The documentary project: Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School finds more ways to tell stories

Aidan Varkonda, left, and Barry McDonald. — Photo by Courtney Howell

A few weeks ago, small groups of about two dozen senior English students at the high school huddled near their digital editing stations in Room 411, focused intently on their computer screens. They were debating where to insert voiceovers, add sound bridges, cut, delete, or edit video segments. Some conducted research. They were making editorial decisions and agonizing over the lack of “B-roll,” which they were quick to explain to a reporter has a multitude of uses, one of which is to illustrate what’s being discussed in an interview. All of the students were working to complete their short video documentaries as part of a new digital documentary-making program at the high school.

The program they are involved in was developed as a collaboration between Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival managing director Brian Ditchfield (MVRHS class of 1995), operations manager at the Film Festival Hilary Dreyer (MVRHS class of 2009), and regional high school English department chair Dan Sharkovitz.

“The Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival is expanding its programs in the schools,” Brian Ditchfield told The Times, “and I’m really happy to be pushing those efforts forward. I want to be part of creating the next generation of documentarians, filmmakers, and storytellers.”

For their project, seniors Grace Burke, Aidee Espino, and Breana Santos decided to investigate a growing controversy attached to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights movement: Should graduation gowns be gender-neutral? Last year the high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance club (GSA) sent out surveys to test the general opinion in the school on whether the gowns should be switched to a single color.

Traditionally, female graduates wear white gowns and males wear purple. For some people, having to declare their gender in such a way is a painful choice between publicly announcing that they are transgender or feeling disloyal to their true identity. The majority of the student body, however, felt that tradition and aesthetics trumped consideration of the feelings of a minority. The survey found that 60 percent of the student body didn’t want one color for all graduation gowns. In the comments section of the surveys, people wrote, “Who cares?” “Relax,” “This doesn’t matter.” No change was made in the graduation gowns’ colors. In the documentary, Aidee said, “we wanted to give people the information to choose for themselves what position they have on this issue. We’re interested in seeing how the community responds, and in generating discussion.” They featured statistics on the number of LGBT youth possibly in the high school, and an interview from history teacher Corinne Kurtz.

Another group of students — Mason Jeffers, Jeremy Mercier, Chase Silvia, and Kenny Hammond — wanted to investigate the school’s discipline system. Mason said, “It’s a problem that’s been going around the school for a long time. We’ve had four different principals in four years.” Each of the new heads of school has introduced different ideas on how much freedom students will have, and what the repercussions should be if they are caught breaking the rules.

In addition to the topics of grad gowns and discipline codes, there were also documentaries about Career Technical Education (CTE); Donald Herman, the retiring football coach; and immigration.

Ms. Dreyer said of the student projects, “This was a great experience. I’m really excited to see the finished products, which could possibly be shown at the film festival or online. We’ve been trying to get documentary filmmaking into the high school, but Brian really created this project. This is the kind of thing I would have loved to do when I was here. It’s really all about giving a voice to the stories.”

As the first round of the documentary film project was wrapping up in November, the entire student body was invited to watch a professional documentary called “Fed Up” in the Performing Arts Center, sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival. Laurie David, a seasonal Vineyard resident and the executive producer of the film, said, “I’ve seen people change their eating habits and lifestyles after seeing this film. Every time I watch it I get angry, because there is so much work to be done.”

The students used what they learned from watching the professional documentary to think about ways of evaluating and extending their own work.

After watching the film, Grace said, “I noticed the amount of B-roll in ‘Fed Up,’ and that was something we definitely included in our documentary. Also it showed the proper way to interview and get a point across.”

Mr. Sharkovitz said of the student project, “It is important that we teach students how to produce multimedia texts. That means going beyond words by adding pictures and videos. It’s powerful for students to see how all of this can be applied to the world beyond high school.”