Not just another teen movie

By - Apr 1st, 2007 02:52 pm

By Evan Solochek + Photo By Kat Jacobs

A thin, dark-haired man in his early 30s stands before a classroom of disinterested high school kids. His name is Dominic Inouye and he is an English teacher. Normally he teaches AP English Literature but on this particular day he has taken over a colleague’s freshman English class with the task of helping them finish their short stories. Despite his best efforts, Dominic receives only tepid responses.

“Most of them were not terribly invested in what they were writing. They were, once again, writing for their teacher and the tiny group of classmates, who cared even less about reading something their peers wrote.”

Frustrated, Dominic ponders alternatives. Then comes a breakthrough: the video camera. Dominic jumps from his desk and haphazardly passes out the students’ stories. After every student has read through everyone’s stories, he has the students vote for the two they think would make the best movie: a love story about an arachnophobic butcher and one about a haunted house.


“I set them to translating the stories into storyboards, forcing them to create visual and auditory detail that just wasn’t present yet in the original stories. That done, we spent three days filming.”


While this may read as trite Hollywood melodrama at its worst, some alternate beginning to Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers perhaps, it’s not. This is the story of the Milwaukee Spotlight Student Film Festival.

A cooperative effort between Dominic Inouye and James Carlson, Executive Director of Bucketworks and founder of the School Factory, the MSSFF, now in its third year, remains the only event in Milwaukee dedicated solely to supporting high school filmmakers. “We want to see young filmmakers grow up in our state, or come from other states to learn here, and share skills with others,” Inouye says. “We want to see educators embrace video as an authentic, powerful assessment tool and allow children of all ages the chance to see, record and transform their worlds in new ways.”

For many students, the MSSFF is their first opportunity to exhibit a film publicly, a chance many filmmakers don’t get until much later in life, if ever. And that is precisely what makes the MSSFF such a fertile proving ground for its participants. “The festival gave me an experience of what it may be like working in the real world of film,” says Kaleigh Atkinson, who won Best Live Performance or Event in 2006 for her film Battle of the Bands ‘05: The Twitch Kids and who is currently studying film at UWM. “It encouraged us to find the true artist within, to branch out and put our visions to work.”

For Inouye, however, the MSSFF is about much more than just making movies; it’s about breaking down what he sees as entrenched educational barriers and, ultimately, enriching kids. “Teaching tends to be very ghettoized,” says Inouye. “I teach English, she teaches math, he teaches science, she teaches art. Very seldom do we cross boundaries into other disciplines. A video camera can become a wonderful cross-disciplinary tool for students to authentically demonstrate their understanding of any subject. On a creative level, a video camera and editing software invites young people to observe and envision their worlds in new ways, whether truthful or imaginative, funny or painful.”

And the films submitted do depict a myriad topics, from slick and action-filled music videos (T.J. Campbell’s Escape the Hurricane, Franklin HS, 2006) and lo-tech comedies (Greg Shutters’ The Identities Crisis, Marquette University HS, 2005) to Tom Clancy-esque spy thrillers (Evan Atwood’s Impersonator II, Brookfield East HS, 2005) and psychological explorations of consciousness (Stephen Paar’s Existence, Wauwatosa East HS, 2005).

All told, over the past two years 59 individual filmmakers and 7 classes have participated from over 25 area schools. And this year they’ve already received entries from California, Illinois, Missouri and New York, a testament to Inouye and Carlson’s vision.

Broadening the festival to include out of state entries was not part of the original plan. While cities like Chicago, New York and San Diego have long hosted youth film festivals, Inouye and Carlson felt Milwaukee deserved its own. Milwaukee is a unique city with a strong mix of urban and natural settings and a diverse population, which has all gone toward making Wisconsin an up-and-coming center for the independent film industry.

That said, the festival needed to reach beyond its existing borders in order to grow. So Inouye and Carlson opened up the festival’s borders and accepted out-of-state entrants. “We’re not a premier national youth film festival yet,” says Inouye. “But next year, because of the buzz, we could be.” VS

Tthe 3rd Annual Milwaukee Spotlight Student Film Festival happens Saturday, April 27, from noon to 4 p.m. at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The awards event will take place on Sunday, April 28, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Bucketworks. For more information, visit

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