Watertown film festival continues to thrive under teen leadership

There are plenty of film festivals held each year throughout the state and the country, many of them bigger than the one that’s been held annually in Watertown since 2007.

But the Watertown Film Festival, set for Saturday, Nov. 10, has one aspect that makes the local version truly unique and special. This one is organized exclusively by teenagers, and for the most part, designed for teenage participants.

Organizers of the Watertown Film Festival — this year’s event is the sixth annual — don’t advertise the fact that it’s a teenager-run event. They want it to be treated like any other film festival in the area. But when it came to organizing and planning for this year’s event, Executive Director Sam Husman, a 2012 graduate of Watertown-Mayer High School, and Associate Director Liz Vouk, a senior this year at Watertown-Mayer, having been calling all the shots.

“The directors at the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council know we’re teenagers, but not a lot of other people we work with do,” Vouk said. “I think that’s what really makes us unique and sets us apart from some of the other festivals in the area.”

It’s always been that way for the Watertown Film Festival, which was founded in 2007 by then Watertown-Mayer High School freshman Andrew Hatling. Hatling chaired the event for the first four years, but then headed off to California after graduating from high school to pursue film production at Biola University. That’s when Husman and Vouk began to take the reins, even though neither one of them is a filmmaker like Hatling.

“Both of us knew this was a really cool activity for Watertown,” Vouk said. “Watertown is not the most vibrant arts community. Yes, we have the PAC, and a lot of groups come in, but there’s not a lot of stuff for kids to enjoy most of the time. We both thought this was really cool, and I want to get into the event organizing industry later on in my life. This is probably the best experience I can get.”

Hatling is still involved in the festival, serving more as a consultant to Husman and Vouk. His role today is largely to help with the more film-related issues, such as determining the artistic merits of a film. That’s one of the biggest tasks for the organizers, who whittled a group of about 50 entries down to 14 films that will be screened at the actual festival.

Most of the entrants are amateur filmmakers, Vouk said, but with high production value. The typical films range from between about 2 to 20 minutes, and most are created by filmmakers in their late teens or early 20s. While many of the films are produced by local and area filmmakers, some have come from as far as Germany, South Korea and Iraq in the past. Vouk said a large number of films this year also came from California, many of them from Hatling’s friends and acquaintances in film school at Biola. Some of the films in past years have also been screened at festivals including Cannes International Film Festival, Cleveland International Film Festival and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival.

Vouk said the films were chosen by rating each one in a series of categories to determine which ones would be part of the festival. She said it was also important to keep the audience in mind, so films that appeal to a younger audience were important.

“We can’t have all serious or funny films,” Vouk said. “It’s a good mixture of serious and more fun or lighthearted films.”

As in the past, there will be a panel of two professionals, one a film producer and one a film director who have been in the industry for a long time. They will help determine one of the prizes, while another will be determined by a vote of the audience at the end of the night.
The festival has typically awarded $1,500 in prizes to the winners, which will be the case again this year. However, there will also be an added $500 prize this year in honor of the late K.J. McDonald, an avid filmmaker and photographer who Hatling says was a huge inspiration in him becoming interested in film. McDonald also has been a speaker at the event in the past, and was usually in attendance.

The award in honor of McDonald will likely go to one of the more local filmmakers, Vouk said, in an effort to promote the community that McDonald was so proud of. The additional prize money is thanks in part to a $5,000 grant the festival received this past year from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council.

“It’s amazing we get that money and are able to put on this festival because of them,” Vouk said of the MRAC.

The deadline to submit films for the festival was Oct. 12, and the list was only recently cut down to 14 on Oct. 26. The final list of films has not yet been announced publicly, but will be listed soon at watertownfilmfestival.com and on the festival’s Facebook page.