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Youth Documentary Academy broadens young horizons

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Noah Anderson widened his horizons via YDA. - JANA KAISER
  • Jana Kaiser
  • Noah Anderson widened his horizons via YDA.

When Noah Anderson found out he was one of 12 local teens selected for the annual Youth Documentary Academy program, he was thrilled to have a chance to make his own films with the help of experts.

It's a rare opportunity. Most film schools for teens are elite institutions, but YDA is free, and specifically targets underserved kids. The nonprofit is the brainchild of filmmaker Tom Shepard, a gay man who grew up here and had few outlets for his passion for film or ways to speak about his personal journey as a youngster. He wanted to give a new generation of kids the experience he once longed for.

But Anderson didn't end up making a film. Shepard decided to try something different with this year's class: explore the other side of making documentaries by securing screenings, developing promotional campaigns, and hopefully, ensuring a film makes an impact on the world.

"Documentary, by it's nature, asks for a call to action," Shepard, who's taught some 65 kids, says.

Noah, 18, says he was a little disappointed at first, but it ended up being a pivotal moment in his life. The students broke up into teams, promoting a film, or films, made by a past student that was related a certain theme.

Noah chose to be on the teen suicide prevention team, promoting Madison Legg's award-winning 2016 short doc, Under the Wire. The moving film explores Legg's brother's attempted suicide and her own struggles with mental health, culminating in a heart-wrenching conversation between the two teens in which they realize they each felt isolated, even though they were experiencing the same feelings.

Noah says he too has a personal story to tell, and that's why he always wanted to help others who felt alone: "A couple years ago I had been going through my own kind of dark place," he says. At that time he didn't feel like he could talk to anyone and he wishes he had known that other local teens felt the same way. "[Teen suicide is] always going to be a taboo in our society and you have to be careful when talking about it, but you also have to just get it out there."

Noah's team decided to organize a suicide prevention campaign around the film and the hashtag, #SpeakingOurMinds. Part of their strategy was talking to teens about their personal experiences with suicidal ideation and posting them on social media. They also produced a brochure and poster, and held two presentations and film screenings.

For Noah, YDA provided several benefits, including a way to make the world a little better, and an opportunity to connect with people outside his insular community. One of four kids (he's a triplet) in a Monument family, he was home-schooled. Most of his friends belong to the same homeschooling co-op run via New Life Church.

"With our campaign we were trying to allow people to feel less isolated and that's a huge risk factor with teen suicide and depression," he says. "You know, we have all this technology these days that can allow us to escape into our own little worlds, but that's not how it works. You need people to surround yourself with in order to break out of that ... all these people here are different than me but they're all fighting for something bigger."

— J. Adrian Stanley

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