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Student filmmakers find new ways to participate in their communities

Erica Pelzek

Madelyn Braun, 10, sits in her family’s living room, flicking the channels back and forth between the second presidential debate and the Disney Channel.

She pauses, focusing on Barack Obama’s face and emphatic hand gestures.

“I wish I could vote,” she says. “Everyone in my class is a Republican, but only because their parents are.”

This viewpoint, though youthful, is refreshing in response to the overwhelming opinion that American youth are apathetic – politically or otherwise. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, only about 25 percent of the youth voting population actually exercised their right to vote in the 2004 presidential election. The substantial youth vote increased to approximately 52 percent in November’s presidential election – still, barely over half of 18-29-year-olds are exercising their right to vote, according to CIRCLE.

But later, while Braun plays around with the Flash program on her family computer – an extension of the learning she is doing in the classroom at Dixon Elementary School in Brookfield, Wis. – she brings up the election again.

"I've seen lots of videos on YouTube that Mom has showed me," she explains. "They talk about what it means to be a Democrat and what it means to be a Republican. I know that red and the elephant are for Republican and blue and the donkey are for Democrat."

She smiles and explains this will help when she's "18 and ready to vote!" Her visual identification of the parties comes, of course, from the wide range of do-it-yourself documentaries, videos and films available online.

Clearly, Wisconsinites far and wide, ranging from 10-year-old Braun to University of Wisconsin-Madison alumni, are working to nullify the youth apathy stereotype, particularly through multimedia and filmmaking.

By engaging in their communities – not merely through trying to get out the vote, but also by encouraging awareness of Wisconsin issues and making films about these issues – these youthful documentary makers and multimedia gurus work to advance the state in a technologically enriching way.

UW-Madison senior Charlie Berens, 21, is the Wisconsin representative for Street Team ’08 for Think MTV’s “Choose or Lose” initiative – the TV website’s get-out-the-vote program. Think MTV, according to Berens, is a program that seeks to inspire younger people to “think, whether that be about health care issues, human rights or general politics.”

Berens was hired to work for the election season and “basically bring the voice of Wisconsin youth to a national forum.”

“I know for me, making videos is a way of becoming more and more informed about the world,” he says. “I probably never would have known about some things I’ve reported on in such depth,” such as how flooding and farms in Wisconsin affect residents’ politics or the life of a soldier in Iraq.

Video, Berens says, is a more hands-on approach to obtain people’s opinions on issues, because of its point-and-shoot format and quick learning curve for editing.

“It’s also easier because people find you more approachable, I’ve found, if you have just a video camera rather than a pen and paper and recorder and are scribbling like crazy to get everything down,” he says.

UW-Madison 2008 alum Alex Gaylon, co-director, co-writer and editor of the documentary “Youthanized” for Wisconsin’s anti-apathy campaign “Project Youthanized,” concurs that the technology of filmmaking itself allows for youth participation in their individual communities, whether it be school, home life or political viewpoints.

“It gives the viewer, especially a young one, the opportunity to relate to a certain viewpoint in a visually accessible way,” he says. “By making videos, young people can simply discover more about certain issues – it’s a learning process, through the reporting of a documentary. That definitely helps them engage in their communities more, simply by learning.”

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