GOOD DOCS sat down with PERSONAL STATEMENT director, producer & cinematographer Juliane Dressner and co-director, editor, & cinematographer Edwin Martinez to discuss their student-centered filmmaking process and the growing, positive impact of peer college counseling.
The title of the film PERSONAL STATEMENT is pretty straightforward. It’s seen as a crucial
component of the college admissions process and as a tool for students to market themselves to colleges. What do you think is the benefit for the student in terms of being able to articulate and take ownership of their story?
JD: Like the personal statement essays that are such an important part of the college application process, we sought to enable Karoline, Christine and Enoch, the film’s main characters, to take ownership of the story they wanted to tell. We collaborated closely with them on all aspects of the filmmaking process. This collaboration started at the very beginning, when we first conceptualized what the film was going to be about. Since our main subjects already knew what story they wanted to tell in their personal statements for their college applications, we decided to start from there.
While the personal statement essay offers an opportunity for students to tell their own stories, there is only so much you can convey in 650 words or less. We all felt strongly that college admissions officers and education administrators need to understand what it is like for low-income students to apply to and get into college.
We believe that the student perspective and students’ voices should be central in any discussion about education reform. But too often, that is not the case. That’s why we decided to tell this story entirely from the student perspective.
We very intentionally decided not to include any expert interviews, and in fact, not to include any interviews at all. We wanted to enable our viewers to experience the college process as our film’s main characters experience it. And we have found that the result is quite powerful. After watching the film, audiences are outraged that we as a country are not providing low-income students with the college and career counseling support they need to fulfill their potential.
EM: I believe that the young people in PERSONAL STATEMENT, and elsewhere throughout the country, do not need to be saved. So much of the ills of our society lay in our pervasive un-introspective philanthropic attitudes. We are so quick to use our wealth and resource to try to fix other people's problems, that we rarely stay put and examine what is wrong in our own domain. Ironically, with deeper investigation, we just might begin to understand that many of the problems we are trying to fix over there are actually being caused by things we are doing right here. I wish people would take the example of these young people trying to fix their own patch of dirt not just as inspirational - which it is - but as emblematic of a more profound way to heal our society.
Additionally, I believe centering narratives around people who are historically marginalized in a way that does not mediate those stories through the lens of a white and wealthy patriarchy allows us as a culture to understand (though it is slow going) that we don’t have to ascribe to a single mainstream norm with many fringes. We have the option of re-conceptualizing what we place in the center of culture, commerce, art and more. So I see my work as part of helping re-center our own voices through narrative and occupying cultural space.
Edwin, your previous film, To Be Heard, also follows underserved student populations at an urban high school. What parallels do you see between To Be Heard and PERSONAL STATEMENT regarding education reform?
EM: Both To Be Heard and PERSONAL STATEMENT follow the stories of three young people trying to make their way in the world and hope to illuminate the choices, actions and sacrifices they make while navigating the more obstacle-laden path laid for poor brown young folks in our society. They are both films that attempt to illuminate a path for salvation that lies from within the individuals, families, and communities at the center of these stories.
How did your personal background growing up in the Bronx inform your awareness and drive to provide coverage of these issues?
EM: In very specific ways I see myself and my story in these young people. My college path was circuitous and full of failure, anxiety, fear, and an utter lack of guidance. At the time neither of my parents graduated from college (they each eventually went back and earned degrees as adults) and I went to a huge high school with almost no guidance support. I had no one to help me when I started flat-spinning into despair during my senior year. As a poor kid, I had a burning understanding of the urgency of a college degree but little sense of how to achieve it when things went off the rails. It took me a long time and some collisions with adulthood to piece things together. My reflection on my turbulent relationship with schooling led me to pursue a masters in education policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Even though that turbulence continued while at Harvard it taught me life lessons about the power of agency, student-centered learning, and how liberatory education involves examining (and sometimes dismantling) structures of oppression, imperialism, colonialism and unequal power.
Julie, In your previous short film for The New York Times Magazine, An Education, you chronicle the experiences of the three American siblings who attend a Russian school. Are there any commonalities between that film and PERSONAL STATEMENT?
JD: If you watch that short film, which you can watch here, you will see that those American children are my kids. What both films have in common is the fact that they follow young people who are struggling to overcome their circumstances, and who manage to persist. As Enoch says in PERSONAL STATEMENT, “you have to struggle in order for someone else to learn.” I think he is correct. But I think that what we see in both films is that we learn a great deal from our own struggles as well.
Edwin, Can you describe the process of developing a relationship with the students profiled in the film and seeing first-hand their trajectory from high school to college?
