Ogden film student answers the question 'What does freedom mean to me?' with "Even Handed"

May 15 2011 - 5:05am

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NICHOLAS DRANEY/Standard-Examiner
Samantha Highsmith poses for a portrait in front of Ogden High School.
KUED photo
Samantha Highsmith (left) teamed with Gabby Huggins of West High School to produce "Even Handed."
NICHOLAS DRANEY/Standard-Examiner
Samantha Highsmith poses for a portrait in front of Ogden High School.
KUED photo
Samantha Highsmith (left) teamed with Gabby Huggins of West High School to produce "Even Handed."

"Why do you care?"

The question was asked of Ogden High School senior Samantha Highsmith at school one day. She had a sticker on her notebook for the Human Rights Campaign, an organization that fights for gay and transgender rights.

A classmate asked Highsmith what the sticker was, and she told him about the campaign.

"His reaction really caught me off-guard," Highsmith said. "Basically, he asked me why I care if I am not gay. Why do I care personally?

"I thought, well, that's a good question. I just couldn't verbalize why. I was really upset that I couldn't give him a very straightforward, clear answer."

After two years, she is now ready to show everyone her response -- with a short film, "Even Handed," she created for a KUED program.

The "Navigating Freedom: A Utah Youth Perspective" series features the work of eight Utah youth filmmakers, exploring what freedom means to them. The short film series plays at 9:30 p.m. Monday on KUED Channel 7.

The teens are a part of SpyHop Productions, a youth media art center in Salt Lake City that teaches design, audio and filmmaking.

"They came to us to produce four student-produced documentaries," said Frank Feldman, documentary arts instructor for SpyHop Productions. "KUED asked us to kind of find an all-star group, in a way.

"They wanted students who had been through a program before, who had experience, a proven track record. I picked these eight students and we just started pitching ideas together."

Meaning of freedom

Highsmith, 18, was scouring her brain to think of a good story when she went through the production meetings. That's when she recalled the sticker question.

"I was really struggling (with the idea). I knew that I wanted to express what freedom meant to me," Highsmith said. "So I told the story to my class, which ended up being the basis of my film."

When she told the story in the meeting, Feldman said, it was a big moment for everybody in the room.

Highsmith teamed up with Gabby Huggins, from West High School, to capture the story.

"It was really collaborative. I told this story and we go, 'Well, how are we going to retell it?' We didn't want to do a re-enactment," Highsmith said.

Instead, they used archival and new footage that Highsmith filmed and combined with drawings they filmed. Huggins wrote the essay that accompanies the footage.

The key to making the message relevant to others, Huggins said, is using these real-life examples to portray the journey those individuals took to discover why they care.

"The issue itself is important to me. I am an activist in general. I do a lot of volunteering," said Huggins, a junior at West High School. "We just thought it was be a good idea to document that (experience).

"I think a lot of storytelling is more interesting and more impactful when it is personal."

In the end, the five-minute film gave Highsmith the chance to explain why she cared about the rights of gay people.

Her response: My rights depend on the rights of others. Her voice gives a voice to others.

"The movie that we made ended up being my response," Highsmith said. "I am really happy with how it turned out with the response that I gave."

Future filmmaker

Highsmith is two weeks away from graduation and then begins working on a film degree at Seattle University this fall. Her work will be featured Monday on KUED and also at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June.

A documentary she completed last November on homeless youth in Salt Lake City was accepted by the film festival in the "Future Filmmakers Showcase: High School Shorts" category.

Highsmith said that filmmaking is simply what she is passionate about.

"It kind of stemmed from photography. I love storytelling and writing," Highsmith said.! "Documentary is what I have explored more in-depth. But I would love to get into more narrative fiction, writing my own stuff."

She joined SpyHop a few years ago. Her first documentary was filming a friend's wedding.

Then she pitched the idea of covering homeless youth. Huggins said she was impressed by an earlier film that Highsmith did on radioactive waste.

"I think Sam is good at telling stories that have to deal with an issue," said Huggins.

Feldman said Highsmith has always brought an excitement to filmmaking.

"She has a good view of the world and I think that this is what it really takes to be a good documentary filmmaker," Feldman said.

Her mother, Cathy Highsmith, said she has been impressed with Samantha's work, and grateful to SpyHop for nurturing her daughter's talents.

"It's neat for someone at such a young age to find something they are excited about," Cathy Highsmith said.

Human rights campaigns, radioactive waste and profiling homeless youth are topics that some filmmakers might never cover -- let alone a high school student.

Cathy Highsmith said Samantha volunteered at a homeless shelter for three months just to gain their trust to film them.

"I am really proud of her," said the elder Highsmith. "It would be easy to take the easy road and make films that were safe, and she didn't."

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