Newtown High School junior Jonathon Schwartz, 17, got to experience the glitz and glamour befitting a Hollywood red carpet event at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, where the young filmmaker received an award on April 26 for Outstanding History Short presented at the 2013 Connecticut Student Film Festival (CTSFF).
Jonathon accepted the accolade on behalf of a group of Newtown High School students who made a historical documentary entitled Crushed: The Lone Trail of a Vietnam War Veteran.
The team consisted of Matt Lindell, Tim Kelly, Briana Man, Alexa Reyes, Alex Lapinski, Mitchell Roberts, Brooke Newton, Abi Kuligowski, and Jonathon Schwartz.
The project was part of Education Connection’s Preserving Our Histories of Connecticut Veterans program, a literacy and applied technology enrichment program for students in northwestern Connecticut and the greater Danbury area. NHS social studies teacher Gary Franklin started and oversaw the program at the high school to encourage students to view history in a more appealing light by taking an active role in documenting the subject.
“History isn’t always the most exciting topic for high school students,” Mr Franklin said. “I don’t think they understand how exciting it can be.”
The subject of their award-winning documentary was Reed Intermediate teacher and Vietnam War veteran James Roodhuyzen. The students interviewed Mr Roodhuyzen about his experiences in Vietnam. The veteran focused on the inequitable way he was treated by his superiors as he trained to become a Green Beret. Jonathon found Mr Roodhuyzen’s candor and unique perspective surprisingly intriguing.
“Whenever I saw interviews they were mundane,” Jonathon said. “I wasn’t expecting it to be interesting, but as he spoke I found I wasn’t even checking the camera for angles, I was just listening to him tell stories. It was interesting what he had to say.”
Mr Franklin also found himself “riveted” by Mr Roodhuyzen’s story and said the access to veterans, which the program encourages, gives the student filmmakers the chance to tell a unique story.
“These students have an opportunity no one else has had,” Mr Franklin said. “They can tell a story that’s never been told.”
Part of the storytelling process required editing the raw footage, which Jonathan said took him approximately 40 to 45 hours, a process that regularly kept him up to 2 am and proved to be tedious and challenging.
“I had to keep watching the footage over and over again,” Jonathon said. “Trying to narrow an hour and a half interview into a five-minute thing was more difficult than I expected.”
In addition to editing the interview, Jonathon also scoured the Internet for historical war footage that served to visually accentuate Mr Roodhuyzen’s accounts, a laborious but worthwhile process that Jonathon feels set the film apart from its competition.
“We tried to make it unique,” Jonathon said. “We put symbolic things instead of a guy talking; we added historical footage, we made it unique as possible.”
Despite his commitment and sacrifice, Jonathon said he was not positive his team’s film would top perennial CTSFF powerhouse Woodland Regional High School, which has received six awards in multiple categories over the last four film festivals. Adding to the anxiety was the fact that a keynote speaker, at a CTSFF event prior to the awards ceremony, gave Woodland Regional High School’s film his critic’s choice award.
“I watched ours and I watched theirs, I can’t really say I knew we were going to win,” Jonathon said. “I felt confident. but I wasn’t sure.”
Mr Franklin knew the film had a chance to win after viewing the finished product.
“Everything was precise, it was clean,” Mr Franklin said. “A lot of the success of your story is how interesting your veteran is, and ours was. We had background music, we had b-roll [the supplemental historical footage], it kept your attention. I had a pretty good feeling going in.”
When the Newtown students’ film was announced as the winner, Jonathon experienced a flood of emotions.
“When I heard NHS, it was a couple seconds of disbelief. I got interviewed twice behind the stage and I felt excitement, adrenaline, and a sigh of relief,” Jonathon said. “It was nice to have it all come together and see us win.”
Jonathon, who has been making films since he was 10 years old, plans on pursuing a film degree in college and is undaunted by the competitive and challenging career field. Jonathon is optimistic his passion for filmmaking will continue to result in success.
“I know when people hear you have a major in film, it’s often frowned upon,” Jonathon said. “If you have enough passion for something, it’ll bring you as far as your passion will go.”
Jonathon and Mr Franklin both said they are looking forward to submitting a film to next year’s film festival.
Crushed: The Lone Trail of a Vietnam War Veteran can be found on an April 27 post on NHS’s Blog, http://dumais.us/newtown/blog/, and on YouTube by searching for the documentary’s title.