Looking to author Charles Dickens and movie director Frank Capra for inspiration, NJ Agwuna made a nine-minute film titled Censorship.
"It started out as a protest of a teacher who said a paper I wrote was too brash and opinionated," said the Atholton High School senior.
Much like Ebenezer Scrooge being visited by the three ghosts of Christmas past, the movie's main character has a series of three dreams, said the amateur filmmaker. The girl envisions what would happen in a world without censorship, an idea loosely drawn from Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.
Agwuna entered her film in tonight's Howard County Student Film Festival, a juried competition that drew submissions from 27 students who attend 11 of the county's 14 public and private high schools.
"I am proud of my movie, but it isn't a finalist in the festival," she said. "It just goes to show that the competing films are really good."
Two of the top short films are "so amazing" that the six-member jury was nearly stumped by how to rank them, said one of the judges.
"We thought, 'How do we compare these to the others?'" said Matt Boratenski, screen education coordinator at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring.
The judges raved over an anime film that is "technologically astounding" and a stop-action film "that must have taken an unbelievable amount of hours to make," said the Glenwood resident. The judges selected five finalists from among 10 films that survived a preliminary cut by a panel of nine teachers.
The five, ranging in length from four to 10 minutes, will be shown from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Kossiakoff Center on the campus of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. The festival is free and open to the public.
The judges' task was, to some degree, like the proverbial comparison of apples and oranges, Boratenski said.
"With animation, the director can make his characters do or say anything he wants," an advantage over live action, Boratenski explained. "And stop-action involves filming something, then moving it slightly and filming that new position -- frame by frame by frame," producing an unusual style of movie, but requiring a daunting amount of time and effort that most students don't invest.
"But there are elements of sophisticated film understanding in many of the entries," he continued. "What I look for, as a judge, is the story they're conveying -- that's my baby. In this festival there's a high level of storytelling across the board."
The event began in 2005 as a project of two River Hill High School students, Yuri Stone and Rebecca Zia, who were interning with local film companies as part of a mentor program, said Mary Jane Sasser, a Gifted and Talented Resource teacher at the school. She helped the pair launch the festival and has been the students' adviser ever since.
"A lot of kids in Howard County need a place to show their films and get feedback from people who like films," Sasser said. "It has grown into a countywide event."
While imitating Hollywood films is a popular technique, apparently so is borrowing an idea from a past student winner. Jen Liu, who won the top prize last year as a junior at River Hill, inspired some of the current crop of student filmmakers, said Nora Hyde.
The junior at Glenelg Country School submitted a four-minute film titled Love, which she said has the optimistic message that "people should just give love a chance and take all they can from it."
Hyde, who likes acting and directing, said she's "a fan of all the students' amazing work" and has watched Liu's film, Second Period, Monday Morning, online at YouTube.com "many, many times."
"My movie is stream-of-consciousness and deals with the epiphanies kids have during the school day," said Liu, now a senior planning to study fine arts in college. Her intended message was that "people can have fun in life and that there are no limitations," she added.
"But others called it 'an important movie about decision making,'" she said. "They called me a guru, but I'm just a normal kid. I didn't know my movie would have that much of an impact. Kids even recognize me at the [Columbia] mall."
Profound messages aren't an uncommon movie theme among student entries and Zahin Hasan dug deep into the issue of drunken-driving for one of his two submissions, which he said was inspired by a video he stumbled upon while searching an online site.
"This father talks about a scholarship he established after his teenage daughter was killed by a drunk driver, and then he says, 'A tenth of second and she was gone,'" said the senior at Howard High. Hasan's film, aptly titled A Tenth of a Second, tells the tale of a sober freshman, riding home from a party with his mother, who is killed by a drunken-driver who left the party at the same time.
"I wanted to use pathos to affect someone in some way," said Hasan, who added that the camera lingers on the devastated family at the movie's end. "That's what nice about film -- it's not limited to one audience. These films are extremely diverse."
Ilana Bittner, co-owner of Pixel Workshop in Columbia and a past judge, said the technological tools have evolved in the past decade, so that "teens with a vision can make a film without a big [financial] investment."
Carissa Dorson, a senior at Reservoir High, joined with fellow students Garth Taylor and Russell Huang to create a video series titled Little White Lies that runs on YouTube. She entered the third of four available episodes in the film competition this year.
Dorson, who plans to attend film school in the fall, said the trio hope to make two more episodes this summer to complete the six-part story arc in which "each character goes through his or her own set of struggles."
"On one hand, these student films are very clever, and on the other hand, it seems like almost anyone could make one," Ilana Bittner said. "That's the hallmark of a great filmmaker -- making it look easy."
Easy is not the word most participants would use to describe the process, though. According to Sasser, it takes about 12 hours of work to produce one minute of film.
Nonetheless, the students "are surprised by what kind of art they have inside themselves," she said. What the audience takes away from the festival, other than being entertained and having the chance to win door prizes, is "how technically extraordinary and creative these students are," she said.
Tom Brzezinski, a member of the executive board of the Columbia Film Society and a new judge this year, said the top two winning entries will be shown at this summer's Lakefront Film Festival, which begins June 20 and is held outdoors near Lake Kittamaqundi.
"I'm very happy that something like this exists," he said, pointing to the wide variety of films the students made, including a "mockumentary," a tongue-in-cheek documentary that informs viewers how to be an extra in a high school play.
One of Boratenski's goals as AFI education coordinator is "to find a sponsor willing to fund a major festival in the metropolitan area that would unite all the jurisdictions that sponsor small film festivals," he said.
"It is the basic nature of man to want to watch others," he continued, using as an example the Alfred Hitchcock movie, Rear Window, in which the audience watches Grace Kelly as she observes fianc? James Stewart spying on neighbor Raymond Burr with binoculars.
"Watching movies," said Boratenski, "is about voyeurism, after all."
What: Fourth annual Howard County Student Film Festival.
When: Today, 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Where: Kossiakoff Center, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, 11100 Johns Hopkins Road, Laurel.
Admission: Free. Door prizes awarded and an ice cream social will follow.
Program: A screening of the top five films, all appropriate for family viewing; a directors Q & A; and a winners announcement.