Tucked away at Sonoma Valley High School, a group of inspired students – with the help of one dedicated teacher – are preparing to debut their films at the 17th annual Sonoma International Film Festival in a state-of-the art facility with specialized equipment funded by the proceeds of the film festival.
Peter Hansen has been working with the film festival, and leading students to their April debut through media arts classes at SVHS, for nearly 12 years. Prior to being a teacher, Hansen worked in the private sector for 10 years before deciding that he wanted to go back to school to pursue his passion for filmmaking and storytelling. With roots in broadcast journalism, Hansen easily navigated through film studies and ended up working in corporate media in Sonoma.
In 2002, he worked with high school students for SIFF’s first student workshop. There he learned his passion for filmmaking extended beyond the camera to teaching students about films as well.
Now, Hansen works as a full-time teacher at the high school to incubate the future of Sonoma’s filmmakers. The nonprofit Sonoma International Film Society, which produces the film festival, donates money to the high school to fund visual arts education, paying for software programs, computers, cameras and audio equipment for Hansen’s classroom. It also funds a majority of Hansen’s salary and pays students for film-related jobs and internships. Hansen allocates some of the money to give scholarships to students each year. With the assistance of SIFF board member Kimberly Hughes, Hansen even runs a middle school film program with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma Valley, exposing even younger Sonomans to filmmaking.
So far, Hansen said, almost $800,000 in donations has been made to the youth filmmaking program, with nearly 50 percent from SIFF and the rest from members of the community, especially those who learn about the program through SIFF.
The high school’s video classroom started with just two computers and four cameras, Hansen explained. Today, it is furnished with plush red computer chairs, numerous Canon cameras, dozens of Apple computers and more.
Because of the film festival, Hansen said, he doesn’t have to worry about funding for his class or limiting his students’ abilities because the school doesn’t have the budget to pay for necessary equipment. Instead, his biggest challenge is figuring out how to inspire and engage adolescents every day.
“You get students to talk and realize talking may not be words, so you let them talk through media,” Hansen said of his tactic for engaging students. “This allows students to think, and it allows them to use their voice. Then creativity will follow.”
Hansen teaches two levels of classes: a beginning class that focuses on storytelling and familiarizing students with cameras and editing equipment, and an advanced class that hones in on skills learned the first year.Students can also come for a third year as class mentors.
And students who pay attention leave Hansen’s class with something much more valuable than knowing how to work a camera or edit a video – they learn they are capable of anything they set their minds to.
Senior Jen Howlett learned this firsthand after taking Hansen’s class for three years. Howlett, a self-proclaimed “musical theater enthusiast” and “fanatic about films” has been acting since middle school. As an eighth grader, she participated in the middle school film workshop and has had a film – or been a part of a film – in the festival ever since.
Howlett has plans to attend a junior college before going off to audition for the Disney Academy. “My sisters want to be nurses and I want to be a Disney princess,” she half-joked. After seeing the latest Disney-Pixar film “Frozen,” Howlett said she would love an opportunity to act as lead character Anna, but is willing to take any position to get her foot in the door.
This year, Howlett has been interning for the film festival and, with the help of Hansen, will host director and writer Peter McEvilley, whose film “Le Sauvetage” will be featured. Howlett will also conduct a live question and answer session with the director and dogs.
To prepare for her big role at the festival this year, Howlett said she has been interviewing her peers and has been working as Hansen’s assistant. She credits his drive and motivation for her own success and that of so many of her peers.
“I have never seen someone devote so much time to being a teacher as I have Mr. Hansen.” Howlett said. “That’s why he has the ability to awaken people’s dreams – because he has that drive himself.”
As part of the festival, students have a chance to present their films for the first time at the Sebastiani Theatre. This year, according to Hansen, students will show 17 films, three of which are from the middle school level. They range from three-minute public service announcements to 15-minute “feature” films. Students at the high school level have just about two months to create their films, from initial concepts to finalized pieces.
Lily Shahoian, a junior in Hansen’s advanced film class, will be among the students premiering their films with her production that follows an autistic boy through high school.
Shahoian came up with the idea after watching “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” last year and thinking about the autistic students she has interacted with at school.
The young filmmaker not only researched autism to write the script for her film, but also handled all of the filming, directing and editing. She had a SVHS senior act as the autistic boy in the piece.
“I like how, when you hear a story, you can picture it in your head, but when you are a filmmaker you can actually show people exactly the picture in your head and you can make that come to life,” Shahoian said, explaining why she loves filmmaking.
For Shahoian, who wants to be a paramedic after high school and eventually go onto a career in nursing to help people, the most important message of her film is that people with autism “are just like everyone else, if not more special because they are more intuitive.”
She said it was Hansen’s teaching of how to tell a story that really helped her develop the sensitive topic of living with autism into a film. “We learn how to use protools and software, but the more important thing is telling a story that you can build and portray to other people.”
Shahoian feels nervous to show her film this year, uncertain how people will react to it. “People who have more experience (with autism) or know more about it may think I got things wrong … but my main goal is to help people, and I’m really driven by that and I felt like making this movie was the best thing I could do to bring awareness to it.”
Sophomore Ashanti Ellyson is also nervous – but excited – to debut her film that deals with another sensitive subject. Ellyson, a student in Hansen’s beginning film class, tackles the subject of sexuality in her film about a teenaged girl who has a boyfriend but questions her relationship and her sexuality.
Ellyson, who attended the middle school film workshop in seventh grade, said the film is not a movie about lesbianism, but about the very question of sexuality itself. The question, she explained, is something she has pondered in her own life. “I want people to feel a tolerance or an overall feeling of union and understanding when they see (my film),” she said. “I want high school kids to feel like they are accepting their selves.”
Ellyson wrote, directed and filmed the six-minute film and hired actors to star in it.
As someone who is critical of movies, Ellyson is anxious to see how the audience interprets her film and how industry professionals receive her filmmaking.
Ellyson draws inspiration from French New Wave films and directors like Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Mary Harron and Woody Allen. She hopes to be a filmmaker after high school and pursue her love of cinematography.
For Hansen, seeing his students’ films air in the festival is a culmination of pride and passion – a reinforcement of all that he does and a spark of the very love of filmmaking that started his journey a decade ago.
Sonoma Valley High School student films, and the middle school films, will be featured Thursday, April 3, at the Sebastiani Theatre, 476 First St. E., from 10 a.m. to noon.
The event is free, but seats are expected to fill up fast.