During the COVID pandemic, while many teens were working on their Instagram profiles or tweeting with friends, Jack Wagreich was organizing his International Youth Film Festival.
Starting almost four years ago, the 18-year-old senior at Pace Academy began building a full featured website. Just a little over a year after his bar mitzvah at The Temple in Atlanta, he scoured the globe for quality entries from smart young filmmakers around the world, lined up support from key players in the international documentary market, and mounted an effective marketing and public relations campaign. He did it all by himself without a professional staff and without a complex organization structure. It was just him after school and alone with his computer in his Atlanta bedroom reaching out to the world with no money and no employees but loads of ambition and a vision.
“During the pandemic, maintaining social connection was really, really difficult for people, especially for students my age. And I was thinking I might find a creative way to connect kids and at the same time to unite filmmakers across the world,” he said.
It was slow going at first. He had never made a film himself and knew few who did, but with his perseverance and belief in his idea, he began to make contacts in the worldwide network of young, film enthusiasts, who, like himself, had little more than their talent, their initiative, and their story.
“Everyone has a different story, and you really just have to listen. And I think film is an unparalleled medium for that. I think it has grown into being this incredible storytelling device that really cannot be matched. I feel like what you see on a screen and seeing someone personally speak about something is an experience that you won’t get from a book or a different medium,” he said.
Eventually, Wagreich found Holly Carter, who, for the past 15 years, has been encouraging young people to tell their personal stories with a simple home video camera. Today, her project, ByKids, is a public television success story that’s beginning its fourth year of production. She has a YouTube channel, a distribution agreement with Discovery Education, an online learning platform that is available to at least half the schools in America, and an audience of young people who understand and appreciate the power of moving images.
“That’s the way the kids relate to the world. That’s the way they express themselves. They’re on their phones and they’re watching Tik Tok and they’re engaged in a world of moving images. And so, our belief is to speak to kids in the language that they know and give them just enough scaffolding to be able to find their own voice and use it in an artistic way,” Carter said.
With the help of ByKids and an international network of young people like himself, in January of this year, Wagreich was able to mount his first virtual festival. Last month, at an event co-sponsored by the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, he went live. Working with what he called his video “ambassadors,” he created a program of films about social justice, recruited a keynote speaker and screened several films, including a presentation from Germany on the resurgence of Jewish life there in recent years, and moderated a panel discussion of local teens.
In the audience was Carter, who came down from her office in Manhattan to finally meet, in person, the young film festival impresario and to have a close look at the event that Wagreich had largely created on his own.
“It was amazing,” Carter said, “I mean, it is what all our work is about using film for social justice. And there were several kids there in a discussion being led by a kid. We were surrounded by kids who are all passionate about this. And to have it in that space at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which was so meaningful with a full crowd. It was just incredible.”
Wagreich is already at work on his next virtual festival in the spring. Still working on his computer, from his bedroom and with the help of his teen ambassadors, he’s so far lined up screenings from Nepal, Norway, Scotland, India and Argentina.
“We’re really expanding our international network this year, reaching more continents and more students and more stories,” he said with considerable enthusiasm. “And I hope to continue both my virtual events and the social justice theme of our films. I think that’s going to be a new pivotal message that we carry forward, discussing how communities and how individuals can tell their stories using video, and especially how youth can do that as well.”
More information can be found at www.internationalyouthfilmfestival.org and ByKids at https://www.pbs.org/show/films-bykids/