Over Christmas break, while most teenagers were sleeping in or pulling extra shifts at their part-time jobs, Chase Crittenden was in Los Angeles, Calif. spending 12-hour days shooting his short film “Lost and Found.” The film, which follows a tumultuous father-daughter relationship, unabashedly explores adult themes when a loved-one goes missing. Chase was not only the director, but the youngest crew member on-set. The 16-year-old was managing a cast of nine actors, backed by his father, who served as a producer on the film.
“It was the most fun I think I’ve ever had in my life,” he says.
Crittenden is one of the many young filmmakers showing their work in this year’s National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NFFTY), an annual Seattle-based showcase of youth-directed films.
Jesse Harris, co-founder of NFFTY, was a director himself, trying to promote the feature film he created in high school, when he realized how hard it is to be a young filmmaker. He found that though technological advancements mean almost anyone can be a filmmaker, it's much harder to gain supoport and build an audience. “There are so few resources for young directors...so I realized there should be a festival to support other young filmmakers,” Harris says.
After filming and distributing his own film, Harris co-founded NFFTY with two other young filmmakers. He wanted to give young filmmakers a way to expose their work to an audience and learn from industry experts in panels.
That was seven years ago. Now NFFTY is the worlds largest youth film festival, drawing aspiring young directors from all corners of the globe. The four-day festival will screen 215 films (narrowed down from nearly 700) from 30 states and 20 countries. Entrants must be 22 or younger, but NFFTY will take any genre of film or style of film.
Those 215 films will be screened before an expected 10,000 person audience in Seattle this weekend, including people who have traveled here from Egypt, Greece and Iceland. The festival aims to give young filmmakers exposure and a chance to get industry advice from panels of experts throughout the weekend.
This year’s festival is the biggest yet, Harris says, with higher quality films, more countries and bigger names participating — including award-winning Danish documentary filmmaker Pernille Rose Grønkjær.
Leo Pfeifer was just 14 when he filmed his documentary “74.” The five-minute film focuses on the months and days before Washington's gay marriage referendum, R-74, was passed in Washington state. Pfeifer, now 15 and a freshman at Ballard High School, has been interested in storytelling all his life. For him, the best way to tell a story is to capture it on film.
Unlike Crittenden, Pfeifer filmed by himself over a period of two months. Shooting the short documentary on his personal DSLR camera, he had to juggle being a camera person, interviewer and editor.
This isn't Leo's first year at NFFTY, but he says seeing people watch his films is an “incredible” and “nerve-wracking” experience. "As it's playing, I notice every little detail and everything I should have changed," he says.
Some filmmakers are like Crittenden, Harris said, with their foot already in the industry's elusive door. Others are more like Pfeifer, filming with their own equipment and working with friends. With such a tough industry ahead of them, Harris wants to give all of them a chance for exposure and to help them meet other young people with similar interests. He hopes rubbing elbows with each other will be inspiring.
“It’s important to give them the opportunity to do what they want to do,” Harris says. “It’s putting the voice of this generation out on the screen.”
Still, there's a high bar to make it into the festival. High film quality is expected, but Harris says they're willing to overlook quality issues for an interesting story. “For us, we want is a compelling story or what’s going to be entertaining for the audience,” Harris says.
Crittenden, who started making films for school projects in seventh grade, has made a few short films for school and other film festivals. This time around, as a personal challenge, he decided to tackle a longer drama. He thought the audience would connect more with the story.
The high school sophomore says a lot of people had doubts he’d be able to handle the pressure of filming with a full cast and crew. One challenge for him was finding a balance between his youth and his role as director. “I tried to find a common ground and tried to make filming really fun for the actors and crew as well,” he says. “And I tried to open up about myself so they could open up about themselves.”
He was drawn to NFFTY because it was a youth-only festival, which took a lot of the pressure off. “It’s something you don’t get anywhere else,” Crittenden says. “Usually you're around older people and you get judged as a younger person.”
As a former young filmmaker himself, Harris has been there. His main goal is to give young filmmakers the confidence to pursue a career in the industry. In an environment where funding for arts is shrinking and few Seattle schools focus on directing, it was important for Harris to give the kids a place “to create something that’s your story or your voice and have it be seen by an audience.”
That's exactly what Crittenden did, working with a writer in New York — a friend of the family — on the film's script. From there, he and his dad teamed up with writers, editors and actors from New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles to create the 16-minute film.
Having his dad there throughout the filming process helped, Crittenden said, because it meant someone “always had my back."
Laura Lambert, Crittenden’s mom, describes watching her son making movies as “surreal.” She stayed home while Crittenden and his dad were in the production process, so she was blown away when she first got to see the film. “It was a lot deeper than I thought it was going to be,” Lambert says.
But the chance to see his movie is a rare opportunity. Crittenden is keeping the film's plot secret from friends and family until its premiere at the festival.
He's also already got his next gig lined up. While most of his friends will be spending their summer getting their first jobs and driving their first cars, Crittenden will be in Africa for a church mission trip, while there he will film his first feature-length film. He is in talks with BET and Paramount for funding.
“I want to encourage a lot of kids to accomplish what I’m accomplishing,” he says. “Because a lot of kids don’t think that it’s possible, but I want to tell them that it is possible.”
If you go: Buy tickets at www.nffty.org
This article has been edited to reflect the fact that Crittenden has not yet secured funding from BET and Paramount.