Youth Media Map: Foundations of Youth Media

by Alex Kelly

This map is a story. It was created with multiple collaborators as a combined history of Young Filmmakers Foundation (YFF). Incorporated in 1968 by Rodger Larson, this organization was the first of its kind. Other present day youth media making organizations can use this as a template to add their own material and tell their own stories.

YFF began as an idea. Rodger Larson, an arts educator, made films with his students in a summer program at the Mosholu-Montifiore Community Center in Bronx, New York: “I proposed that we try some filmmaking on the side and a few students pounced on the idea and ran away with it” (Larson 14). Rodger left his paid position at Mosholu-Montifiore Community Center and walked around the city for over six months, trying to convince program administrators that filmmaking programs promoted positive youth development. Rodger took his idea to the 92nd Street Y where he worked with youth in an after school program to make the films. He also began working at Neighborhood Youth Corps (a youth employment program in East Harlem) in 1965. He lived in an apartment on East 95th Street: “It was a perfect place to live, because I was in between the two places that I worked,” he told me in one of our many Saturday interviews. The two places where he worked at the time offered distinctly different youth development work. His students at the 92nd Street Y were from middle class and upper class families. “And people used to call East Harlem ‘culturally deprived.’ Isn’t that horrible?” Rodger reflected after thinking about the contrast between the two youth groups.

In 1966, Rodger began another teen filmmaking experiment in the kitchen pantry of University Settlement. Eventually, Rivington Street became the homebase for what was then called, Film Club. YFF came soon after and served as the umbrella organization for such other projects as Moviebox, Moviebus and Youth Film Distribution Center.

Regardless of who he was working with, Rodger’s approach to teaching filmmaking was very hands-off. He allowed the students to “run with it,” exploring their distinct interests and curiosities. In his 1969 book Young Filmmakers, Rodger writes, “Making movies gives you the chance to be your own boss, to find out what you want to say and to say it in your own way. Whether or not you are planning to make a film, think of yourself as a filmmaker when you read this book” (Larson 15). Rodger directs his teenage readers to direct themselves. There is a fundamental participatory culture that is built by youth sharing their real worlds or desired worlds on a big screen.

Rodger laid the foundation of the same participatory culture that Henry Jenkins advocates for today. Jenkins defines a participatory culture as “a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices” (Jenkins 3). These are the ingredients that Rodger fought for and although funding was not addressed on the map, it is important to note that his intentions were well received by the community of foundations, donors and state officials.

Throughout the course of creating this map, I have been able to locate eight different people associated with the foundation – six alumni, two program leaders (including Rodger) and one documentary filmmaker who produced a film at a conference for Young Filmmakers in the 1960s. They are my primary resources, offering a multitude of memories and ideas about YFF and its many branches. The story is one that has never been put in one place and now it is collaboratively laid out for the public to understand.

This map is a start in the right direction, but it is not a complete story. It is a narrative seed that can be expanded upon and developed as more filmmakers from the 1960s and 70s share their stories and contribute to the collection of anecdotes and artifacts. The audio in this map is presented in the style of oral histories, located on the plot points that correspond to their speakers. The screen shots from the films come from the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, a new home for the Young Filmmaker’s Collection, after the Donnell Library was closed in 2008. To depict a compromise between real time films and single photographs, the embedded slideshows guide the viewer through the collection as they view screen shots in sequential order and begin to understand the intended story in each piece.

The map itself is composed of screening locations, film locations, organizational building locations and homes of youth and adults during the 1960s and 1970s.  Some of these plot points are approximate, while others are more clearly defined through paper or photograph documentation.