in the various films. As a whole, the body of work suggested a community of filmmakers -- and a supportive community in which those filmmakers are ensconced -- that is quite concerned with each person being respected, treated fairly, and given an oppportunity to express themself without repression or fear of reprisal.
FAITHFUL WITNESS: How would you say that the filmmaking projects helped students to learn about and express ministry or witness?
TOM HOOPES: From talking with the judges who are filmmakers, as well as with Andy Cohen and others of the video teachers, I gather that each 10-minute film represents many, many hours of work, usually by several people. As such, we can see that these filmmaking projects required that students: 1) pay close attention to something they care about; 2) work together with others to produce a shared outcome that they feel good about; and 3) produce something that they regard to be worth other people's attention. I would submit that these are basic building-blocks of both ministry and social witness. It is an extraordinary accomplishment that this film festival and the academic programs that feed into into can create an age-appropriate context for kids to learn such skills, especially within the formal curriculum.
FAITHFUL WITNESS: Are there any other impressions you would like to share about your experience at the festival and its Quaker ministry?
TOM HOOPES: I am hopeful that the festival will continue to grow, and that all Friends high schools recognize the value of developing a video program in their arts curriculum. We will do well to provide our young artists with a structured pedagogical environment and the tools to help them pay careful attention, and make meaningful contributions, to the increasingly "noisy" visual media of our culture.
PART ONE: Faithful Witness Interview with festival founder Andy Cohen, media teacher at Brooklyn Friends School