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GFS students set stage for 7th Annual Philadelphia Youth Film Festival

Kate Garrity and Noah Weinstein '19 recollect their founding of the PHYFF.

As student Festival Director of the 2024 Philadelphia Youth Film Festival, Tilda Stace '24 has been overseeing the homestretch of a nearly year-long planning process, which will culminate with the on-campus festival on Feb. 24. 

Now in its seventh year, the festival has grown from the wild idea of a few industrious students into a well-oiled machine that perennially impresses. Each year, a team of students, faculty, and outside film professionals works to sort through hundreds of film submissions from students from destinations across the globe, narrowing them down to just a few dozen official selections. Then on the day of the festival, final winners are announced for each of four categories: narrative short, documentary short, experimental, and screenplay.

But Paula Busser, Assistant to the Director of Academic Programs and one of two faculty advisers for the festival, says it’s the students who do most of the heavy lifting. This year, more than 20 GFS students officially joined the festival team, helping to solicit and screen submissions, garner publicity, develop branding, design the website, recruit judges and speakers, and meticulously plan the run of show for the actual festival.

“There are other events that are student driven, but not one that’s happened for as long as this has been happening, on an annual basis. It’s pretty unique,” Busser said. “The big thing for me is working with kids and seeing how excited they get. They worry it’s going to be a failure, and then of course it’s always great.”

Opening credits

Another individual proud of what students are accomplishing in the film festival is Eli Eisenstein '18. After all, he pretty much started it.

As he came of age in the Upper School, Eisenstein nurtured a budding passion for film. But there weren’t a lot of festivals for him to submit his work as a student, and certainly none that were free and felt accessible. So, “selfishly” he admits, Eisenstein thought: why not start one of his own, and get Germantown Friends to underwrite it?

But that self-interested spark lit a flame by which many peers soon found warmth. Eisenstein indeed found support at GFS, primarily from Sarah Kappel, an Upper School computer science and digital media teacher and faculty advisor for each iteration of the festival so far. Eisenstein says Kappel aided in successfully pitching the idea to Head of School Dana Weeks, who agreed to financially back the first iteration.

But Kappel, Eisenstein, and other founding members quickly found themselves in over their heads.

“We were like, ‘We’ll probably get 20 submissions,’” Eisenstein recalled. “And I think we got 350 from all over the world.”

Kappel says the inaugural festival had three students and two faculty advisors helping out: Eisenstein '18, Hyunji Kim '18, Noah Weinstein '19, Sarah Kappel, and Kate Garrity. But they were building everything from scratch with no prior experience. Still, they found a way.

“We had no idea what we were doing,” Kappel said with a smile. “But we pulled it off and it was successful and fun. And we wanted to do it again.”

Reel improvement

Seven years later, the festival is humming along. 

Among this year’s judges is Tom Myers, GFS '76, a Northwestern University film graduate and professional sound designer who has worked with Lucasfilm and received three Academy Award nominations. Tom Quinn, a young writer and director whose films have received several notable awards, including the Grand Jury Prize at the Slamdance Film Festival, will deliver a keynote address to open the day’s festivities.

Workshops will follow throughout the afternoon, led by professionals and GFS alumni. For the first time that includes Eisenstein, who now works in the film industry as a cinematographer and will be teaching attendees how to edit a scene.

“What takes a scene from just two people looking at each other, to something interesting and engaging?” Eisenstein explained.

Afterward, attendees will head to Yarnall Auditorium for a panel discussion among student filmmakers, some of whom will join live internationally via videostream. The panel consists of nine of the 11 festival finalists and will be moderated by two PHYFF club members; locations represented include Australia, Ukraine, Canada, Russia, and India internationally, and New Jersey, San Diego, San Francisco, and Memphis, TN in the U.S. Then comes the big moment: the announcement of winners and screening of the films.

The event will mark the culmination of countless hours of work for Stace and her peers over the past year. Students working on PHYFF meet weekly as a club to work on planning, and also utilize regular “hook time,” free half-an-hour time slots during the week for students to work on projects. During January term, GFS runs a two-week PHYFF class in which students work nearly exclusively on preparations for the festival. There are also three full-day work days in August, November, and February where students come to campus voluntarily on a "day off" from school where they wouldn't normally be in school; and some teams also work significantly during the summer months.

Students in the club have also dealt with adversity of tragic proportions. Last summer, the GFS community learned of the unexpected passing of Gary Gai, an international student, in his home country of China. Gai had been set to be festival co-director. Instead, his clubmates held a memorial for him last October in which they screened “Seven Samurai,” one of Gai’s favorite films, and came to terms with moving on without him.

Now, they’ll dedicate the 2024 festival to his memory and work to strengthen the community left behind.