"Perth Amboy students working to produce superstorm Sandy films," by Suzanne Russell, May 5, 2014.
Edgard Sanchez is trying to learn whether there was any miscommunication as organizations and government agencies sought to help people -- especially those who don't speak English -- get the information they needed to survive superstorm Sandy.
He's making a short documentary film to find the answer.
Sanchez, a senior at the Academy for Urban Leadership High School in Perth Amboy, said he's seen the problem first hand.
"I'm a first-generation American, so I can see the language barriers in which my mom finds herself often. And it happens and I can imagine it happens to other people here in Perth Amboy because its heavily populated with Hispanics. I'm more than certain other people are facing this problem," he said.
Sanchez is one of about 36 students from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Perth Amboy involved in a Citizen Journalists Program, which teaches students how to be journalists for online media. The students are in the program in conjunction with their participation in the Raritan Arts Collaborative program, which is funded by the Dodge Foundation and a $5,000 grant from the Gannett Foundation.
"This is a special program made possible by the New Jersey Recovery Fund and funds from the Dodge Foundation made available post Sandy to deal with recovery issues in communities hard hit by Sandy," said Caroline Pozycki, Raritan Arts Collaborative program manager at the Jewish Renaissance Foundation.
Superstorm Sandy slammed into Perth Amboy in October 2012, damaging homes and businesses along the waterfront and literally lifting boats out of the marina and knocking them against the base of Bayview Park and the Raritan Yacht Club.
Portions of the city were without power for more than a week.
Since November, students have been involved in the after-school documentary filmmaking program taught by Dan Swern, producing director of an organization called coLAB Arts, and two teaching artists, Jordan Turner Clark and Marianna Moneymaker.
"We've been working for the last couple of years trying to launch a digital film-making program with the Jewish Renaissance Foundation, and this grant from the New Jersey Recovery Fund finally offered an opportunity to try it out," Swern said. "So what we've been doing is working with students creating our own short films about Hurricane Sandy."
Sanchez and Nico Francisco, a student at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen, chose to become writer and director of their own narrative films. Other students became production crew members working on Sanchez and Francisco's films as well as producing a behind-the-scene film of how they produced the two narrative films.
"It takes a lot to produce a film," Pozycki said.
Production on the films ran from November through March, with the students receiving instruction from professional filmmakers.
"They took it to the streets. It was a rough winter taking it to the streets," Pozycki said.
Students also receive instruction on how to conduct interviews from The Citizens Campaign, an organization dedicated to repairing democracy by training citizens in no-blame politics and evidence-based problem solving. The students participated in a news conference at Perth Amboy City Hall when state Senate President Stephen Sweeney kicked off this Sandy Bill of Rights tour in February.
"It was pretty interesting being able to combine all the skills they learned and put them to work" Pozycki said.
Students are now in the editing phase.
Swern recently took the students to visit NJTV where they met news anchor Mike Schneider and visited the engineering room. The cable television station offered to air some of the students films.
Pozycki said the New Jersey Recovery Fund also has a large network of organizations that will assist in screening the students' films, which also will be shown on Perth Amboy's cable television station and at a Boys & Girls Club Film Festival being scheduled for June. The film also will be screened this year during the graduation activities for the Academy for Urban Leadership High School, the first graduation for the Amboy Avenue charter school.
"It's pretty exciting stuff," Pozycki said
The students are still planning to host an event in June to gather more interviews and Sandy stories from the community residents.
"I think that footage would help to complete a feature length film that will be screened," Pozycki said. "It's pretty intimate stuff to talk about your Hurricane Sandy story. I think their interview skills will help them."
Sanchez said he's still working on a title for his film, which he hopes to edit down to about 20 to 30 minutes.
He said it will focus on miscommunication and mistranslations people experienced during the storm.
His film includes an interview with the director of the Hurricane Sandy Victim Outreach Initiative at the Puerto Rican Association for Human Development, who has a program geared toward getting case management resources to individuals who are undocumented and don't speak English.
"I think his program is the closest I've seen to addressing the problem I'm trying to solve. He does it by keeping everything classified and keeping everything confidential with his clients. And since there is confidentiality going on, they are more eager to come to him then they would to call FEMA to ask for help," Sanchez said.
Soveyra Acosta, unit director of the Boys & Girls Club of Perth Amboy, said the program also gives community members an opportunity to voice their opinions and speak about the challenges and struggles they went through during Sandy.
"What better way to capture it than to have our own students do that," she said, adding it has been a good learning experience for the students. "Classes like that are not often offered."
Sanchez said he never thought about becoming a filmmaker.
"I didn't think I was going to get behind the camera but when they let me know about this program, I always like to try new things and since this program is going to go from the very basic to the very expert level of editing, directing, storytelling, I just jumped right into it." Sanchez said.
Sanchez said he also was enticed by the citizen journalism aspect of the program.
Sanchez said he met Harry Pozycki, founder of The Citizens Campaign, who told him about his view on citizens taking power in their local government in the roles of legislators, leaders and journalists.
"I didn't know where to start, but when this opportunity came I made a connection with the journalism and I can see now in plays a part in the community," Sanchez said.
Sanchez, who hopes to attend the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., now sees filmmaking as part of his future.
"I don't necessarily have to become a director. I don't have to major in film to use these skills I use today in this program. I think it's something you can use anytime, especially if you want to impact government. This is just a start. I'm hoping I can make a few more documentary films whenever I see something I'm really passionate about," he said.
Yessica Leonardo, 15, an Academy for Urban Leadership student, was part of the production team: "We handled the equipment like the cameras and where they should be positioned and the tripods and the sound with the mikes."
Melina Garcia, 18, a senior at the academy also served on the production team along with academy student Karina Garcia, 14, who became involved in the program for the experience.
Filmmaking as curriculum
Caroline Pozycki, who is Harry Pozycki's daughter, sees a real interest in reporting about local issues and citizen journalism.
She said Swern is looking into introducing the filmmaking curriculum into the daytime class schedule at the charter school.
"The commitment level for this class was very intense. There were at least six hours a week in addition to other work," Pozycki said.
Swern said the program included some work over weekends. Students who worked on the project received school credit from the principal.
"Perth Amboy students deserve these opportunities. We have great students. There are a lot of stories to be told here," she said.
"I think it would make a terrific course because it merges the critical-thinking skills with the art and creativity and the fine art of digital storytelling," said Steve Mercadante, an Academy for Urban Leadership technology teacher. "What these folks did was give these kids the tools to be able to do the art part and technology part, but also the planning. It ties it all together."
But after watching the students work, Mercadante said he can't go to the movies without noticing all the special effects and sound effects, more than the storyline.
"It is exciting," he said.