Organization Spy Hop Productions
Executive Youth Producers: Alex Mack and Diana Montero
Production Mentor: Jack Allred
Executive Director: Rick Wray
Media Literacy and Meta-Critical Analysis
After viewing the entire documentary Mother Superior, one feels as if they have gone through an intense eye-opening journey. Structurally, the film is quite sophisticated and it becomes apparent by the end that each decision concerning composition, lighting or editing was arrived at with a strong dose of intention and purpose. To some extent, Mother Superior obeys the conventions of the documentary genre; yet it offers up a disarming array of innovative twists and surprises along the way. Only twenty-two minutes in length, Mother Superior's breadth and depth is staggering for the way it not only raises awareness about the little known phenomenon of Meth use among suburban women, but links it cause to a larger social and political framework of women's roles and identity in America.
According to Jack Allred, the Producer Mentor for the project, the quality of the documentary has a great deal to do with Spy Hop's pedagogical approach to media literacy.
Allred began his year-long mentorship with Alex Mack, Diana Montero and two other youth participants by media literacy. Rather than starting with production skills, Allred focused on engaging the youth in dialogue about film/media as a language that construct meaning. "We talked about objectivity vs. subjectivity, ethics of representation, truth vs. manipulation, and how lighting, sound, image, style and structure affect the story."
By engaging youth in rigorous media literacy methods on the front end, Allred was preparing them to apply that same level of critique to their own production process. By the time, Alex and Diana had begun work on Mother Superior, they were able to examine their own role as storytellers through the tools of meta-critical analysis and then use that analysis to inform their decisions as filmmakers.
For example, when we completed one of our interviews, we reviewed it again and again. We completely deconstructed the questions that were asked and the responses that were given. We examined how lighting affected the comfort level of the subjects and the honesty and bluntness of their responses. We talked about what these decisions ultimately mean in terms of an audience viewing it.
Allred defined the filmmaker's role as a mediator between the story and the audience and asked the youth to assume ethical responsibility for that role in how they shaped the meaning being created.
In the creative process, we spend a lot of time discussing how our content and style are going to jive. I want them to make decisions in the role of a storyteller, creative decisions that have implications for how audiences experience the work.
One of the most explicit and conscious choices that Alex and Diana had to make centered on the overall structure of the film. Alex had chosen the topic of the film because her step-mother was a formed Meth user but how or whether to introduce this element of the story required a great deal of reflection.
"This was a big process and brand new territory. They were still going to school and some had jobs — but we had a year to do this and we had created a great comfort zone." After pondering over how the story should unfold for a few months, the youth ultimately arrived at the creative decision to have the film's narrative arc trace the effects of the drug. "For example, we structured it in a way that introduced the audience to Meth in the same way that our subjects were introduced to the drug." Allred explains, "So the first five minutes are really spent talking the drug up. Of course, we didn't want our audience to walk away thinking Meth is positive, but it is an important part of the story and the audience can experience that for themselves." As the film progresses, the full range of the drug's effects slowly unfold.
Allred encouraged the youth to let this deep meta-critical approach to storytelling guide and inform their filmmaking decisions throughout the entire course of the process. As a result Alex's breathtaking revelation that her own step-mother underwent treatment for Meth addiction occurs startlingly at the end of the documentary. By this time the viewer has viscerally journeyed through the entire process of using Meth, finally arriving at the acknowledgement and atonement stage in which the users face how the drug has affected their own families.
For Allred, the resonance and impact of a film such as Mother Superior is the direct result of a process that engages youth in deep meta-critical analysis through a real-life project. "It is hard work intellectually and ethically but in the end they physically walk away with this transformative experience - not just something they read about in a book - but a real process that has taught them life skills, media analysis, teamwork, and how to start something and follow through on it. More importantly, they learn to think meta-critically and solve problems that are worth solving to them."
Rick Wray agrees, "We are not having them deconstruct commercials. They are gaining critical and digital literacy skills through production." As a result, most students walk away from Spy Hop acknowledging that they "will never look at media again in the same way."
Spy Hop's rigorous approach to media literacy and meta-critical analysis is not the only factor at play in the making of Mother Superior. The organization places great value on the role that intergenerational collegiality plays, as well. Spy Hop refers to this as the Production/Mentorship model.
