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Filmmaking pilot program offers solace for ENL students

A new after-school filmmaking program at Riverhead High School is shining a light on the hardships of English as a New Language students.

Six ENL students are enrolled in the free pilot program from OLA of Eastern Long Island, a nonprofit that works to create a more equitable environment for Latino immigrants.

Since the weekly two-hour workshop began in January, students have met from 2 to 4 p.m. and learned the basics of filmmaking from Maria Maciak, who has a background in education, digital arts and filmmaking. ENL teacher Claudette Garley, who has worked in the district for 15 years, served as translator between instructor and students. 

Ms. Maciak structured the workshop to first familiarize herself with the students, watch and critique films with them, then prompt them to shoot their own videos, mainly using mobile phones. Now, students are entering the second stage of post-production. The class is sponsored by the app FiLMiC Pro. 

“We’re using mobile phones with certain enhancements for doing some of the cinematography,” Ms. Maciak said, “and larger cameras are used for interviews and at the school.”

It’s unclear if collected material will result in multiple videos or one longer video, Ms. Maciak said.

However, the decision to focus the videos on students’ personal experiences was theirs, Ms. Maciak said.

For example, one 16-year-old student is sharing the story of his emigration from Guatemala to the United States to reunite with his mother after a separation of 13 years. 

Another student, 17-year-old Rosman, joined the workshop because of his interest in filmmaking and photography. Rosman, who shares his story of emigrating to the U.S. two years ago, said a via translator that the workshop is “about everybody telling his or her own story because no two stories are the same.”

The videos, he said, are intended to show people the difficulties that immigrants experience so people avoid categorizing the entire immigrant population.

The program began last summer, after Ms. Maciak created the OLA Media Lab, OLA executive director Minerva Perez said.

In September 2019, Ms. Maciak started working closely with two Latina students from Sag Harbor. They shot and edited a roughly three-minute documentary about a teen who was addicted to marijuana and having a difficult family life, Ms. Perez said. It was screened at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill in November, Ms. Maciak said. 

Ms. Garley said she was interested in the program as a way to give ENL students an opportunity to learn outside the classroom.

“They’re here with us, they’re learning something new, it’s a skill that they’ll be able to use in the future and may have never been exposed to before,” she said. “The most exposure they can get to different things is what we’re trying to do.” 

Ms. Maciak, who emigrated to the U.S. from Lodz, Poland, at age 13, said there are academic and emotional benefits to having students work in teams on a creative project.

“These students are struggling because they are enrolling in formal schooling without the social and economic resources that many other students receive,” she said. “I’m very happy the high school is figuring out ways to support these students through projects such as this one.”

The workshop may run for another five to 10 sessions, depending on the complexity of the video projects. Ms. Perez said the finished videos will be shown publicly, likely at OLA’s Annual Latino Film Festival, usually held in November. 

Regardless of ethnicity, she said, there are immense benefits to giving teenage students the opportunity to speak up. 

“The reason why this came about is because I know how important it is to give voice to all of our youth, Latino or not Latino,” Ms. Perez said. “From those who come from extremely difficult immigration pathways to those who are brought up with a silver spoon — life as a teen is a difficult place, and it’s often a place where you’re silenced. I want to make sure OLA is looking to change that.”