|Screenshots from the presentation.|
Two groups of teens sat isolated in their homes, separated from their schools and classes by a global pandemic. Quarantine had severed their connections to the outside world. Confinement—and the Pacific Ocean—guaranteed they'd never meet each other.
Until a project offered to bring them together, with the help of a film camera.
That project came to life Thursday, as artist Jeremy Hung premiered Film Stylo on the International Festival of Arts and Ideas' virtual stage. Hung is one of New York's Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office Art Activators, a Yale-China Arts Fellow, and founder of Babel Film Workshop, a Hong Kong-based company that provides children and adolescents "visual literacy education through filmmaking."
Hung moderated the event with Festival Producer Melissa "Missy" Huber, Yale-China Vice President and Director of Programs Leslie Stone, and Yale Child Study Center Child Psychiatry Fellow and Film Stylo’s children mental wellness consultant Dr. Eunice Yuen.
Hung launched Film Stylo earlier this year, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Through the project, students aged 13 through 18 had an opportunity to create a personal short film based on their quarantine experiences. The program brought in over 70 films from 200 students across the United States, United Kingdom, Brazil, India, and Hong Kong, including work by the festival’s own high school fellows. With the assistance of Film Stylo mentors, students created and uploaded films to the organization's website.
"I think Film Stylo taps into one of the key goals of filmmaking, which is empathy," Hung said. “Specific attributes of film make it the most successful medium at creating empathy in others. It is the only time where you can actually show others exactly how you see the world and vice versa.”
"However, even as filmmaking technology is becoming increasingly accessible for people of all ages, what is still inaccessible, for a large part, is the film language, or how we can actually use technology and the film medium to express ourselves and share our thoughts and feelings with other people," he added.
Hung seeks to be that bridge. Discussing the power of “intercultural empathy,” he highlighted six student films, three from New Haven and three from Hong Kong.
Hung paired videos by prompt: one New Haven and one Hong Kong take on "My Daily Routine," "My Homeschooling Experience," and "How I Stay Active at Home." Although filmmaking pairs were a literal ocean apart, separated by culture and circumstance, the event's moderators and livestream viewers marveled at the adolescents' emotional synchrony. To accommodate the time difference, the event took place on Thursday morning in New Haven, which was Thursday evening in Hong Kong.
Under "My Daily Routine," 16-year-old Kaatje Welsh (pictured above) and Fourteen-year-old Harini Thiyagarajan presented distinctive films with strikingly similar themes and emotional beats. Welsh, a high school fellow and student at New Haven Academy, opted for an organic feel—dimmed lights and tightly compact settings creating a sense of isolation. Thiyagarajan, who lives in Hong Kong, used special effects to make the high-rise apartment where she is isolating appear a simulation.
Welsh held her camera at eye-level, creating a first-person experience as viewers moved throughout her home. Thiyagarajan opted to film a body-double going through her daily routine, creating an effect as surreal as artificial intelligence. Both girls struggled to balance society's pressure for productivity with the exhaustion and monotony quarantine produced.
"My idea for my film came from a movie I watched a couple of years ago called Groundhog Day," Thiyagarajan said. "I like the concept of repeating a day over and over again, and I felt like that was something we were all going through. I do try to revise the subjects I'm falling behind in, but to be honest, the majority of my evenings I use to do anything I feel like doing, like binge-watching Netflix or irritating my friends.”
Welsh agreed wholeheartedly. While the two were 12 hours and thousands of miles apart, they found common ground in their struggle to get schoolwork done on time.
"While I'd like to say that after breakfast, I go and do all of my homework for the week, I usually procrastinate watching Netflix or talking to my friends," Welsh admitted. "I actually get a spurt of energy at night, usually doing homework while in bed. I'll fall asleep around 3 a.m.”
The next pair, New Havener Aime Mulungula and Hongkonger Donovan Wong, were rather studious—their desire was not for rest, but for contact. Both boys placed their films under "My Homeschool Experience," and each film was accompanied by a classical music score. It was not difficult for them to stay occupied in their respective homes: Mulungula practiced mathematics, listened to his online lessons, and entertained his younger brother.
Wong did his homework, worked on piano exercises, and cellist's études. However, both boys missed their friends and the feelings of normalcy that accompanied their presence.
"Usually I'll have lessons then go out at lunch and play football with my friends, but everything changed after the pandemic," said Wong. "I've been able to adjust to online schooling, but I do miss my friends. Hopefully, there will be no more cases."
Mulungula processed the pandemic's effects in front of viewers' eyes.
"You start to believe how much things have changed since the pandemic. It has opened many people's eyes, including myself," he said. "I realize how little we were grateful to the little things in our lives—shows are missing their crowds, students are missing the schools they used to complain about every day (some are even saying maybe it was worth it waking up in the morning to catch the bus), many people are craving to go back to society.”
“I've honestly learned a lot during this intense time, but most importantly, I learned that we should always be grateful for everything in our lives, even the little things,” he added. “Love everything—your freedom, your health, trees, family, I mean everything because everything has its hand."
The final grouping displayed their family support systems under "How I Stay Active at Home." The pandemic put New Havener Sylvia Jessen-Cohn and Hongkonger Chloe Wan at a loss. Both girls were athletic, exuberant, and extroverted; Jessen-Cohn danced with New Haven Ballet six days a week, and Wan regularly enjoyed playing outdoor Ping-Pong with her peers.
Staying inside was their worst nightmare realized, they joked. Both films emphasized these feelings of confinement with shots of the landscape through windows,Jessen-Cohn's screen displaying a forest, and Wan's the lights of a bustling city below.
As each film went on, that despair lifted.Jessen-Cohn began looking up ballet training exercises until her company could start a virtual platform. Wan listened to Lady Gaga's performances online and engaged her inner musician.
Jessen-Cohn took socially distanced walks with her mother and began bike riding with her father in secluded areas. While Wan was unable to go outside, she started spending more time with her parents, even playing indoor Ping-Pong with her mother on their dining room table. Each film was utterly heartwarming.
"I'm a 14-year-old girl living at home," said Wan. Here, most of us live in tiny apartments of 100 square feet. The size of our homes constrains us, and it is hard to be physically active. When I received the premise of this film, it was hard for me to come up with anything to film at all. But when I started to make a list of what I could do at home, I realized this point in life isn't that bad after all. Although COVID-19 has brought a lot of negative health impacts on the world, it has also allowed me to reflect on my daily life."
Jessen-Cohn also garnered observations from a period of self-examination and introspectiveness. She explained that before COVID-19, she was used to walking at least a mile each day. The pandemic has upended her whole routine.
"Thank you, Jeremy, for this the concept," she said. "Social distancing has brought new challenges to the lives of students. We need to figure out how to readjust our home lives and schedules to compensate for what we would normally do out in the world."
In the future, Hung hopes to allow other students to realize their own power. Currently, he plans to keep Film Stylo going through the summer months, with new additions on the Babel Film Workshop website.
"We have basically been trying to figure out how we can turn this initiative into a social enterprise that can enable this kind of intercultural exchange between classrooms using filmmaking,” he said. “I want this to be an opportunity for even more students. After the summer, that's where we're headed. We're going to try to make this available to more students around the world."