Omar Washington, a student with the Young Filmmakers’ Workshop, films a scene for Lonnie Holley’s, I Snuck Off The Slave Ship, which will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this week.

INDIANOLA – After learning how to produce and edit their own films from filmmakers and videographers last summer, several high school students across the Mississippi Delta will have scenes in a film that debuts at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival this month.

The Sundance Film Festival is an annual event in Utah that celebrates the works of storytellers and filmmakers all over the world.

Eight of the 17 students who participated in the first Young Filmmakers Workshop will have scenes in the film, “I Snuck Off the Slave Ship,” that will be featured at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on January 24 through February 3.

“In the film, ‘temporal talismans’ guide Lonnie Holley — who created the film along with Cyrus Moussavi, Brittany Nugent, and Matt Arnett —  through the Black American experience. ‘But his freedom quest always seems to get trapped in the same point of discontinuum; the 4th of July, birthdate of the self-replicating slave ship, ‘America’,” the news release states.

Last summer, 17 students from high schools across the Delta engaged in a free workshop learning how to tell their stories and how their lives intersect with the county’s matriarch Fannie Lou Hamer, a Sunflower County native who was known for her work as a civil rights and voting rights activist. The workshop was funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

After showing proficiency in editing and shooting film during the Young Filmmakers Workshop, Keyshawn Brison, Marquisse Kirkham, Keyshaun Meeks, Keziah Allen, Omar Washington, Trayvion Dozier, Anderson Johnson and Selena Davila, each had the opportunity to work for a day on July 4th on “I Snuck off The Slave Ship.” 

Joseph Davenport, director and editor of the documentary “Fannie Lou Hamer’s America,” was set to work with Holley and wanted to include the students in the project. He then worked out a plan with Moussavi, the co-director of “I Snuck off The Slave Ship.”

Although the film was mostly shot in Atlanta, additional scenes were filmed in the Delta by the students, who were paid for their work and will have their name listed in the credits.

The Sundance Film Festival has launched the careers of many renowned, notable filmmakers and discovered independent films for over 37 years. Kevin Smith, American filmmaker, won the highest award for his movie “Clerks at Sundance and then, got a deal with Miramax debut in theaters.

Steven Soderbergh, screenwriter and director, also got his break at the film festival, receiving the inaugural Audience Award for “Sex, Lies And Videotapes,” which landed a deal with Miramax. Since, he has gone on to produce movies like “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Magic Mike XXL,” “Gray’s Anatomy,” and “King of the Hill.”

Even award-winning director Lee Daniels’ career received a boost when his 2009 film “Precious” debuted and won the Grand Jury and Audience Awards at the festival. Years earlier, he produced “Monster’s Ball,” and most recently, he has written and produced two hit television shows, “Star” and “Empire,” to name a few.

Ava Duvernay, writer, producer, and director, was the first black woman to win U.S. Directing Award for her film “Middle of Nowhere” at Sundance in 2012. Duvernay has produced and directed  “13th,” “Selma,” and “A Wrinkle In Time.”

And for young people in the Delta, like Selena Davila, a former student at Gentry High School, it is a dream come true to be featured in a festival like Sundance.

Davila, 19, freshman at Mississippi Delta Community College, could not believe the news that the film she worked a day on would be feature at the film festival.

“I was in school, in the library and I got the message and it popped up and I was reading it and I was like, ‘What? Are you serious?’,” she said in a phone call with Mississippi Today. “I did not think it would go that far.”

Davila, the only female student to work on the film, said she changed her major from English to Art once she encountered the Young Filmmakers Workshop. It showed her a creative side she didn’t know she had, she added.

“The struggle with me trying to stay in the Art field was hard because I had people that doubted my ability to actually stay on track especially with drawing and video editing,” said Davila. “When I had my mom’s encouragement to do the program … I went in there with an open mind and when I came out … this creative side I had, it had to be shown to the world.”

The workshop sessions students attended last summer were led by the production team of “Fannie Lou Hamer’s America,” is the first full-length documentary allowing Hamer to tell her own story using her voice in public speeches, personal interviews, and songs. Davenport, Dr. Pablo Correa, the film’s webspinner and videographer, and RJ Fitzpatrick, a videographer from the Delta, taught students how to produce their own films from start to finish.

Fannie Lou Hamer’s civil rights legacy lives on

After last year’s success, the production team plans to host another Young Filmmakers Workshop in Sunflower County, provided they find funding. 

“Fannie Lou Hamer’s America”, is a part of “a global  multimodal project” that includes a driving tour and interactive website for students and teachers and a K-12 educational curriculum, Find Your Voice, that was piloted in Sunflower County last summer in conjunction with the filmmakers workshop.

The documentary is currently undergoing production and the date of completion for  a rough cut of the documentary is planned for the Spring, the news release stated.

Funding was also provided through grants from The Ella Baker Center For Human Rights, the Mississippi Humanities Council, the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi, Freedom Singer Bill Perlman, broadcast journalist Tavis Smiley, Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area (MDNHA), McDonald’s (Retzer Resources of Greenville) and the Phil Hardin Foundation.

“I’m beyond ecstatic that this film will be premiering at Sundance. It’ll be my first time — of many, I hope — but even more importantly, every student who participated can say with honesty that their first paying gig – of many, I hope – premiered at Sundance,” said Davenport.

Editor’s note: A previous version stated that all students were from the Sunflower County Consolidated School District. Several of the students were from other school districts throughout the Mississippi Delta.

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.