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Chicago Program Gives High School Girls Lessons in Documentary Filmmaking

At the upcoming Cannes Film Festival, three of the projects screening in the Short Film Corner — “Birthday,” “Phenomenally Me” and “Without Dying” — will be products of the DePaul/CHA Documentary Filmmaking Program, a six-week course co-sponsored by the Chicago Housing Authority in which high school girls learn filmmaking from graduate students and faculty of DePaul University. 

The program’s founders know that access to moviemaking and equipment — and the chance to put them into action — can be a life-changing experience. Just ask Zana Carter, who a few summers ago was a high school student with a love of writing and the films of Spike Lee and a desire to see more stories on screen that reflected her life as a resident of Chicago public housing.

“Those things drove me into filmmaking,” says Carter. “Being part of an African American community with stories not being shared that should be acknowledged” was important. Carter, helped make the bullying documentary “What If I Told You” as part of the DePaul/CHA program. She’s now a junior at DePaul studying filmmaking, with a focus on cinematography.

That kind of outcome is what earned the program the support of Chaz Ebert, widow of legendary film critic Roger Ebert, who sponsors a premiere night for the films and seeks post-program opportunities both for the shorts and for the students. “The girls in the DePaul/CHA program have voices and viewpoints that you don’t see or hear a lot of in the larger film community,” says Ebert, a Housing Authority resident in her youth. “I think these are voices that are very important.”

Now entering its fourth year, the program accepts 16 female African American high school students and teams them up with DePaul teachers and grads as advisers. It pays the students an hourly wage to spend six weeks conceiving, shooting and finishing a documentary short on a topic of their choosing. Funding comes jointly from the CHA and DePaul; facilities are made available by the campus and by Cinespace Chicago Film Studios. 

The dozen or so films produced so far have earned festival kudos at Black Maria, Reel Sisters of the Diaspora and Windy City Intl. 

Advisers teach students how to use cameras and sound equipment, and also assist in the groundwork of making contacts, finding subjects, conducting interviews and shooting b-roll. Post-production, including editing, sound and color grading, takes about a week, says John Psathas, an associate professor at DePaul who has mentored in the program.  

Topics such as cinematography are taught in a basic way, with students using the same introductory cameras as DePaul’s film students, typically a Canon XF-100, says Psathas. 

The entire approach is definitely hands-on. “Our philosophy is that the best way to learn how to make movies is to make them, and the more you make, the better, so a lot of this is getting the cameras into the hands of the students and letting them experience what making a movie is like,” says Gary Novak, director of the School of Cinematic Arts at DePaul.

Ebert says her late husband would have loved seeing the results. “When I do ventures like this, I really miss having him as a partner,” she says. “Because we loved working together on this stuff.” 

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