EM: So much of being a documentary filmmaker is about who you are as a person. My sensibilities and biases show up in my work and so I try to be bald about that with people who I am filming with. I try to be open, vulnerable, connective and humble. Foremost, I try to remember that these are real people and not just patients in the weird science experiment that is a documentary film. In the end, at its best, I feel like making a film about someone is like becoming family. It doesn't happen with every single individual, but across my many projects I’ve accumulated “siblings” who I know, love, and have experienced things with that I would not otherwise experience with anyone else I know. There is a kinship being together with someone during their lowest and highest moments that lasts a lifetime, if cultivated with commitment and love.
Julie, in this project, you wear many hats: director, producer, writer, and cinematographer. What were the pros and cons of being so deeply involved in so many aspects of the Film?
JD: This film was made with a relatively low budget. Had we had more funding, I would have played fewer roles. Because I could not afford to hire a camera person and a sound person for every shoot, I was often a crew of one. I spent so much time with the subjects that they became very comfortable with my presence, to the point where it was very easy for them to ignore me. While this was exhausting, it is also what led to the intimacy of the footage.
In a previous interview you mentioned gaining access to the homes of the film’s main characters was a crucial component to illuminating how personal circumstances can affect the college process. How do you balance wanting to document the personal and family lives of the students without being intrusive?
JD: In order to make this kind of a film, we had to establish trusting relationships.
Before we met, Karoline, Christine and Enoch had already made the decision to work as peer college counselors in their schools. They were already committed to working to help their peers get to college. When we met, they understood that collaborating on a film could be an extension of the work they were already doing. Our goal in creating the film was to shed light on how important it is to provide more college guidance support in public schools.
Over time, we created trusting relationships, which are absolutely essential to make this kind of a film. As a result, they invited me to film pivotal moments in their lives. They also invited me to meet their families, who in turn allowed me to film at home. I believe the main reason why their families were so supportive of the film is because they too believed in the important role that the film could play. But we also became very close over time.
As a filmmaker, when I am filming in someone’s home, I follow the same general rules that guide me when I am simply a friend in someone’s home, and not filming. I allow them to set the boundaries, and I make sure I respect their boundaries.
In terms of filming projects concerning vulnerable populations, in what ways did you involve the protagonists of the film in the creative process? Were they able to see a preliminary screening during the post-production stage or incorporate feedback during the editing stage?
EM: Early on in the filmmaking process for PERSONAL STATEMENT, I enlisted two of the stars of To Be Heard to facilitate a story development workshop with the stars of PERSONAL STATEMENT. I realized that despite all my experience as a filmmaker, the only people who could actually convey what it was like to have a film made about you was someone else who had a film made about them. It helped that Pearl and Karina are brilliant teachers and that the story of To Be Heard focused around the self-actualization of personal narrative. So they were the ideal teachers. The workshop focused on sharing personal experiences, forming them into stories, and providing a foundation for the PERSONAL STATEMENT folks to feel ownership over the portrayal of their own lives. Also integral to the workshop was that Julie and I participated as equal contributors, also sharing our own feelings and vulnerabilities.
Would you recommend other filmmakers do the same?
EM: Yes I would, but not everyone is ready for that. It is my sense that a lot of people get into filmmaking with a sense of wanting to be in control. Truly decolonizing the filmmaking process necessarily means ceding some of the control or power to those involved as collaborators, contributors, cast or a larger community integral to the process of telling a story about real people. So my primary question first is why are you the one to tell this story? Why this movie? And why make it at all? If those answers contain the atmosphere to challenge the norms and practices of an otherwise extractive practice, then yes I’d say let’s get down to the work.
What are your plans for the film and how do you see schools and districts using this project as a resource for change?
JD: In PERSONAL STATEMENT, Karoline, Christine and Enoch are working as college counselors because their schools, like so many around the country, don’t have enough college counseling support. The national school counselor to student ratio is 1 to 470.
Karoline, Christine and Enoch are three young people who have chosen to do something about this problem, by becoming the very resource they don’t have for themselves. With professionally led training in college mentorship, a support network of key adults, and unflagging determination, each of them is fighting to change the world around them. Karoline, Christine and Enoch face their own formidable barriers to going to college. And yet, they dedicated most of their time during their senior year to helping their classmates apply to college.
In the film, we see Karoline, Christine and Enoch grappling with circumstances that have seemingly nothing and yet everything to do with getting into college: homelessness, poverty, sexism, homophobia, racial discrimination and food scarcity. The film transports the audience into the perspectives of Karoline, Christine and Enoch. The film explores both the systemic and personal challenges that our main characters must overcome. As a result, viewers understand what it is like to be up against the kinds of barriers that stand between our main characters and their dreams of going to college and improving their circumstances. As they struggle to get themselves and their peers into college, the film’s inspirational main characters refuse to succumb to the barriers that prevent so many low-income students from attending and graduating from college.
In the film we see that the very people who are affected by a problem are in fact the ones who are best situated to solve it. This lesson could not be more timely as communities throughout the country — many of which Karoline, Christine and Enoch represent — including immigrants, members of the LGBT community, and low-income people of color - are struggling to fight for their rights. When systems fail us, we must work collectively to resolve our own problems, and Karoline, Christine and Enoch show us how it’s done.
