George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Kids with Cameras: Student Filmmakers Do Documentaries

Who says successful documentarians can’t also be teenagers?

May 8, 2007

"When we got to our second film, that's when everything exploded," says Trace Gaynor, referring to the media attention that followed the release of the documentary Genie in a Bottle: Unleashed, about the atomic bomb, that he and Stephen Sotor created and produced in 2005. The following year, the Elmhurst, Illinois, pair finished their third film, The Final Frontier: Explorers or Warriors?, which examines the implications of a potential arms race in outer space.

Sotor and Gaynor are only fourteen years old, but after three years in the filmmaking business, they've become somewhat accustomed to the incredulousness their accomplishments inspire.

"In science, we're starting to talk about space," says Sotor, a freshman at Elmhurst's York Community High School. "When my teacher mentioned John Glenn, I said, "I met him,' and everybody was like, 'Yeah, right.'"

In fact, Glenn is featured in The Final Frontier. Sotor and Gaynor traveled to Ohio to interview the former senator; following their standard production process, Sotor operated the camera while Gaynor asked the questions.

"He was a really nice guy," says Sotor. "And he was really wise."

It all started in 2004, when Sotor's mother brought home a brochure for the Chicago International Children's Film Festival and mentioned the event's category for child-produced films, which featured a grand prize of $2,500 for the winning entry. "That was like bounty," Katie Sotor remembers. The boys, eleven at the time, interviewed their friends on camera about their experiences as preteens and made a film called Tween's Life.

"They didn't win the $2,500," Katie Sotor says, "but the film got accepted into the festival, which was a big deal."

The work on their next film, Genie in a Bottle: Unleashed, took off the following year, when they connected with artist Martyl, creator of the Doomsday Clock (the symbolic timepiece used by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to represent the human race's proximity to nuclear annihilation). The meeting with the widow of Manhattan Project scientist Alexander Langsdorf led to other interviews, including a conversation with Al Wattenberg, who also worked on the U.S. government initiative to develop nuclear weapons.

In addition to prominent commentators and a thoroughly researched story that mixes the boys' narration with historical footage, Genie is full of Stephen Sotor's creative cinematography and whimsical edits, Gaynor's original music, and imaginative personifications. Sotor's cousin, for example, plays the titular character, a turbaned embodiment of the A-bomb who laments that his nuclear powers have been misused and misunderstood. ("It was not my fault," the genie says. "I wish that wasn't the end result. I'm not a bad guy. I got cats. I sew. I cook a lot of pasta.")

When Genie started showing at film festivals around the world, the accolades and attention started rolled in. "It was a little overwhelming," said Gaynor's mother, Sheryl. The boys were even invited to screen the film at United Nations headquarters during the organization's 2005 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review. Carol Naughton, cofounder of the United Kingdom's Come Clean WMD Awareness Programme, wrote that during the two weeks of presentations and workshops at the review, "no event came anywhere near this screening for vitality, for laughs, and for holding the audience's total attention. The audience loved it so much, the film had to be given a second showing."

"That was the pinnacle," Gaynor says. "We started off having no idea what we were doing and ended up going to the U.N., showing our film, and having delegates from all over the world give us a standing ovation."

Genie's success also opened more doors for the duo's next film, on space weapons. In addition to John Glenn's appearance, The Final Frontier features interviews with Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, and Everett Carl Dolman, professor of comparative military studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at the U.S. Air Force's Air University.

The Final Frontier retains the visual, musical, and stylistic signature of their atomic-bomb documentary, but with their third film, Gaynor says, they wanted to offer a more balanced view of a controversial issue: whether countries should develop weapons for use in outer space. "In Genie, I don't think we showed both sides of the atomic bomb very well," he adds. "For space weapons, I suggested that we have both sides. I thought we should be more neutral. We aren't trying to force an opinion on anyone; we're trying to force them to make an opinion."

Sotor adds that provoking awareness in their viewers was one of their goals from the start of The Final Frontier. "We thought of it because we saw an article that said it's going to be like a new genie: Once it's done, it can never be undone. That's a cool idea for a film, because not a lot of people know about it and it hasn't started yet -- it's like a look into the future."

So far, many others have agreed it's a cool idea: The Final Frontier has screened at numerous venues, including Japan's Peace Boat (Sotor was a guest speaker with the Tokyo-based organization), the San Francisco International Film Festival, and the Chicago International Children's Film Festival, the competition whose cash prize had lured the pair into filmmaking two years before. Sotor and Gaynor captured the bounty: Their third documentary won first place in the 2006 Chicago festival's category for child-produced films (just as Genie had the year before).

Though their filmmaking careers have so far developed entirely outside of school, Sotor says he plans to introduce movie production to York next fall. "I'm making a film club. I got enough signatures for people who support it and want to be in it. The dean is getting a room and a time to meet for next year. I want to divide it into two or three teams, give them cameras, and they shoot their own film and then edit it or have someone else edit. Then we'll take people who didn't work on it, from outside the club, to watch the films and vote on what they like."

Before the club meets, Sotor and Gaynor will have completed their fourth documentary. This time, the subject is peace. Gaynor says they decided on the film topic by following their usual process: "We go to the board and write stuff down, think about what we should do. Stephen had taken a trip on the Peace Boat, and we thought we should do a movie on peace."

With help from their contacts at the United Nations, Sotor and Gaynor sent out video cameras and videotape, accompanied by a list of questions, to kids around the world in countries including Angola, Germany, India, Iraq, Pakistan, Russia, and Serbia. The footage has started to come back, and the codirectors will edit it and possibly juxtapose it with footage of themselves and their friends. "My goal would be to show that we're all the same," Gaynor says. "Next time we go to bomb somebody -- Iraq or Iran -- maybe we'll go back to think about that one boy from Iraq or that guy from Iran that you saw in our film and made you think, 'I do the same things that he does, and, hey, we're not that different.'"

Sotor, speaking in a separate interview about their next film's goal, was clearly on the same wavelength as his friend and collaborator: "The whole idea is just to humanize them."

Rob Baedeker is a writer and performer living in Berkeley, California. He is a former college English instructor and the author, with the Kasper Hauser comedy group, of SkyMaul: The Catalog Parody.

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