At the conclusion of the Pitch-Nic year-long workshop that produced Mother Superior, the staff of Spy Hop sat down to discuss the credits for the film as they prepared for the upcoming round of festival entries. Up to that point adult facilitators at Spy Hop were described by the term, "Producer." But as Allred explains, the word failed to acknowledge the full complexity of the role. "One could look at it like we are teachers- who stand in front of the class and give them a lecture on film history and say 'now go do it'. That is how most people view it. But in reality, it is so much more. That word mentor evokes a relationship and connection - there are no boundaries to it." As a result of their discussion, the staff of Spy Hop officially designated themselves as Production Mentors, a term that acknowledges their multiple roles as mediamakers, interpersonal counselors and learning guides.
"It is a dynamic that is difficult to describe. It becomes transformative for both the youth and the mentors involved." Yet, Allred believes that this kind of dynamic culture and climate that mentors provide cannot often be replicated in a classroom. "At Spy Hop we care so much about the kids and we can act on that care by having a climate that allows meaningful and supportive relationships to grow". For example, Pitch-Nic took place over the period of a full year and involved only four youth participants. The youth were chosen out of an application and interview process. Prior production skills or even an idea for a film were not prerequisites. However, they did need to be motivated and willing to commit time and energy to the process. Schools can rarely afford such luxuries.
"It is a different dynamic when you have four, rather than 18-25 kids. Terms like classroom, student and even curriculum do not really apply." Even while Spy Hop apllies a streamlined standards-based backwards design approach to planning workshops, Allred believes that the mentor's role is less prescriptively defined than when using a formal curriculum. "The goal is for these ideas to be arrived at and controlled by the youth. So mentorship means individualizing your approach. It doesn't come from a pre-determined place."
For example, in Pitch-Nic the youth participants are told they need to come up with an idea that can be formed into a three -five sentence pitch. This involves weeks of brainstorming, group discussion, feedback and refinement until the deadline arrives, when they must make their pitch to the panel. Allred said every one of his students approached this process differently. "Some students don't have a strong creative vision or strong take on what they want to do and some students have a complete sense of direction." In the case of Alex Mack, the deadline was approaching but she couldn't come up with an idea. "I was getting a little concerned then one day she approached me and said, 'My step-mother used to be a meth user - can I make a video about this?' I was amazed that this had been brewing the entire time. 'Of course', I said, 'Yes, absolutely!"
Alex may never have arrived at this topic if it were not for the Production/Mentorship model that allowed the time and provided the climate for serious contemplation and self-inquiry. As Allred explains, "You don't hand them over an idea or assignment that they would not be invested in. You set up a cultural environment of listening and exploring. They already have a question within them and my job is to help bring it out, shape it, and translate it into a story."
Allred believes that a Production Mentor must be deeply invested in the process. " It is a Disposition that I put forth to youth where I say, 'Smaller or bigger, I will be the resource that you need me to be.' If that is about comforting them emotionally, than so be it." At the same time, he fully recognizes that there is a delicate balance between acting as a source of support on one hand and taking over the reins on the other. "I tell them, 'You guys better understand I am not going to do it for you.' But at the same time, when I see the effort being made to define a position around an issue and they are struggling, I step in to help them through that process."
In order to do this, Allred must be more than a mentor, he must be a skilled, experienced and intuitive filmmaker as well. While clearly Mother Superior was scripted, shot and edited by two youth around a self-defined and authentic inquiry, it is equally evident that there is a strong, dedicated mentor/producer guiding and shaping the production process as well. Allred had already developed a strong sense of visual storytelling and was able to model this for the youth producers. Alex brought her own personal story and original perspective to the piece. Neither the youth nor the mentor could make the work alone or without the other. Such interactions produce unique and evocative works of cinema.
"It is hard thing to put your finger on. Even while this process results in transformative experiences for youth and for me, it is a dynamic that is difficult to describe because it can't be replicated." Allred concludes, "You have to be deeply invested in the process." In the case of Spy Hop's Mentor/Producer model this investment is evidenced by a resonating documentary of cinematic and social import. Mother Superior exemplifies what is possible when Producer/Mentors commit to working individualistically with youth while seizing upon their own impulse and innate talent to make media.