A Student-Driven Film To Address Social Issues

“What if I told you – that I am not the only guilty one?” asks 11-year-old actor Venndy Isaac in the new film ‘What If I Told You?’

The script, written by teacher Rosan Hartley Gayle touches on the importance of the support of parents, teachers, and the wider community in a child’s development. All characters in the film are played by 6 to 12-year-old students attending the Methodist Agogic Centre – Rev. John A. Gumbs (MAC JAG).

Mental Health
Teacher Rosan initially wrote the script as a play for an Interscholastic Spoken Word Competition at the Men’s Mental Health Awareness Event in May 2023. The dedication and acting skills of Rosan’s students ensured that they won several prizes. Upon seeing the winning performance, the Department of Youth, Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, initiated the film’s production in collaboration with UNICEF the Netherlands.

Student Venndy, who plays the ‘defendant’ as the lead character during the film, shared that he “feels the topic of mental health is easier to talk about for girls than for boys” – something he felt his character in the film also struggled with.

‘Mental health awareness’ and ‘more creative outlets to participate’ were identified as priorities by young people during several events supported by the Department of Youth, such as the Youth Roundtable Conference, Leo’s Club Leadership Event, and debates organised by the Sint Maarten Youth Parliament.

Venndy, who plays the lead character in the short film, expressed the need for more focus on mental health, especially for boys and men.

Youth Participation
Supporting meaningful youth participation is one of the priorities of the Department of Youth. With activities such as this film, among others to come, we want to continue to raise awareness of youth mental health, encourage more dialogue, compassion, and support for our youth,” explains Faye Arnell, Policy Advisor at the Department of Youth.

As the students prepared for the two-day production of filming ‘What If I Told You’, their teacher and Lenworth Wilson, Adolescent Development and Participation Specialist for UNICEF the Netherlands, practised with them and incorporated their feedback into the final script.

The students were also invited to visit the courthouse, the main location of the film, before filming to learn first-hand about the court system in Sint Maarten and ask their questions. “What if a defendant runs away and escapes?” one student asked the judge during the visit – which was met with laughter by his peers.

The judge seriously answered: that is impossible, pointing out where police officers would stand during court proceedings. Students Jayden Dorisme and Brandon Mardenborough, whose roles were police officers, took note, and stood exactly there during filming.

Characters such as the defendant, police officers, judge, lawyer, clerk and prosecutor received their ‘costumes’, in actuality, real uniforms from the Prison, Police Department, and Courthouse.

Good Catering
The filming for ‘What If I Told You’ started early on Saturday, August 12, 2023 on International Youth Day, at the Courthouse – and took a collaborative effort to complete. As students arrived, MAC JAG teachers and staff took on various roles to help students with their costumes and make-up. The film crew set up their equipment, and UNICEF the Netherlands representatives, provided all logistics, including catering from Sheika’s Bistro.

Peter Sagnia, who has produced films for over 20 years, expressed how impressed he was with the students: “The students did a great job of staying in character and improvising when needed. Filming a movie is tough, and they all rose to the occasion. I saw some great acting potential!”

“The first day of filming was professional, it was like from Hollywood. It is my dream to be on camera,” says 11-year-old Tyler Timothy shyly when interviewed. However, when playing her role on the film set, that shyness disappeared – and she became a very strict teacher: “My role is the teacher. She thinks that the lead character is a bad child but does not know what is going on at his home. I think she should have helped him instead,” Tyler notes.

Several of the children also noted after the filming that “the catering was on-point,” – an indication that refreshments are an important part of any youth activity (as is the same in organising events for adults).

“Teachers should make sure that their student is doing ok, instead of judging them for bad behaviour,” Tyler, who plays the character of the teacher, shares.

Engaging Youth
After filming, Peter went into the editing process. Rosan and Venndy were invited to see the draft edit of the film and make their suggestions.

“When discussing meaningful youth participation, you should try to engage young people from the beginning to the end of your process. Ideally, we even move toward youth-led events and programmes supported by adults, without them imposing their own decisions on the youth,” explains Lenworth.

He continues: “In Sint Maarten and the wider Caribbean region, we know the phrase: children should be seen, not heard. Worldwide, children are often seen as ‘helpless beneficiaries’. The general concept of youth participation is relatively new, so we cannot assume that everyone is on the same page. It is essential to sensitise professionals (especially duty-bearing decision-makers) to value and adopt the principles of meaningful youth engagement.

You can read more tips on how to incorporate youth participation here: https://growingupsafe-sxm.com/2023/04/if-you-want-youth-to-be-truly-involved/

During the premiere, student cast members and teacher Rosan were invited to take part in a Q&A about the message being the film and its production. They talked about the lessons they learned.

Premiere Worthy
After the 3rd edit, the film was ready and premiere worthy! So on Caribbean Youth Day, fifty students, aged 6 to 14, celebrated the premiere of the short film ‘What If I Told You?’ with their teachers, parents, supporters, and dignitaries.

The premiere event started with several surprises for the cast, crew, and invited guests, including film-inspired decorations and posters, a professional photographer and backdrop, a 360-camera experience, and complimentary popcorn and drinks. Once ready, everyone was invited to enter the theatre. 

Lenworth and 11-year-old Abdiel Joseph-Soto, who plays a lawyer in the film, hosted the evening. Several words of welcome were shared, along with the film’s trailer and behind the scenes video, a youth participation poem by Shaneisha Robinson, an introduction to children’s rights, and an interview with the main cast members.

During the question and answer segment several students shared their viewpoints on how they believe the adults in the room should support children. A notable moment was when 11-year-old Damia Grant, who played a mother in the film, shared how important it was for mothers to show affection to their children and build their confidence while acknowledging that she understood that mothers have a hard job to do.

Students and teacher Rosan dressed their best for the Premiere event. Before the viewing of the film, guests enjoyed a photo booth, 360-camera, and hallways decorated with custom-made movie posters featuring the students.

Encore & Future Plans
It all led up to the feature film everyone was waiting for. The viewing ended with loud applause and calls for an encore. Pride filled the room for both the students and their parents. “When does the rest of Sint Maarten get to see this film?” Prime Minister, Silveria Jacobs asked at the premiere. Here are the plans:

In the coming weeks afterward, 6th-grade classes of all primary schools in Sint Maarten were invited to view the film ‘What If I Told You’ at the Philipsburg Cultural Center and receive a presentation on Children’s Rights. Over 500 students attended!

On November 20th, 2023 the short film will premiere for the public on the social media pages of the Department of Youth SXM and UNICEF Sint Maarten (@unicefsxm). Check it out!

Cast of students, teachers, crew, representatives of the Department of Youth, UNICEF the Netherlands, supporters and dignitaries at the premiere of ‘What If I Told You?’