Lights, camera, action: Mosaic Film Experience celebrates diversity, creativity of local youth

The Mosaic Film Experience embraces hands-on learning, creative expression, and a focus on youth - and it culminates in a weekend-long juried film festival that celebrates the diversity of us all. Victoria Mullen goes behind the curtain to see how local students are expressing their creativity on the big screen.
Young people. Creativity. Hands-on film production. Combine those elements and -- voila! -- you have the Mosaic Film Experience.

You may believe the Mosaic Film Experience (MFE) is a weekend-long juried film festival, and you would be partly right. But it is much more than that. The Mosaic Film Experience is, as its name richly describes, an experience that fuses film and a number of other learning components to help students explore and reflect on issues that touch youth in their everyday lives.

"Mosaic lets adults and kids know that being different can be a good thing," says Skot Welch, 47, founder of Mosaic. "It's a creative way to help kids academically and professionally. Mosaic discovers and develops tomorrow's artists and audiences within local communities by sparking conversation and new ways of thinking."

The experience is founded on three pillars: Learn. Create. Share.

What can you do with a blank canvas?
A self-described film buff, Welch's experience is woefully limited to watching them. But that didn't stop him from founding the Mosaic Film Experience in 2012. He says this all started with a simple question posited to Welch by a friend in 2011.

"My friend asked me what I would do if I had access to some film screens at a big-movie theater," says Welch. "And the first thing that came to mind was, 'a blank canvas for high school students to express themselves.' Kids are a tremendous knowledge base. They are the center of ideas. We think that kids can't teach us anything, but we are wrong."

Welch's next thought: How could this germ of an idea be channeled into a vehicle for local youth to express their creativity using film? The idea would not leave Welch alone. "So, I spoke to several friends [in the] community. And the level of interest surprised me," he says.

It is one thing to be 'interested' and quite another to commit oneself to an undertaking. To test the level of commitment, Welch invited all interested parties to meet on the most difficult day of the year: the day before Thanksgiving.

"I knew that if people showed up, they would be committed to the project," says Welch.

They came in droves… and stayed
Fifteen people showed, and the number has increased exponentially since then. In its second year, the project has a rich store of resources: script writers, directors, public relations professionals, grant writers, business people, mothers with professional filmmaker kids in their 20s, marketing and advertising people, accountants, attorneys, web designers, artists, gallery owners… you name it, just about every walk of life and business field have a presence here. And all are volunteering their time and helping to mentor the students.

"It's amazing how many different types of people are involved," says Welch.

Currently, MFE offers classes in the summer and fall, though the goal is to expand classes year round. By providing access to screenwriting and filmmaking classes, students of any experience level are given the skills necessary to create a short 12-minute (or under) film about their life, their viewpoints, and their world.

Gretchen Vinnedge, MFE's education director, says that the experience is open to all, regardless of age, experience, or ability. The school provides all equipment.

"We teach students about the messages they get from the media," says Vinnedge. "We teach them how to use the media to get their message out effectively. Kids also need to be aware of its dangers. It's important for students to become comfortable with technology. This is all part of the experience."

MFE's program is all-inclusive. It doesn't matter how much or how little a student knows about film. Adult special education students from Noorthoek Academy attend MFE film classes three days a week. Noorthoek Academy offers a continuing education program in the arts and sciences for students with mild cognitive impairments. Both Welch and Vinnedge enjoy watching timid students light up after their experience.

Says Vinnedge, "Media is for everybody, not just those who can afford a camera."

Superheroes and days of our lives
A partnership with the Grand Rapids Community Media Center (CMC) and help from several sponsors make MFE classes possible. This past summer, students attended two MFE camps. The first two-week camp, called 'Girl Power,' focused on animation. Students created their own superheroes with special super powers. Once the characters took form, the students created a dialogue-free animation that told a story.

During the second two-week camp, called 'A Day in My Life,' students created short films with actors and dialogue. Participants shared a day in their shoes and addressed some misconceptions about being a teenager.

These films were screened at the Wealthy Theatre on September 9 and will be a part of the Mosaic Film Experience event, also at the Wealthy Theatre, in November. After that, the class-created films will be shown on GRTV and available to be viewed online.

Roll out the red carpet
The Mosaic Film Experience culminates in an annual, juried film festival with a weekend of activities for youth and adult audiences, including hands-on learning for students and film enthusiasts, screenings of feature and documentary films, post-film discussions, and entertainment experiences.

The November event promises to be exciting, with all the trappings of a real premiere. "We're getting red carpet, red velvet ropes, searchlights, and backdrops," says Welch. "It's going to be an awesome event."

The quality of the entries astonished and delighted him. "The international film entries gave me a sense of how big the world is and how connected young people are, how smart they are," says Welch. He gives as an example an Israeli entry, filmed on an iPhone, about three youths -- a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew -- and how one icon brings the three together.

"This event showcases some of the most compelling, enjoyable, and moving work produced by these students," says Welch. "This year we had over 150 entries from more than 31 countries." Compare that to 2012, where 25 films were entered from six different countries. "Clearly, it's touching a chord and meeting a need," says Welch.

Prizes ranging from $250-$1,000 are awarded for the best student films in two categories: high school and college.

Even more than a creative platform, Welch says that Mosaic is a recruitment tool for families and their young people who are considering a move to Grand Rapids.

"It's important for Grand Rapids to do things that stand out, and Mosaic strives to be a part of that signature," says Welch. "Mosaic is one of the things that make Grand Rapids attractive. It's one of the first youth-centered initiatives that pushes the envelope to have kids teach adults something."

More big things are on the horizon. Welch and his team are busy drawing up a seven-year strategic plan. He hopes to license Mosaic to other cities and countries and let them start with their own blank canvas.

The Mosaic Film Fest will premiere at Wealthy Street Theatre, 1130 Wealthy St. SE, on Friday, Nov. 1, starting at 9 a.m.; and Saturday, Nov. 2, starting at 12 noon. Tickets are good for both days. Prices are $8 for students and $10 for all others, purchased in advance, and available online.

Victoria Mullen is (in alphabetical order) an actress, artist, attorney, photographer, and writer based in Grand Rapids. She is originally from Milwaukee, Wis. 

Photography by Adam Bird
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