Award Winning Film: Student Film Makes Waves

By Ben Willis, Film and Photography teacher

Sam Brody '18 straightened his tie, grabbed the mic and laid down some hard truths to a fascinated crowd on a Sunday afternoon in Millerton, New York. Next to him, dressed the part of a true producer, stood Max Branson ‘18, black suit, flowery dress shirt and no tie. The two Marvelwood students had just completed a year-long filmmaking project as part of the Civic Life Project. They were now on the film screening circuit, taking their film to screenings and film festivals around Connecticut and New York. The big screen presentation at The Moviehouse in Millerton, NY, was hosted by the Salisbury Forum, made possible by Moviehouse owners Robert and Carol Sadlon.

Their film, The Magic of The Atom, would be the fifth film produced through a partnership between the Civic Life Project and The Marvelwood School. For over five years as part of the community service program, a group of eight students would select a topic -- any civics issue they found interesting -- and would work with journalists and filmmakers from the Civic Life Project, alongside Marvelwood teachers, to produce a short 8-minute documentary.  

The method by which the students chose a topic this year was quite unique, and began with an interview with Marvelwood’s own physics teacher emeritus, Dr. Walter Kane, whose story turned out to be extraordinary. Antonella Moya ‘17 sat down across from Dr. Kane for the interview; she had no idea what was in store. Soon, Dr. Kane was regaling the students with stories, beginning with his presence at the Marshall Islands for the famous hydrogen bomb test, to his days conducting top-secret nuclear research at Brookhaven National Laboratories. Students were on the edge of their seats by the time Dr. Kane came to the part of his tale where he travelled to Russia to assist with the decommissioning and securing of parts of their nuclear arsenal, telling the students of one particular episode where he danced all night at a gathering of scientists and Russian generals in Siberia. It was Dr. Kane’s thoughts on Chernobyl, however, that lit a light bulb for Max Branson. Max determined to convince his classmates to make a film on nuclear power. On the day he pitched his idea to the rest of the team, he was surprised to discover that both students and teachers had been equally enthralled with Dr. Kane’s story.

Dr. Kane had presented a decidedly pro-nuclear opinion. He pointed out that there had been no fatalities from nuclear meltdowns ever in the U.S., and argued that disasters like Chernobyl had more to do with a lack of competence on the part of the Soviets. The students knew that they would need to find an equally compelling interview to represent the other side of this contentious issue.

It was Sam Brody who had the breakthrough on this front. He found a nuclear engineer and industry whistleblower from Vermont, who had created an organization dedicated to informing the public of the potential issues associated with nuclear energy. The whistleblower turned out to be Arnold Gundersen, a former member of the Marvelwood faculty; the connection was revealed only after the phone interview had begun and Mr. Gundersen inquired about his former student and current faculty member, Matt Walters ‘97! In their interview with Mr. Gundersen, students heard stories from another perspective, as Mr. Gundersen described his time in Fukushima, Japan and the difficulties of cleaning up after that disaster. Mr. Gundersen provided one of the best leads for our story, to tie the entire film together, when he suggested the students look into the Indian Point Power Plant, a facility located just 50 miles north of New York City and built upon a geological fault line.  

As the students began investigating the power plant, the story took many twists and turns, and they knew they had to dig deeper. In March, over spring break, Max Branson and Sam Brody found themselves trudging through a foot of freshly-fallen snow to film footage of the plant and the surrounding area. They spoke to local activists, business owners and residents, hearing a wide range of opinions.  

The final film was officially selected for the All American High School Film Festival, to be screened at the AMC Theater in Times Square in October, 2017. In the six years I have worked for the Civic Life Project, I have had the pleasure of helping students make nearly 80 different documentaries, and this one was certainly one of the best.

During its five years of partnering with Marvelwood, the Civic Life Project has demonstrated the value of an interdisciplinary approach to education. It allows students to pick up cameras, get out of the classroom and find their voice. Marvelwood’s involvement began with Mr. Bingham working with students to produce a film about gun control, Guns Under Out Noses, followed by a film exploring cyber security and internet privacy, The Eye of the Eagle. ABC News producer Tina Barboravic then joined the team and led the production of an award-winning documentary on racial profiling, To Protect and Profile; in year four, we made a film on gender equality and transgender discrimination, Selective Equality.  

The newly-created Marvelwood Film Studies program will continue the work we began with Civic Life. The program offers an alternative approach to language arts, where students select a poem and visually interpret it in a short film. The first film from the new program, The Spirit of the Dead, has already been shown at two film festivals and will be screened at up to three more this fall. The School will also be embarking on a new partnership with the National Parks Service, where students will collect oral histories and make short films about various national historic landmarks in the Housatonic River Valley. The films will then be provided for use by the National Parks Service. This is an exciting time for the arts at Marvelwood, and I am looking forward to the great films students will be creating.