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.