Last month, Cinema/Chicago hosted the CineYouth film festival, an annual event showcasing short films made by young filmmakers from around the world. This year’s festival featured a variety of in-person programming from movie screenings, filmmaking workshops, and live Q&A sessions. After hosting the festival virtually last year, Ryan Saunders, director of CineYouth, was excited to welcome attendees back in-person.
“It was a nice reminder of just the amount of energy that comes in the room for a youth festival like CineYouth,” he said. “For many of these filmmakers it’s their first festival experience, so they’re thrilled to be there.”
Even more, festival attendance and programming is free, making it an accessible and educational experience for all attendees.
“One of the main goals of CineYouth is disrupting inequity in film production,” Saunders said. “The festival experience can be cost prohibitive, so I think by keeping the festival free everyone feels welcome to attend and they can get something out of it.”
This year’s festival featured 71 films from 17 different countries and 20 states. Opening night kicked off with the premiere of CineYouth’s Chicagoland program, featuring 10 films from Chicago-area filmmakers under the age of 22.
One of the Chicagoland films, “Let Us Breathe,” created by Northwestern students Katie Jahns, Liz Frohwein, Ali Wilt, and Alisa Gao, received the Social Impact Award, presented by Make It Better Media Group on Sunday night.
“Let Us Breathe” is an educational documentary that follows two student activists in the southeast side of Chicago, as they fight against General Iron, a scrap metal plant that would bring dangerous levels of pollution to an already vulnerable community. Over the course of 15 minutes, the film tackles environmental racism and the power of youth activism in the city of Chicago. At the heart of the film are youth activists Destiny Vasquez and Gregory Miller, who fight tirelessly for the health and wellbeing of their community.
“It was really the students who were the ones fighting against General Iron, because it was directly going to impact them,” recalled Katie Jahns, one of the “Let Us Breathe” filmmakers. “They were the ones that were going to be getting the brunt of the pollution.”
For young filmmakers like Jahns, being recognized at CineYouth can be just the motivation needed to continue pursuing their dreams in the industry.
“This was my first time going through the festival route, and so the response has just been amazing,” Jahns said. “Winning the Social Impact Award was nice to just get some recognition that all the hard work that we were doing wasn’t for nothing. People were seeing this and the message was being spread.”
Additional programming throughout the weekend including workshops on screenwriting, editing, and film programs dedicated to a variety of genres and topics such as mental health, family dynamics, and identity. The festival also provided networking events, which were opportunities for young filmmakers to make connections with their peers and leaders in the industry.
“It’s become a really exciting jumping off point for many of these filmmakers to land films at other big festivals and meet new folks that they can work with professionally,” Saunders said.
After spending so long planning programming and shifting through 300 submitted films, seeing it come together this past weekend was rewarding, Saunders said. As they hope to expand featured films and programming in upcoming years, this past weekend was a testament to the importance of uplifting youth and their creative endeavors.
“Having those filmmakers make the trip to Chicago, it’s just so heartwarming to meet them and celebrate their art and encourage them in their goals,” he said. “ We do take a lot of pride in uplifting those filmmakers and reminding them how much their art meant to us and how much we value it, so that’s always my favorite part of the weekend.”
But the fun didn’t end Sunday night. From April 25-May 1, all the feature films were available to stream for free on the Chicago Film Festival website. Select award-winning CineYouth films will be screened at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival at the CineYouth “Best of the Fest” screening in October of this year.
Those who are interested in learning more about the festival can also visit the CineYouth homepage to learn more about all of the featured films, award winners, and workshops.
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Melissa Perry is a senior journalism and international studies major from Northwestern University. Raised in Mt. Sterling, Illinois, Melissa is a proud Midwest girl through and through with a lifelong love for dance and the arts!