How One Virginia Teen is Promoting Peace Through the Power of Film

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Mia Lazar (right) is a DYLEP alumna and the founder of the Filmshakers Festival.

By Jennifer Chen, Program Specialist at World Learning

Mia Lazar, 17-year-old student at Blacksburg High School in Blacksburg, Virginia, has always been fascinated by the power of film. She grew up playing with cameras and started making documentaries in sixth grade. She soon realized that filmmaking provided an opportunity to express her views on important topics such as women’s rights, environmental justice, and equality.

When one of Lazar’s friends was injured while counter-protesting against Unite the Right, the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, she knew that she had to start a dialogue among youth in her community to promote peace and mutual understanding. What better way to do that than through film?

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That was when she came up with the Filmshakers Festival, a film festival highlighting the work of high school students passionate about peacebuilding. “Our generation is looking for ways to express ourselves and advocate for a more just society,” Lazar said in an interview with the local publication C-VILLE Weekly. “That’s why [I created] the Filmshakers Festival — I want more high schoolers to have an opportunity to share their voices about modern-day issues.”

This project was funded by the Digital Young Leaders Exchange Program (DYLEP) Fellowship, a grant awarded to alumni of DYLEP, a virtual exchange program that Lazar took part in that connected her with other teens in the U.S. and Iraq. The fellowship is awarded to alumni who are interested in serving their communities through social change initiatives that are innovative, sustainable, and foster mutual understanding among people of diverse backgrounds. It is sponsored by the Putnam Foundation and World Learning board member Rosamond Delori.

A lot of work went into the planning for the Filmshakers Festival. Lazar, working alongside her team members, designed the logo, launched the website, arranged for a venue, recruited judges, and promoted the festival for film submissions. She also established a partnership with Lighthouse Studios, a Charlottesville youth film nonprofit.

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One of the challenges that Lazar faced was getting enough submissions for the festival. She ended up postponing the submission deadline several times to allow more films to be submitted and strengthened the promotion of the festival on social media.

After a year of planning, the festival was held on Saturday, October 5, 2019, at the Vinegar Hill Theatre in Charlottesville. A total of 35 students submitted films ranging from documentaries or narrative films to public service announcements. The judging committee consisted of local activists and a professor from Virginia Tech University. It was a competitive selection process, and after contemplation, the judges awarded the grand prize to Coming Together: The Virtues of Food, a film about a group of high schoolers who invited their community to join them in celebrating Ramadan.

Many community members attended the festival and also helped with judging, promoting it on social media, and sustaining it for the coming year through donations. Several students told Lazar that they hope to submit a film in future years.

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It is Lazar’s goal to implement the Filmshakers Festival again in March 2021. Her sister, Ava, who is also an alumna of DYLEP, now The Experiment Digital, will be spearheading the event moving forward. They are considering broadening participation to college students to allow for even more submissions.

“I want the audience to come away from the film festival motivated and hopeful — motivated in that they feel like they can help with change and hopeful that change can happen,” Lazar told the C-VILLE Weekly. “I’m also hoping that it will be a chance for filmmakers to meet other people who support the causes of anti-bigotry and peacebuilding.”

View all the submissions and winners here:

If you are interested in contributing to the Filmshakers Festival, you can donate directly at this GoFundMe link:

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World Learning empowers people, communities, and institutions to create a more peaceful and just world.

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