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The City Journals

Children’s film festival comes to the Viridian

Apr 02, 2020 11:23AM ● By Alison Brimley

The program given to students featured an image from one of the screened films, a Norwegian short called “Forglemmegei” (“Forget-Me-Not”).

By Alison Brimley | [email protected]

Utah Film Festival’s ninth annual Tumbleweeds Film Festival is geared entirely toward children. This year’s event was scheduled March 6-8 and 13-15 (though the second weekend was postponed for public health concerns), with showings at the City Library. But Tumbleweeds also expands its audience beyond downtown Salt Lake City with field trips that bring the film to schoolchildren. One such field trip took place March 9 at the Viridian Event Center.

More than 300 students from Hayden Peak Elementary in West Jordan, Neil Armstrong Academy in West Valley and Riverton Elementary filled the Viridian’s auditorium. They watched a series of international short films, interspersed with discussion moderated by professional animator Jarom Neumann.

“How many of you know how to read?” Neumann asked the auditorium of students, who ranged from third to sixth grade. Almost every hand went up. “Did you know how to read right away?” he followed. Except for a few class clowns who shouted that they did, everyone shook their heads. Neumann then explained that his purpose was to teach the students to read a film.

Michelle Walker, education manager for the film center, echoed his sentiment.

“I want kids to watch film almost as text,” she said. While screen time is derided as at best a waste of time and at worst a brain-drain, some may question the wisdom of a field trip whose purpose is to let kids watch movies. But Walker emphasized that the focus of Tumbleweeds is media literacy, not just media consumption.

Before and after each short film shown during the field trip, Neumann asked students to focus on things such as how the color scheme of a scene made them feel, what a central object in a film might symbolize, why a certain scene made them laugh or who the protagonist and antagonist of a film were.

The films shown were all international animated shorts, many with no dialogue at all. The films chosen were diverse in their style, sound and country of origin. They aim to “give kids access to films that they’re never going to see in a Megaplex or on Netflix,” Walker said.

Walker spent years as a high school English teacher before coming to the Film Center. As a teacher, she realized that she relied more and more on films to teach an idea.

“Film is where all the art forms converge,” she said. It’s sound, it’s movement, it’s dance, it’s photography, it’s painting. Everything comes together in that.”

Her time in the classroom showed her that kids are already on their screens all the time. The goal is to teach them to “engage, analyze and apply” what they’re seeing.

“Kids more than ever, learn in images, it is our responsibility to help them read image. They’re going to be constant consumers of media, but can we teach them to be better discerners of media?”

In total, Tumbleweeds reaches more than 3,100 students through field trips, with hundreds more attending public screenings on the weekends. The Viridian’s screening filled up this year, and film center staff members hope to add more showings in coming years. Tumbleweeds is well-known downtown, but officials hope to increase its presence in the southern end of the valley and into Utah County.

While the film center promoted Tumbleweeds field trips by reaching out to principals of hundreds of schools, teachers primarily learn about it through word of mouth. Walker conducts educational workshops in classrooms throughout the year, which allows her to make a personal connection with teachers and spread the word about Tumbleweeds. Sometimes, parents will attend one of the public screenings or workshops and reach out to their child’s teacher. Tumbleweeds uses its donor funding to cover all or most of the busing costs for field trips.

If there’s one thing Walker wants people to know about Tumbleweeds, it’s how carefully curated it is.

“I respect so much that a lot of families and parents are really careful about what they put their kids in front of,” she said. “I know I could walk any of my nieces or nephews into any screening. You’re going to see really awesome film that’s going to be different than anything you’ve seen, but it’s going to be family-friendly.”