Young artists find their dreams come alive on screen in Idaho.
Story and photos by Curtis Billue
There’s something special happening at the Colonial Theater. The cold, rainy weather hasn’t stopped the crowds from coming in, people of all ages gathering for a night of film in this beautifully restored gem. There are teens doing selfies with the Star Wars 501st Legion. R2D2 is beeping and spinning around the kids. The Bonneville High School Jazz Band plays a brassy tune, which fills the adjoining auditorium where families grab seats for the best viewing. The Extreme Ballroom Company stirs the crowd into cheers with quick, dramatic steps and sweeping dance moves. The excitement is contagious as announcements and introductions are made, the judges come out and the show begins.
It is the 10th Annual Kiwanis Teen Film Festival in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Those familiar with this area associate the city with potatoes or nuclear research. However, this tight-knit community is quietly becoming Mecca for teen filmmaking. This growing festival is an impressive venue for movie-making youth to have their talents recognized. Participants come from as far away as the western reaches of Wyoming for this one night of film.
The idea for the festival started in 2003, when Idaho Falls Kiwanis Club member Steve Parry saw his nephew’s snowboarding video and thought there should be a place for youth to show off their hard work. He took his ideas to his Kiwanis club, and together they started organizing the first film festival in 2004.
“It started with that one idea, one film, and sort of snowballed, and now they’re in their 10th year of the film festival. It’s fantastic,” says Marci Dimick, executive director of the festival. “First year I went, I was blown away by what these kids can make. You can see the kids really take the time to storyboard, to think about what they want to make, their shots, their lighting, props, location, costume and makeup. Just amazing those that really get into it, the quality of film that comes out.”
This kind of dedication and hard work isn’t lost on Paul Jenkins, owner and producer of Intermountain Films and Video Production, and one of the judges for the festival. Earlier that afternoon, teen filmmakers had a chance to learn filmmaking techniques from professionals like Jenkins at the festival workshop. When asked about the budding artists, his humble and quiet demeanor came alive with boyish exuberance.
“These kids get this look on their face, and for some of them it’s the first time they’ve ever touched a dolly or a production camera,” he says. “It’s like magic. You see this happening in their eyes, and all of a sudden there’s a spark there, and that’s what makes it all work.”
Under the house lights, the teens in the workshop use a high-end camera to pull focus on their peers, working together to hone their skills, writing notes from Jenkins’ lessons.
Josh Contor, a film student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, participated in the first festival, creating movies all four years of school. He comes back every year to help with the workshops.
“When you come to a festival and you see someone else who’s your peer doing something really good, then it kind of makes you think, ‘If they can do it, so can I,’” Contor says. “I think parents sometimes feel ‘Oh, it’s just a hobby,’ but it is really cool when you have your parents and community behind you. I think that’s what the Kiwanis club has provided … a bit of support, a bit of a step up as far as knowledge.”
Sharon Parry, president of the Idaho Falls Kiwanis Club, knows how important this event is to the community.
“It’s like magic. You see this happening in their eyes, and all of a sudden there’s a spark there, and that’s what makes it all work.”
“We find that teenagers are often recognized for their sports, or for music, for theatrical events, but not for film,” she says. “So this has really filled a niche to recognize teenagers who are developing, budding artists in the film industry. There’s been a lot of rallying behind the film festival, and Idaho Falls has really adopted it as a great event.”
Kiwanis members are bouncing around the theater, filling whatever role is needed. “The Kiwanis Teen Film Festival has from start to finish been driven by the Kiwanis club,” says Steve Parry as he brings in lunch for the teens.
Pull back the festival’s red velvet curtain and you’ll see there’s hard work going on behind the scenes, many months of planning, school and community coordination, fundraising, printing and talking with businesses. When smoke chased the workshop out of the library, the organizers’ quick thinking and grace under pressure soon effected a move to the theater’s stage. They laughed it off as something filmmakers had to be: flexible.
When you ask the Kiwanians about their hard work, they’re happy to play an off-stage presence and bring the focus back on the teens.
“Filmmakers, especially teenagers, are artists in our eyes. It’s an avenue to express their thoughts, what they’re thinking,” says President-elect Spencer Monk, who believes the project also gives him the opportunity to see the world through a teenager’s eyes. “We often think the next Spielberg may be from our community.”
Steven Spielberg, the Academy Award-winning film director, has said he gets the “same queasy, nervous, thrilling feeling every time I go to work. That’s never worn off since I was 12 years old with my dad’s 8-millimeter movie camera.” You can sense that same thrill from the festival’s young participants. Part nerves, part excitement, part shy self-awareness and confidence at the same time.
“Being into acting, I just love the idea that an audience is going to see this,” says Karmoni Toone, one of this year’s 28 filmmakers. “So nervous and excited. It’s like going on a scary roller coaster. Yeah, I’m so excited and pumped. No, I feel sick to my stomach, all at the same time.”
“The Kiwanis Teen Film Festival has from start to finish been driven by the Kiwanis club.”
And then it’s show time. This cathedral of space, where family, friends and strangers have gathered, quiets with tense anticipation. The emcee calls out a filmmaker’s name. Cheers and applause, followed by awards and feedback from the judges. The lights go down, and the youth’s film towers 35 feet above the crowd. Sound booms across the aisles, shaking the walls and vibrating the floor. It’s powerful and inspiring. There, under the cover of darkness, stories are woven: fears and horrors, personal triumphs, passions for dancing and running, superpowers, car crashes, art house to animation, films of incredible personal feat and emotionally tender thoughts on death. It’s the human drama of moments, those little things that make the disparate audience feel together.
And for one lucky grand prize winner, seeing his film and name on the credit was a moment to remember.
Ryan Gifford, from Rexburg, Idaho, stands on the stage, quietly beaming.
“The Kiwanis Film Festival: I’d seen videos online of these awesome films,” Gifford says of the path that led to his success. “I said I wanted to do that someday. I wanted to win that. I set a goal when I was a sophomore. I submitted a film, and I kept working harder and harder. And it just finally paid off.”
Just like at the Academy Awards, even the non-winners are winners at the close of this year’s festival. These young artists are part of a special club, having made a film from beginning to end, surviving the hardships and technical challenges, and taking the next step in realizing their vision.
As the outside theater lights are turned off and the remaining stragglers are ushered outside, it feels as if the Colonial has returned to its roots as a Paramount movie theater. The celluloid past of the Paramount cinema may be gone, but in this tinsel town in Idaho, the magic is still alive.
This feature originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Kiwanis magazine.