Eliot School’s Teenbridge Program Creates Documentary Blending Two Generations with Animation

A documentary by the name of InterGeneration is in its final stages of editing, and is the culmination of work by teens in the Eliot School of Fine and Applied Arts’ TeenBridge program, along with its artist in residence program.

Nine teenagers and seven elders worked together to create the film, weaving together stories using animation, and each generation got to learn about the other to see where their lives overlap. A screening of the documentary was held on December 2, which was the first time that both the teens and the elders were seeing the mostly finished product.

“From the perspective of mostly indigenous, immigrant, and black community leaders, artists, activists, educators and public health workers, InterGeneration processes our current moment through storytelling, letter writing and animation,” according to the website of filmmaker Carolyn Shadid Lewis, this year’s artist in residence who worked with the TeenBridge program. “Armed with their home devices, the teens create magical worlds from the elders’ stories with drawing, paper cut-outs, found objects, and their own bodies revealing universal experiences of anxiety, loss, and hope during a global pandemic and a national struggle for racial justice.”

Alison Croney Moses, a Program Director at the Eliot School, said that the TeenBridge program was piloted five years ago to fill the gap in art programming that eighth graders experience when moving up to high school.

“Those folks are now seniors with us and getting ready to apply for college,” she said of the program’s first participants.

Students are typically recruited at the eighth grade level, but sometimes even in the ninth or tenth grades. “The idea is they stay with us and grow,” Croney Moses said. A goal of the program is to empower students “to be successful in their lives through the arts,” so they can succeed beyond high school.

The Eliot School’s artist in residence program began three years ago “because I wanted an intensive art experience for young people where they get to work with a real live artist; a practicing artist in Boston,” Croney Moses said. Working with the artist in residence each year, the students are engaged in a project and have something to show off at the end.

This year’s artist in residence is Carolyn Shadid Lewis, an animator and filmmaker who said she had to completely change her original vision for this project because of the pandemic.

She said she knew she “wanted to respond to the moment” with a project, and this year was “already a little bit significant because it was an election year.”

She said she had a broad idea at first, but as she started developing her idea further, she began doing more research and learned about elders facing displacement, so she began to “redirect” her research towards that. Shadid Lewis also said her interest in climate change was something she wanted to weave into the project, in “thinking about the next generation and how we have to think about their futures.”

An animation lab was created for students to create animations as a form of storytelling, but then the pandemic hit and it could not be used in the way it was intended, she said.

“In terms of my curriculum, everything had to become more individualized,” she said, and a project that was intended on being very collaborative had to be adjusted to deal with the pandemic.

 “Everybody had their own animation station,” Shadid Lewis said. “The idea of collaboration wasn’t possible.”

She said because of this, she decided to pair each student with an elder to tell stories about their lives.

“I wanted to make it personal,” Shadid Lewis said. “Animation is amazing for that.” She said that in her own artistic practice, she combines oral history with “imagery that you’re not used to seeing, which she said “changes the way things are said and seen and creates something a little bit different.”

 A lot of work for the documentary had to happen over Zoom, but Shadid Lewis also had the students do letter writing to help them practice speaking.

JP resident Carolyn Ingles, one of the elders who participated, said “this was really awesome. It showed me the value, the perspective older folks have in life, and validated it.” She said that older people, especially older women, “become invisible.” Ingles told stories about her late husband, who was a musician, and about “a time where artistry could flourish easily,” she said.

Croney Moses said that the “idea of intergeneration was the hook for me. I feel like so much of all the voices are all elevated in this experience.” 

Ingles said it was “hard for some of the kids to communicate in any kind of way. We didn’t know that our conversations with the kids were being heard.” But “when I saw the finished product, I was on the verge of tears. They did listen,” she said. “They animated, drew, and spoke about all of the things that all of us said. It was a beautiful, successful contract.”

Shadid Lewis said the thing that surprised her most about this process is that “I single-handedly produced a feature length film in a short period of time.” She said the timing could not have been better with the election this year and the “interconnection between all of these people and all of our responsibilities.”

 Due to licensing issues, the film cannot be released yet, and it still needs some finishing touches. Shadid Lewis said that if it is to ever be distributed publicly, it “needs to have a communal experience,” and must be “distributed in a way that can continue the conversation respectfully.”

 Croney Moses said it was “definitely a learning curve for all of us.” She said that “young people did a lot of work during the summer,” which is evident in the final product, though there was a much faster time frame for this project than there would be for a typical documentary.

“This film is sort of made for Zoom in a weird way,” Shadid Lewis said. “It was the right way to do it in real time,” Ingles added.

“The program needs to continue, and it will,” Croney Moses said of the TeenBridge program and the artist in residence program. “We want the residency to not be a benefit for just the teens,” but the artist as well, she added, saying it’s also about “community connections and resources.”

Shadid Lewis said that “we really need to focus on teens in our communities. [They’re] just a very vulnerable age group…having this kind of support system for teens is so important.”

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