Philly youth film fest builds more than just movie-making prowess

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Germantown Friends School students Grace Raufer, Caleb Ash and Fengyu Yang are helping to organize the Philadelphia Youth Film Festival.
Jack Tomczuk

Greek morality plays and Dante’s “Inferno” inspired 17-year-old Lex Jimenez to write a 17-page screenplay, called “Bottled Up.”

“I had never really made or written something that I thought, ‘Oh, this feels like me, this feels like something that I would write,’” said Jimenez, a high school senior who lives in Bergen County, New Jersey.

Jimenez’s work will be spotlighted during the upcoming Philadelphia Youth Film Festival, an event organized by Germantown Friends School students that garners hundreds of submissions each year from as far away as New Zealand, China and Iran.

Only high school students can submit their films, and they compete in categories that include narrative, experimental, documentary and screenplay.

Unlike many film festivals, the contest is free, and academics and film industry professionals select the top three finishers in each category.

“It’s so important to have your work recognized when you’re starting out in something because it gives you hope to keep on going, even if other people don’t recognize it,” said Grace Raufer, 17, of East Falls, a Germantown Friends student organizer.

On Saturday, the day of the festival, there will be screenings, film workshops and a keynote speech from actress Amanda Peet, recruited by GFS senior Caleb Ash through her nephew, a longtime friend.

In-person aspects of the event will be limited to Germantown Friends students and staff due to the school’s COVID-19 guidelines; however, several of the high-profile events will be available virtually and there is an online screening room.

GFS teachers said they hope the festival, now in its fifth year, can return to normal next school year.

Jack Tomczuk

For the student organizers, putting together the festival is as much about developing leadership, event planning and other skills as it is about cultivating an interest in film.

“We have to manage all the submissions,” said Ash, an 18-year-old senior from Center City. “We have to do publicity to try to get the word out about our festival. And so it’s a really big process that involves a lot of different steps from a lot of different people.”

About two dozen GFS students are part of a year-around club that organizes the festival, and they break into different teams to handle logistics, outreach, sponsorships and more.

For this year’s event, the high schoolers whittled down the 400 submissions to about 140 eligible participants and pre-screened the films to make sure they were appropriate for the festival.

Aspiring filmmakers from around the globe discover the Philadelphia festival through the FilmFreeway platform.

Fengyu Yang, a 16-year-old junior who lives in Germantown, said he was tricked into joining the festival’s organizing team by a friend at the school’s club fair. But he’s interested in event coordination and is currently shooting a documentary about educational inequality in Philadelphia.

“We are planning to kind of juxtapose scenes from three different schools,” Yang added.

Graphic stickers cover Raufer’s laptop and refillable water bottle. She’s interested in the design element — the festival’s T-shirt and other swag — and she has also picked up a couple skills that could prove useful in a few years.

“I think it’s really helpful, a lot of the things I’ve learned about being organized and creating a brand and how to just even send a formal email, like all those things,” she said.

For more information on the Philadelphia Youth Film Festival, go to www.phyff.com.

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