Students Become Filmmakers

A small group of Thompson Falls High School (TFHS) students began their summer break by diving into the world of filmmaking. In partnership with MAPS Media Institute, a nonprofit organization based out of Bitterroot Valley, students had the opportunity to participate in a five-day filmmaking camp. With assistance from MAPS film instructor Dan Molloy, the students wrote and produced their own film titled “Dragonfly.”

MAPS, originally known as Media Arts in the Public Schools, began in 2004 as an after-school and summer arts program. The company quickly flourished, evolving into a nonprofit and a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program awardee, which has allowed them to expand their reach across several communities in Montana.

“MAPS empowers, inspires, and prepares Montana’s future generations for success through professional media arts instruction, engaging community service and compassionate mentoring,” said Janna Williams, MAPS communications and marketing director.

The summer filmmaking classes were made possible for the four students with support from Thompson Falls school district, Montana GEAR UP, Greater Montana Foundation and MAPS. “Since 2004, while our classes are still free of charge, MAPS has expanded to year-round programming, which reaches hundreds of students grades 8 through 12 in dozens of schools throughout Montana,” said Williams.

“Dragonfly” was a group effort. The film focuses on the students’ experience and emotions going through the COVID-19 pandemic and changes they experienced coming out of it.

“They wrote the story together,” TFHS teacher Lisa Mickelson said. “They call it an internal drama.”

Mickelson said the students are enjoying the journey of making their own film. “When you get creative minds together, a lot of the time the story gets written pretty quickly. They’re all very artistic, and they’re good friends, which helps.”

This creative opportunity wasn’t always available to TFHS students, but the summer filmmaking workshops made it possible for all Montana GEAR UP schools. “They don’t have this kind of opportunity here. A lot of students need this outlet, so it’s awesome to see them get this experience,” Mickelson said.

“Penny Beckman is our GEAR UP liaison,” said MAPS Media Institute Executive Director Clare Ann Harff. The executive director said when Beckman reached out to bring MAPS to Thompson Falls for the first time last year, COVID-19 shut everything down. “We have the skill set to set up online pretty quickly,” Harff said. “So in 2020, we conducted a remote online workshop with the students, but this year is the first in-person workshop here.”

Filmed on school property, the movie begins not in color but in black and white, setting the tone for the students’ feelings toward the pandemic. While there is a rule for no horror movies, the sense of loneliness and isolation are present throughout. The film begins with filmmaking student Ashton Childers, who arrives at an empty school and in a state of confusion as he tries to decipher his thoughts while the world faces a global pandemic head on.

Filmmaking student and director of photography Thomas Swedberg said they also wanted to convey the series of emotions they felt as they spent the last year stuck inside, going through a mundane, daily routine. “This is the first group I’ve been with where everyone has been on board with the same story, and it’s very apparent of the last year,” Molloy said.

The students began filming Monday, and by Wednesday they were wrapping up, only needing to film retakes. “It has really come together and hasn’t changed from the original idea,” Molloy said.

The students chose to film using only Childers’ voice, leaving it up to him to use his own artistic impression as he is seen throughout the school running from the students’ own creation of how they view the virus. They included only little glimpses of Childers surrounded by his friends in the school’s library to get him through his day. Filmmaking student Aubrey Baxter said nearly all the sounds heard in the film were created by them.

A final showing of the film to family and friends was set up for the last day of camp.

The film has been well received by the students’ mentors. “I remember getting a call from Dan Molloy,” Harff said. “He told us, ‘We’ve got something really good here.’ When we saw this film, we knew it was beyond worthy of submission.”

“We submit to multiple student film festivals,” said Williams. “We also submit to the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The award coming out of this is equivalent to a student Emmy.”

The title of the film came about by chance. After a dragonfly flew into the classroom during filming, MAPS student teaching assistant Quin Vulk said there was a rush to the computer as the students searched for a meaning behind the moment. After learning that a dragonfly symbolizes change, a recurring theme in the film, the inspiration for the title became real.

“There was something special about this film when the team watched it,” Williams said. “Even though the content of the film leans toward coming out of COVID, it resonates well with many backgrounds, including topics surrounding teen suicide and bullying.”

Even after suggestions from Molloy on slight changes, such as making the film shorter and adding more dialogue, the students stayed true to their vision. “Every time, these kids stood up for their art and what they wanted and, in the end, we got it done,” Molloy said.

“The film traverses many conceptual landscapes,” Harff said. “They really made this in five days. We will definitely be submitting this film. They had some incredible creativity, and it was very apparent that it had been subdued over the last year.”

To view the film “Dragonfly,” visit the MAPS YouTube channel or the Ledger Facebook page.