In the film, we also see how critical college counseling is, especially for students who are seeking to become the first generation in their families to attend college.
We are currently implementing an engagement and impact campaign that uses the film to inspire young people to persist to college and bolster efforts to increase access to college for low-income students by building support for more resources to close the college counseling gap and to eliminate other systemic barriers to college.
Campaign activities include:
School-based screenings of PERSONAL STATEMENT that utilize discussion guides and lesson plans that include hands on workshops to amplify the film’s potential to inspire students to persist to college.
Screenings for educators that include lesson plans that can be integrated into teacher & school counselor training and professional development programs.
Screenings for national, state and city officials, education administrators & funders to build support for more resources to fill the college guidance gap.
Once a film has been brought to completion in post-production and is in the exhibition circuit, do you as a producer continue any work with the project?
JD: The main characters of the film and I continue to travel with the film and to participate in panel discussions following screenings. We have also organized workshops for students after film screenings, allowing students to participate in the very same kind of workshops that they see take place in the film. The response to the film has been tremendous and there is clearly an opportunity to use the film to bring about change. I am currently working full-time on the film’s engagement and impact campaign. We are incredibly fortunate that the film is part of the Fledgling Fund Engagement Lab, which has provided guidance, mentorship and seed funding to support the film’s impact campaign. We are currently seeking additional funding partners to sustain this important work.
Currently we have partnerships with the following organizations:
We encourage schools, universities, and other organizations who are interested in partnering with us on the impact campaign to get in touch. I can be reached at email@example.com.
In your opinion, what makes PERSONAL STATEMENT connect to its audience effectively, and what role do you see PERSONAL STATEMENT taking in an educational curriculum?
JD: I think the best way to answer this question is to provide some examples of how audiences have reacted to the film. Here are some reactions from the audience at our world premiere where PERSONAL STATEMENT was the opening night film at AFI DOCS in Washington D.C.:
"I haven’t seen a film like this that shows the extent of the problem in such a powerful way."
"The fact that there aren't the tools and resources and support is something we should all be ashamed of."
"The college guidance gap is an issue that most people don't know about. And I think anyone who sees this film and sees what the students go through and sees their grit and their determination and their perseverance and their willingness to go above and beyond and help other students - I think is going to be inclined to want to do something about the issue."
The film has also already been screened in educational settings throughout the country. For example, it was screened as part of the training for peer college mentors conducted by Peer Forward. When asked what they took away from the film, students said:
“This film helped me to learn that I am truly not alone…and that regardless of how long it may take there is a means to an end. Everybody needs a good support system, which I hope I can provide to other young people. It is crucial to close the college guidance gap.”
“It showed us that anything is possible and to never give up!”
“Keep your academics as a top priority.”
“Anything is possible when you persist.”
And here is an excerpt from an email we received from the Principal of a middle school that purchased the film:
"We have shown your film to our staff, all of our sixth grade classes, a number of seventh grade classes, and we will be showing it at a PTA function in the new year. The response to the film has been consistent in that everybody who watches it is moved and wants to help. Our students have consistently thanked us for showing them the film. I think the film is brilliant in the way it shows the personal impact of societal forces. Our students have responded quite emotionally to these stories; a seventh grade class today asked for the opportunity to address the Chancellor or their representatives about the film. We are going to provide them the opportunity to write letters to either the Chancellor or their representatives on the City Council. … No matter how many times I have seen it, I am still profoundly moved by these stories."
– David Getz, Principal, East Side Middle School
Our partners at the Center for Postsecondary Readiness and Success believe that the film should be incorporated into training programs and professional development for school counselors and teachers, and they plan on creating the curriculum necessary to enable practitioners to use the film as an educational tool.
Higher Education educators and administrators are also interested in using the film to spark conversations about increasing access to college for low-income students and how best to support them once they enroll.
You can see the full list of the film’s engagement screenings here.
Media coverage has also been overwhelmingly positive. Here is a sampling of some of the recent coverage:
The Washington Post:
“'Personal Statement' tells the stories of three remarkable Brooklyn high school seniors who have to find their own way through the college application process and the struggles they face in school and at home."
"The challenging admissions journeys these three public high school seniors from Brooklyn face provide a dramatic story line for 'Personal Statement,' a stunning new documentary...The film’s campaign for more guidance counselors correctly hits a nerve. A typical college counselor in a U.S. public high school is responsible for 482 students...the need for better resources and support for students pursuing higher education at every step of the way should be atop all of our agendas."
"The filmmakers expose the disparity in opportunities in our educational system as they share their subjects’ lives over the course of their senior year and beyond. Despite dramatic ups and downs, the three demonstrate determination and resourcefulness in pursuing their goals and inspire hope that the future is in good hands."
"This is a film that needs to be seen and the issues it raises need to be addressed sooner rather than later. Highly recommended."