News
All American High School Film Festival

These Teen Filmmakers Are Using Art To Save The Planet

Coming soon to a theater near you

Protecting the environment is one of the biggest — if not the biggest — issue facing us today. And as pollution, habitat destruction, and resource depletion only seem to be getting worse, the youngest generation will be the ones saving, and even rebuilding, our world for the future.

If the IMAX In Focus program is any indication, they're definitely up to the task. IMAX teamed up with the UN Environment to grant five student film programs across the country $5,000 "to tell impactful stories which will ultimately promote a change toward a better planet." While still in high school, these students crafted original documentaries that tackle environmental issues facing their communities — from repurposing surfboards to saving bees.

To learn more about these films and how young people can, well, save the planet, MTV News sat down with a few students:

Miles Whitworth of Ballard High School in Seattle, Washington, who worked on On The Backs of Salmon — a documentary following the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe's fight to restore a river home to "legendary salmon runs"

Jackson Fox-Bland of Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., who worked on The Air We Breathe, "a documentary that explores the causes of ozone pollution as well as its health risks to the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area"

Reed Martin of Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego, California, who worked on Bee Conscious, about "threats and issues surrounding the declining bee population," and Change Is In the Water, following the creators of Enjoy Handplanes, which recycles surfboard foam into bodysurfing handboards

And rounding out the gathering, Mark Raines, a teacher in Canyon Crest's cinema conservatory program.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

All American High School Film Festival

MTV News: These documentaries were so specific. How did you find your subjects?

Reed: I learned about the subject of Change Is In The Water [Ed Lewis] at my middle school because a few teachers there had ties to him and I thought it was really unique. I knew that this subject would be really cool because he embodies everything he wanted.

Miles: A lot of people around the Pacific Northwest had heard about the Elwha dam removal because it had been making headlines for a while. It was the biggest dam removal project ever. But we really wanted to find a more specific story and talk about the people involved.

Since the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe was the most affected by these illegal dams, we really wanted to find a voice from them. I got in contact with the Vice Chair of the tribe, Russell Hepfer. He was incredibly enthusiastic and really helpful and I realized he’d be a great person to be our hero for the documentary.

All American High School Film Festival

Did any of you feel any pushback or hesitation from the people you wanted to talk to because you’re so young?

Jackson: Most people were just excited that people wanted to talk to them. But one of the reasons [people] might not have returned our emails might have been because they saw “high school student” and thought it wasn’t important.

Miles: We were really worried that people wouldn’t take us seriously, but we found that the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has been struggling with these dams for as long as anyone can remember, so they would jump on any opportunity to get their story out. Everyone we talked to in the tribe was incredibly helpful. We worked with the national parks system [and] the national parks conservation association. It’s actually overwhelming how much support we got from a lot of adults.

“"Part of what makes climate change so hard to get across to a lot of people both old and young is there’s a lot of pessimism, and there are a lot of stories that don’t have happy endings. But the story that we documented is an overwhelming success story."”

What was the most surprising thing you learned in making these films?

Reed: The bee farmers [who] rehabilitate colonies of bees [taught us] that if bees keep declining [eventually] we’d all run out of food. That was important and eye-opening. That’s what we tried to get across to the audience: the importance of bees not only to pollinate plants but also the effect that it has on the whole food system.

Mark: From my perspective, one of the things [the students] learned was just the power of media and how much they can do in sharing an important story in a really creative way that will get the word out … To be able to actually see what they created about something that really does matter, that’s important, projected in an iMax theater in our town, too — that was pretty incredible.

Miles: I’m really glad that I got to experience the human side to this story by talking to the tribe members. I learned that this story has had huge repercussions … right now tribes in Idaho and Eastern Washington are taking this as inspiration to get dams taken out on the Snake River.

All American High School Film Festival

How can art be a vehicle for change?

Miles: People across the world can see the film I made in Seattle. If you see it in iMax, you can really get the sense that you’ve experienced it. All media gives us great ways to experience other people’s stories.

Reed: Seeing our film on the iMax screen was a crazy experience, and so was seeing people face-to-face afterward who understood a little more about an issue they did before. We inspired them to create new things, to maybe call a bee farmer to rehabilitate a beehive before exterminating it. I gained an understanding of the power of media in this day and age through those interactions.

“"Climate change is such a big deal and huge idea that people end up tuning out a lot of times unless you really hit home, unless you show them something that impacts them or that they can help with."”

There’s a generational divide when it comes to the environment: Younger generations tend to be more aware than older ones. Did you encounter this while making your films?

Reed: In the two films we produced, I tried to stay away from force-feeding things about climate change. We didn’t come out and say [in Bee Conscious], "This is because of people doing this to trees or [using] pesticides." There are all these reasons, and the audience can decide for themselves. Personally, I think if I’m watching something and I sense it’s being skewed at all it takes away from it.  For Changes in the Water, that’s one of those issues that no one is going to disagree with — that it’s a good idea to get rid of this waste, and there’s hard evidence that what surfboards are made out of is very harmful for the environment.

Miles: Part of what makes climate change so hard to get across to a lot of people both old and young is there’s a lot of pessimism, and there are a lot of stories that don’t have happy endings. But the story that we documented is an overwhelming success story. These dams were on the river and they basically destroyed the ecosystem for 100 years, but after decades of fighting on behalf of the tribe and many others, this river’s come roaring back to life. Being able to see that it really is possible to make a difference on such a huge scale is really important in bringing over naysayers.

Mark: For a lot of people it seems like such a big issue and it’s hard to wrap your head around it. What I saw with our films was that [the students took] a micro focus on a specific thing that people can perhaps understand in the midst of this overwhelming problem. That’s probably the best way to get it across to people. Climate change is such a big deal and huge idea that people end up tuning out a lot of times unless you really hit home, unless you show them something that impacts them or that they can help with.

All American High School Film Festival

Did making these films make you think about your own community differently?

Miles: Part of what made all of these documentaries really interesting is that since we're high school students, we all picked topics that were specific to our regions. We made a documentary about something that happened three hours from our home, and now that can be seen across the world. The two documentaries made in San Diego were both about things that are happening in San Diego, but they’re applicable to the world as a whole.

Jackson: Being in D.C. and learning about the success that the EPA have had with decreasing pollution in the air was very eye opening for me because I had just assumed that things were getting worse. I learned that actually we have been trying to fight [air pollution] and that when we get together and learn about it and create legislation and do things to prevent it, it actually has a large effect that can save lives.

Mark: Those drone shots of the beach and that go-pro footage of the ocean [in Changes in the Water] reminded us how beautiful where we live is and how important it is for us to take care of it. I really hope that’s something when people see our films they think about as well.

“"We made a documentary about something that happened three hours from our home, and now that can be seen across the world."”

What advice would you give to other young people who want to make films?

Miles: You could have all the money in the world and the nicest equipment possible, but you won’t get anywhere if you don't have a compelling issue to tell people about. High quality footage doesn’t mean anything if it’s not going to resonate with people.

Mark: What matters to you probably matters to a lot of other people. What are the stories you care about? What are the things you see in your community, in your neighborhood? How could what you’re doing impact more than just yourself and friends?

Reed: Utilize the people around you. In two of the films we made, we utilized a drone that one of our friends has. He flew it and we directed him and told him what kind of shots we wanted. Getting a large group of people together makes it that much easier to put out a final product that aligns with [the vision] you had at the beginning.

Jackson: Just do it. Make lots of films, and you’ll get better each time.