Even a global pandemic couldn’t dampen the excitement surrounding Germantown Friends School’s fourth annual Philadelphia Youth Film Festival (PHYFF), which took place on Saturday, February 27, 2021. Created and managed by Upper School students at GFS, the festival went virtual this year, but the program still maintained its core essence: workshops led by experts in the field, an awards ceremony, and a keynote speaker—this year, award-winning documentarian Dawn Porter.
As with the past three years, the festival is free and open to high school filmmakers anywhere in the world; this year’s 200 submissions, entered in four categories, came from 11 countries, including India, Iran, Ukraine, Spain, and Bangladesh, every continent, and 13 states. Student leaders saw an opportunity to connect even more interested students and pivoted to a virtual format, affording greater access for young filmmakers and awardees from outside of Philadelphia to Zoom in for the program.
Porter, whose work has appeared on HBO, PBS, Discovery, and Netflix, applauded the student organizers for overcoming obstacles and carrying out their festival mission with ingenuity and perseverance, and noted that “a lot of filmmaking is problem solving.” Porter also shared insights from her personal journey, and offered advice on how to create strong documentaries: put yourself in new environments, think about things you never thought of before, and “take advantage of listening.” She asked students to consider why they wanted to be creators, and shared her own inspiration for making documentaries: her “interest in people’s stories, those of hardship and [of] becoming leaders.”
“You are not just an observer, but a participant,” she explained. “Give your subject the opportunity to reveal. Excavate the story from the person.”
Porter, who is currently directing and executive producing an Apple TV documentary series with Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry that focuses on mental illness and mental well-being, previously directed John Lewis: Good Trouble for CNN Films, which explores late Congressman John Lewis’ pivotal role in the Civil Rights movement and his decades of political and social activism.
During the filming of another documentary, The Way I See It—about photojournalist Pete Souza, who served as Chief Official White House Photographer for President Barack Obama—Porter discovered that the story ended up being about more than beautiful photography; it brought to light the most important characteristic of being a president: empathy. “Give your subject the opportunity to reveal,” she explained.
Porter shared why making films about people of color is so important to her and to others. “There are more stories [out there] about people I want to see who look like me. So I did it myself. Every time we show someone unrepresented, it is an opportunity for our minds to grow.”
After this inspiring session with Porter, attendees listened to a panel of award-winning producers, directors, and writers, including Effie T. Brown, Elegance Bratton, and André Robert Lee, and participated in workshops with experts in the filmmaking field: Victor C. Reyes, Frauke Levin, Alex Favin, Kathy Van Cleve, Emory Van Cleve, Paul Bastian, Jacob Mazer, Carole Adrienne Murphy, and Glenn Holstein.
Student co-leader Noah Eisenstein ’21, shared, “My favorite thing about PHYFF is how many incredible young filmmakers are there and enthusiastic about participating in the workshops. I feel like I'm around the next generation of great filmmakers. When they're all winning Oscars in a few years, I'll remember that I was talking and networking with them at PHYFF, when we were all in high school.”
In addition to co-leaders Eisenstein and Sean Park ’21, PHYFF’s creative and production team also included: Caleb Ash ’22, Neil Bennett ’22, Simon Donovan ’23, Ben Fryer ’23, Graham Kohn ’24, Jacob Morse ’22, Otis Harrison ’22, Martina Kiewek ’22, Robert May ’21, Grace Raufer ’22, Harlem Rogers ’22, Sequoyah Sudler ’21, Taddy Wang ’23, Fengyu Yang ’23, and faculty advisors Sarah Kappel, Kate Garrity, and André Robert Lee. The group began planning the festival last spring.
“As someone who has done work with the PHYFF for three years, my favorite part is connecting with diverse groups of individuals who are also interested in film, whether they are professional filmmakers, beginners, film enthusiasts, or those who just want to learn more about film and its unifying effect on a community,” said Park. “And I cannot wait to see how much PHYFF continues to grow in the future.”