Student Uprising

Everybody in this walk-in closet of an editing room at the A.W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach is talking at once: Daniel Thomas, who's queuing up Thicker Than Water, a ten-minute video, for viewing; Justin Connelly, the video's writer, who says Thicker was originally inspired by Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale but doesn't resemble it now; Quint Dimick, who simply loves to talk; and the school announcer, whose voice is being piped through the hallways. Spring break begins tomorrow, and she wants to make sure all students know where to pick up their tickets for an upcoming school trip. "This must be done as a group," she demands.

The only person not talking is Dien Vo, a 16-year-old Vietnamese-American who was told two hours ago that his oddly titled video ( ) won first place in the high-school category of the Palm Beach International Film Festival's Student Showcase. The 13-minute video was one of 63 student works submitted to the festival, which runs April 9 to 18. First-, second-, and third-place winners were selected by four judges for three categories: high school, state college, and national college.

Dimick, a sophomore at Dreyfoos, can't contain his excitement. Vo's win, he says, is a victory for everyone. Although Vo directed the video, ten students served as actors, camera operators, and members of the production crew. As the school announcer stresses the word group, Dimick echoes her sentiments. "The thing is, you have a person like Dien, who knows what he's going for," he says, "but then you have everybody else helping because they can do it. It's not a one-man show."

As celebrity-centric as filmmaking appears to be these days, it is a collaborative process -- a fact made clear every "Oscar night," when costume designers, special-effects wizards, cinematographers, film editors, and makeup artists share the stage with "stars." But that's only once a year. "Teamwork" is a mantra chanted year-round at Dreyfoos.

"My peers," Vo says, "have influenced me a lot. [You learn by] just seeing what your peers can do and then just trying to make something to that quality."

It's no accident Dien feels this way. Ancil DeLuz holds the title of Dreyfoos' dean of communication arts, but he's a facilitator, not a dictator. He teaches film technology, lays down a few rules ("I tell them if they're doing something that's a murder scene, I don't want to see any blood"), and supervises productions. But the creative process is left to the students. In fact, shortly after learning of Vo's win, he allowed a reporter to visit the school on a moment's notice, then introduced a handful of students and disappeared for two hours.

Teenage anarchy? Not exactly. Dreyfoos, a four-year (9th through 12th grades) magnet school subject to the same academic guidelines as all other schools in Palm Beach County, demands that students applying for one of its five programs -- music, dance, theater, visual arts, and communication arts -- "audition" for admission. Once accepted, each student chooses his or her major. Separating Dreyfoos students from other high schoolers, Dimick says, "One difference is that we all want to be here."

Vo once wanted to be in the visual arts program. For the first couple years (prior to the 1998-99 school year, Dreyfoos comprised grades 7 to 12), he "took it all -- painting, drawing, sculpture, photography." Vo is a skinny, dark-haired kid who tends to mumble when he speaks. But as shy as he seems, he knows what he wants.

"I just had to come here," he says of his switch to communication arts, "because [with video] it's so much easier to present a concept than to do just one image and then have it represent everything you're supposed to be thinking."

Of the three videos he's made this year, Vo is proud of just one: the Palm Beach International Film Festival winner.

"He's a perfectionist, though," Michelle Millares, a sophomore, says during a group interview in DeLuz's office.

"Really?" she's asked, as laughter fills the room.
"Yeah, he doesn't like anything he does. Even this [video]."
"So how is he to work with?"
More laughter.

"You gotta understand him," says Thomas, a senior who was one of the camera operators on ( ). "He's gonna go for the perfect shot. And once he gets that shot, then he'll do it again."

On the small screen, at least, ( ) looks like it was shot on film. But film is such an expensive medium that all Dreyfoos productions are shot on video, then digitally edited and/or enhanced. "What we do is we teach the principles of film production, but we use video technology," DeLuz explains.

