A group of high school filmmakers in East Orange won Best Documentary at the Newark International Film Festival with their student short, "Beyond the Barrel: An East Orange Story."
Turning the spotlight on independent filmmakers from around the world, the Newark International Film Festival is a five-day showcase of independent talent and creative thinking from around the globe.
The students’ documentary, which turned a spotlight on the after effects and personal impact of gun violence, delves into the deep-rooted loss that students felt when a gun was turned on family, friends and even a teacher.
Produced with the help of award-winning broadcast journalist and filmmaker Samson Styles (and under the educational guidance of Jamila T. Davis, Ph.D.) the documentary competed in the Newark International Film Festival against close to 1,000 submissions that came from more than 50 countries.
“This documentary is a testament to the greatness of both our students and our educators,” said East Orange Mayor Ted Green. “Our Summer Work Experience Program gave these young men and women a dynamic opportunity to address a very sensitive issue that resonates around the world.” He continued, “The Summer Work Experience Program and this award is another example of what we can accomplish when community leaders, educators and creative professionals come together to enrich the lives of our youth.”
East Orange School District Superintendent AbdulSaleem Hasan, Ed.S. agreed: “Over the past two years we’ve leveraged these programs during the summer and after school to bring our students’ academic training, entrepreneurial skills, financial literacy and, with the help of Seton Hall University, mental health care and an innovative program that empowers students to become certified mental health peer counselors – enabling them to help their classmates facing the difficulties of readjustment to the classroom as we move away from remote learning.”
Hasan, a former assistant commissioner for the New Jersey Department of Education, added: “We have also included regular lessons on civic engagement and social justice, stressing the importance of realizing the power of your voice in a democratic society,” he said. “In the first year, these students made international news with their peaceful protest demanding justice before the law for an unarmed Black man shot by the New Jersey State Police; in the second, they further developed that voice and won an international film award.” He laughed, “I just can’t wait to see what they do next year.”
The Summer Work Experience Program, or SWEP, is part of Mayor Green’s “Stand Strong Against COVID” Program, which was launched in 2020 with the support of the East Orange City Council. SWEP also featured courses in financial literacy, “The Business of Beauty,” “T-Shirt Branding,” “The Business of Media,” “Digital & Drone Photography,” “Grades4Life Youth Entrepreneurship” and “Culinary Arts” (taught by Rasmiyyah Bacon, local owner of Lite & Soul Eatery).
The program was spearheaded by LaDonna Johns, manager of the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training, and delivered to students virtually through the VIP Online Academy, which is headed up by Davis, an author, activist and entrepreneur who was recently named Community Practitioner in Residence for the Center for Community Research and Engagement at Seton Hall University.
“Our students excelled,” said Davis. “In many ways this film is just the tip of the iceberg. Our research on this program to date shows a correlation between student voice – a voice that these young men and women now believe matters – and a sense of self efficacy, the belief that they have the ability to do what needs to be done in order to achieve specific goals. And in East Orange, this award for this documentary has once again shown that that belief is well founded.”
In the film, the mayor was featured along with East Orange City Council members, the East Orange Police Division and its Police Chief Phyllis Bindi. The documentary notes that the mayor, council and police chief have worked closely together on reducing violence in the city.
Together they launched several initiatives — including a gun buy-back program — and, as the film documents, are seeing results. While many cities nationwide experienced a surge in gun violence during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, East Orange, pointedly, did not.
“Gun violence and this senseless killing across America has to stop,” said Mayor Green. “The City of East Orange applauds these students for their award-winning production that brought our efforts to end gun violence and the horrific pain it brings to families into the global spotlight.”
“We also thank the many professionals that gave of their talent and their time to make ‘Beyond the Barrel: An East Orange Story,’ a reality that not only told a gripping story, but also made headlines by taking home the win for Best Documentary,” Mayor Green added.
The students involved in the making of the film were presented with special resolutions to celebrate their win by the East Orange City Council.
Filmmaker Styles, who worked with the students to make their concepts into a living and breathing film, plans to submit “Beyond the Barrel” to other U.S. film festivals and has hopes that the documentary will be aired nationally. Known best for his 2018 documentary “Killing Beef: Gun Violence In The Black Community,” Styles also is the filmmaker behind “Brooklyn Girls Fight Club” in 2013 and “Joe's War” in 2017.