Film: The Children's Hour

Lights-Camera program turns local kids into movie stars

Aug 13, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Children from Lights-Camera-Learning-in-Action celebrate the making of their movie The Stolen Book.

Only one local film premiere boasts the star potential of the Sundance Film Festival and the excitement of the Oscars. The July 29 world premiere of The Stolen Book, a short film written, directed and acted by Cincinnati-area kids, has a behind-the-scenes story like no other.

The Stolen Book is the second production of Lights-Camera-Learning-in-Action, a collaborative project between Happen, Inc. and the Cincinnati Film Society (CFS), two local nonprofit organizations. (CityBeat is a business sponsor.) Through Lights-Camera, 28 children, ages 10-12, learn the importance of hard work, fun and imagination in film and in real life. All the children take part in a summer camp program facilitated by Project Connect, an organization that provides educational enrichment to Cincinnati's underprivileged children.

The plans for creating Lights-Camera goes back two years when a CFS volunteer watched a Happen art class, "Lines in Motion," where kids and their adult mentors learn about the frames of film. Over the next 12 months, the Lights-Camera concept changed from a single day experience on a local soundstage to a series of classes at the Happen storefront. Word spread about the project, and volunteers kept coming. Local toy designer Sean Mullaney created Flick, a half-movie camera/half-man, as the program's mascot.

Inside Flick's camera head is a digital video camera, so he can actually film the Lights-Camera kids. A short documentary was shot during last summer's Lights-Camera debut, and footage shot by Flick is in the film.

Two weeks before the July 1 start of the program, Lights-Camera co-directors Tommy Rueff and TT Clinkscales (CityBeat writer) visit the Project Connect offices in the Porter Elementary School in Cincinnati's West End to brainstorm ideas that are later filtered into a script written by the kids themselves.

Over four Tuesday afternoons in July at the Happen storefront on Cincinnati's far East side, the Lights-Camera kids write the film. They learn about camera angles by directing; how to promote a film as producers; how to build sets and how to make costumes like professional wardrobe designers.

Their teachers were professionals from the local filmmaking community, many who donated their time. Rueff, director of Happen Inc., a programmer of creative arts courses for children, parents and adult mentors, points out that nothing in The Stolen Book was bought. Everything about the film was built upon creativity and imagination. The children made everything with inexpensive material. The sets came from white poster board and black paint. Bed sheets provided the material for costumes. Their script came from their own lives.

"Lights-Camera is about the power of imagination," Rueff says, speaking at the Happen storefront. "We want these kids to realize that you don't have to go out and buy things."

In The Stolen Book, Gene Yes, a local student, receives a journal from his mentor, Miss Tina. When he goes to play with his friends in the park, one of them, Martin, sees the book and not having one of his own, takes it. When bullies try to take the book from Martin, Miss Tina steps in and gives all the kids in the park journals of their own. The story is positive yet believable. Only kids could write a movie chock full of life lessons, big bullies and a love for books.

The red carpet moment occurred July 29 when over a hundred people attended The Stolen Book premiere at the Cinema Grill in Mount Lookout, which came complete with tickets and posters designed by the Lights-Camera kids.

Talking after The Stolen Book premiere, Rueff says Lights-Camera represents a type of filmmaking where everything is personal. In this case, the final product — the film — takes a backseat to the kids' reactions to their movie, to their own momentary stardom and sizable accomplishments. Outside the circle of child filmmakers, Rueff notices how Lights-Camera affects others in big ways. For Rueff, the Lights-Camera children, all of them exceptional, make the program special.

"I knew we would touch the lives of kids and parents, but we didn't plan on touching the lives of volunteers," Rueff says, speaking after the premiere.

Rueff plans to stage Lights-Camera in 2004, including opening it to the general public. Contributions from the Procter & Gamble Fund, the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and other organizations made Lights-Camera possible. The Project Connect Foundation provided core support but Rueff admits that funding struggles continue.

"There's a fine balance between providing an experience and producing an activity," remarks Rueff, "but we know the program is going for the right reasons, and even if something throws us off I know we can still make this happen." ©