East Orange students win Best Documentary at Newark film festival

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EAST ORANGE, NJ — East Orange celebrated recently as a group of high school filmmakers won Best Documentary at the Newark International Film Festival, a five-day showcase of independent talent and creative thinking from around the globe.

The documentary, ‘Beyond the Barrel: An East Orange Story,’ turns a spotlight on the aftereffects and personal impact of gun violence, and delves into the deep-rooted loss that students feel when a gun is turned on family, friends and even a teacher. The short film was produced with the help of award-winning broadcast journalist and filmmaker Samson Styles and under the educational guidance of Jamila T. Davis. The documentary competed in the Newark International Film Festival against close to 1,000 submissions from more than 50 countries.

According to East Orange public information officer Connie Jackson, the high school students who were responsible for this documentary were executive producers Aisha Lavine and Tyler McDougald; production managers Jaidyn Barnes and Samuel Rodriguez; musical scorer Jalil Smith; cast/production assistant Zabaida Carter; cast members Alana Anderson, Andre Hopson and Nneze Eze; and editors Ayman Rashid, Jayden Tucker and Julian Gray.

“As a part of the Summer Work Experience Program, led by VIP Online Academy, all students took part in a social justice class led by attorney Angelo Pinto, co-founder of Until Freedom,” Jackson said Oct. 18. “They were taught the importance of using their voices to create change. During their discussions, students chose to create a campaign around gun violence prevention. They wanted to create something impactful that other students could see, so they decided to film a short documentary.

“Samson Styles is one of the VIP Online Academy instructors,” she continued. “He taught a class called ‘Lights, Camera, Action’ for students who were interested in learning about film and television production. As a part of the social justice project led by Angelo Pinto, Styles and his students helped develop the short documentary using the skills they learned in the six-week program Styles instructed.”

SWEP is part of Mayor Ted R. Green’s “Stands Strong Against COVID” program, which was launched in 2020 with the support of the East Orange City Council. The program featured courses in financial literacy, beauty entrepreneurship, T-shirt branding, using media in business, digital and drone photography, youth entrepreneurship, and culinary arts. The program was spearheaded by LaDonna Johns, manager of the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training, and delivered to students virtually through the VIP Online Academy, led by Davis, who is an author, activist and entrepreneur who was recently named community practitioner in residence for the Center for Community Research and Engagement at Seton Hall University.

“My heart is full watching the impact the program has had on our students. After being given the resources and the assignment, they took the lead and created magic,” Davis said Oct. 18. “Not only that, but their work is now invoking important conversations and inspiring other students to use their voices to create change. It’s simply amazing, and I’m incredibly proud.”

On Sept. 27, the students involved were presented with special resolutions during the East Orange City Council meeting and were scheduled to be taken out to dinner with East Orange Mayor Ted Green on Oct. 19, after press time. According to Jackson, East Orange students winning an award of this magnitude says a great deal about the city.

“This win demonstrates what East Orange already knows: Our children are exceptional and gifted, and when we all work together, the sky is the limit,” Jackson said.

Green, who was featured in the documentary along with council members, East Orange police officers and Police Chief Phyllis Bindi, praised the students for making such a powerful film.

“It’s amazing to see our young people achieve such an incredible milestone, and it’s a testament to all of their hard work and dedication to this project during the East Orange Summer Work Employment Program, also known as SWEP,” Green said Oct. 18. “The passion they had behind telling their story was truly inspiring, and we’re all extremely proud of this fantastic achievement.”

Styles is also incredibly proud of the students and is grateful to have had the opportunity to work with them.

“They say if you want to keep something, you have to give it away, so to give these young people the knowledge and skills to be able to tell their stories and see this documentary win at the Newark International Film Festival is part of my legacy now. It’s a very prideful moment for me,” Styles said Oct. 18.

Photos Courtesy of Michael Ricciardelli and East Orange