Vo isn't a fan of "explaining" anything -- as the wordless title of his film attests. "It's creative thinking," Barry Lewis, a student showcase judge, says of the title. "It pushes the envelope for me as a viewer. I have to decide what's happening in the film." It takes a few viewings to piece everything together. Although many of the images are film cliches, ( ) is a nonlinear piece featuring atmospheric music and lighting, fluid editing, and haunting sound effects. "What set that piece way ahead of the pack, in my opinion, was the narrative they were attempting to structure," says Lewis, who is also director of education and artistic development at the Kravis Center For the Performing Arts.  

At first glance the video is a collage of images: an "addict" preparing for a fix; a shadowy, Kafkaesque "trial" (shot in the school's studio); and an "execution" sequence (shot at a nearby railroad crossing). Vo provides the voice-over, which pops up intermittently and begins with this statement, just as the addict (played by Dimick) cooks some unknown drug over a candle flame: "I think everybody's responsible for it in some way. But I'm not responsible for it in any way." Later the addict faces a tribunal and is dragged to and from the trunk of a car by two shadowy figures. "Who are you to judge me?" Vo intones. "Who are you to execute me?"

Lewis, who sees in the film influences as varied as MTV, David Lynch, and Martin Scorsese, sums ( ) up in a concise way that Vo himself would appreciate: "I thought it was about alienation."

Alienation is less of a theme in Vo's life than it used to be. Although he switched programs last year, it wasn't until recently that he found a home among his fellow video students. Last fall he aced one of DeLuz's TV-production classes but insisted on reworking the piece he'd produced "to fix a couple of things," DeLuz recalls. Seeing that the grade mattered less to Vo than the project itself, DeLuz invited him to watch the shoot for Thicker Than Water, so as to learn from the upperclassmen producing it. And sure enough, "After Thicker Than Water, that's when I decided to start doing my own stuff," Vo says.

Producing any communication arts project -- a newscast, a public-service announcement, a film, a music video -- is an expensive proposition, and the county school board and the school's fundraising arm, the Dreyfoos School Foundation, can provide only so much money and equipment. That's why an outside source of funding, such as the Palm Beach International Film Festival (PBIFF), is useful. The PBIFF is one of hundreds of film festivals in the United States, and on the surface, it does nothing to promote local filmmaking; of the 50-odd films coming from 20 countries this year, only one, The Last Marshall, has a Palm Beach County connection: It was filmed there. But as Michelle Hillery, education production coordinator for the Palm Beach County Film & Television Commission, points out, the PBIFF "is the only [festival] I'm aware of that makes money, first of all, and then donates the money to local educational programs."

A nonprofit venture, the PBIFF attracts corporate sponsorship and hosts a number of moneymaking events, including a $500-a-plate "Grand Gala" honoring professional filmmakers. Blue Lake, a corporate development company and sponsor of the student showcase, will give the student winners cash prizes ranging from $500 to $1500. Dreyfoos will receive $1000 for Vo's film, and thus far, the PBIFF has given the school $50,000 in grants, according to Hillery.

The money is sorely needed. While showing a reporter the Dreyfoos School studio, Vo, Thomas, Dimick, and Connelly explain that, until last year, the studio sat idle because of a lack of equipment. Recent donations, including the PBIFF's, have brought in some new sound, lighting, and editing machines, but the studio itself needs an overhaul. Noting the low ceiling, Dimick says: "The only thing you can do in here is closeups."

DeLuz concurs. An updated studio would allow students to shoot sitcoms, film adaptations of novels, and newscasts, and updated equipment would foster more fieldwork.

"These students need to be doing documentaries on the blues singer who lives in Riviera Beach," he says, "or the person out in the Glades who's a third-generation farmer. There's stories to be told, and we're training [these students]. But by the time they get to a certain point --"

He stops for a moment, then chuckles and asks: "What am I going to do with Vo when he's a senior?"

The Palm Beach International Film Festival takes place April 9-18. See page 36 for a schedule and the locations of screenings. A program highlighting the Student Showcase films begins at 9:30 a.m., Monday, April 12, at the Eissey Campus Theatre, Palm Beach Community College, 3160 PGA Blvd., Palm Beach Gardens. For more information call 561-233-1044.  

Contact Rich Shea at his e-mail address:

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