by H. Glenn Rosenkrantz

cia_sfjffSan Francisco – Getting inside teenagers’ heads isn’t so easy. But give them a creative outlet, and you’ll be flooded by what flows out.

Perspectives. Insights. Unspoken truths. And a burgeoning maturity that astounds.

Take 17-year-old Doria Charlson, for instance. She just graduated from high school and is bound for Stanford University this fall. She’s lived the relatively ordinary life of a teenager on the Peninsula, spending time on her studies, with friends, and active in school clubs and community groups and such.

One major speed bump along the way, though, was the split up of her parents, just weeks after her Bat Mitzvah. And so was born a struggle at once personal and universal: the quest to maintain normalcy and order following trauma.

Enter now the New Jewish Filmmaking Project (NJFP), a groundbreaking program giving Jewish teens in the Bay Area the opportunity, resources and expertise to explore and capture a slice of their personal Jewish identities and journeys through this most expressive of art forms.

For Charlson, that journey led to an embrace of Jewish holiday traditions, creating continuity for herself – and her family for that matter – and paving a way to greater understanding of self, and life.

“It’s a very personal story,” said Charlson of her four-minute film, A New Cup of Wine. “It’s about sadness and our ability to overcome that. But that’s only my story. There isn’t one cookie-cutter way of examining that, or any other issue. We as Jews are such a varied people with so many different stories to be told.”

But for the existence of NJFP, the stories and struggles and narratives of young people like Charlson might live nowhere beyond their own heads. Yet given this platform, their short films speak truths to audiences of all generations.

And considering the diversity of experiences and backgrounds and outlooks among those in this young Jewish generation, especially in the Bay Area, the possibilities appear, and are, unlimited.

“The NJFP engages people at a juncture in their lives when issues of identity – Jewish and otherwise – are very raw and present in a way they won’t be later in life. This is fertile ground for storytelling,” said Sam Ball, a documentary filmmaker who launched the NJFP, which has become a mainstay program of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

With the support of The Covenant Foundation and other funders, the NJFP has thrived and grown, earning glowing press reviews and garnering attention at international forums such as the 2008 Saint-Petersburg International Youth Film Festival in Russia, and INPUT, the world’s foremost international conference for public television producers.

Since 2002, 48 teens have participated in the NJFP under the tutelage of the noted film professionals at Citizen Film, a documentary production company in San Francisco co-founded by Ball with Sophie Constantinou and Kate Stilley-Steiner.

NJFP films premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, a major event on the summer calendar for filmmakers and some 20,000 cinephiles. The films reach thousands more through local television stations – PBS and CBS affiliates in the Bay Area have shown them – and in classrooms across the country.

The opportunity to expose works in such venues can certainly be a heady experience. But it is a key part of the craft, whether for professionals or for NJFP participants.

Klaira Markenzon of San Francisco was a high school senior back in 2003 when she took a spot with NJFP. In Klaira’s Story, she portrays her own struggles as a young newcomer to America, assimilating to a new culture while trying to keep the bearings of her Ukrainian-Jewish upbringing.

The film screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, then reached a television audience estimated at 60,000 viewers. The reaction was extremely positive, she said, because what she presented as a personal story resonated with so many and underscored the sheer power and expansive nature of film to touch others.

“People connected to my story and it got them to think about their own roots and their own backgrounds, and their lives now,” said Markenzon, now 23. “I was able to give people a reason to think about this … and that was powerful, and that’s really what it was all about.”

NJFP participants tend to be public school students because, NJFP officials said, such students typically approach issues of Jewish identity from a relatively oblique and diverse angle.

“We are meeting kids where they are,” Ball said. “We have no preconceived notions of what these kids are interested in, or what their Jewish story may be. But we do know that they are at an age where there is some inkling or glimmer of wanting to know and discover more about themselves. This makes for great storytelling on film.”

So powerful and well received are these documentary shorts that NJFP is taking on more national notice in Jewish educational circles.

The program received an additional grant from The Covenant Foundation to create digital platforms to deliver films, tool sets and curriculum guides to teachers, enabling them to use the films and the issues they present as starting points for classroom discussion. And the Jim Joseph Foundation has provided funding to establish a NJFP alumni program, which will allow an encore production by participants once they reach young adulthood with new perspectives and outlooks.

At this summer’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, running July 23 to Aug. 10, NJFP participants will create blogs and vlogs (video blogs), take part in discussions and generate content distributed through the festival’s New Media Initiative, which will stream NJFP shorts online.

Participants, industry professionals, audience members and educators say NJFP is of immense value to understanding and portraying the Jewish condition, both within the Jewish community and beyond it.

“We see every project that we take on as having a Jewish community component, and also a value for the greater society to further understanding and connection,” Ball said. “Storytelling is not unique to the Jewish experience, but it is certainly an essential component of the Jewish experience. To be interested in Jewish stories is to be interested in the Jewish community.”

One young NJFP filmmaker put it her own way.

“I’ve always been curious and interested in film,” said Markenzon, “and so I jumped at the chance to participate and tell my story. It turned out to be one of the most unique and wonderful experiences in my life.”

More information is available from New Jewish Filmmaking Project.