Toward the end of 2021, a friend and former coworker reached out with an interesting opportunity. His company, Lightswitch Video, had been working to create a grant for aspiring filmmakers in the city of Chicago. He and I had spoken previously about my goals with Streetlamp Media, and he asked if I wanted to be a judge for the grant contest.
The goal of the initiative was as follows:
The Full STEM Ahead Filmmaker’s Initiative is a first-year initiative launched by Lightswitch that is designed to not only encourage STEM education and careers in STEM but to also cultivate the careers of the filmmakers of tomorrow in the process. The arts and STEM are often closely linked and we want to give Chicago creators the opportunity to use their passion for the arts to showcase STEM programs that may otherwise go unappreciated.
My answer to him? Of course I'll do it! But I had no idea how to judge a filmmaking contest. Nor did I have any idea how difficult it would be.
Shockingly, the difficulty had nothing to do with commitment or effort. I spent two afternoons reading all the proposals, ranking them, reading them again, reranking them, reviewing my notes, reranking them. Turns out the difficulty lies in deciding between so many worthwhile projects.
The applicants ranged from established documentary filmmakers to people who had probably never held a camera. The focus on STEM excited several teachers and students who wrote glowing tributes to the robotics team members at their local schools. I had no idea how many robotics programs there are in the state of Illinois, but now I do, and I may reach out to several of them to help motivate my lackadaisical Roomba.
One notable application told the story of a woman from the Bahamas who came to the US for college and returned to her impoverished community to teach computers and technology to young students. It was eloquently written and inspirational.
How can you rank aspiration against inspiration? This was like a cage match between butterflies. How do you decide who should win? How do you determine which of these wonderful projects is most worthy of additional funding?
After all the ranking and reranking, after tallying my votes with those of the other judges, Lightswitch Video (and sponsor Zeiss) chose a worthy winner.
We found our perfect match with Chicago natives Jonah Ocuto and Amaya Benbow. Ocuto and Benbow were chosen to receive the $5,000 grant to produce a short-form documentary about the STEM program of their choice, Blue Tin Production. Blue Tin Production will receive a matching $5,000 donation, and the final documentary will receive a showing at a local theater alongside a Q&A with the documentarians.
Blue Tin Production is an apparel manufacturing workers co-operative run by immigrant, refugee, and working-class women of color. Founded by author and founder of political fashion publication JooJoo Azad, Hoda Katebi, Blue Tin has been featured in various news outlets, including VOGUE and WBEZ 91.5, Chicago’s NPR news station.
I couldn't be happier with this selection. The filmmaking team behind it has a clear vision and the skills to deliver. The subject of the documentary is inspirational and deserving of attention. Kudos to everyone involved, and I can't wait to see the finished film.
My biggest takeaway from the experience, as you may have guessed, is that judging is HARD, especially when there are few rules and defined metrics. Back in my days as a gymnast, the rules were clear. Bend a knee, lose points. Take a step, lose points. Fall on your face, lose a lot of points. The winner is the person who loses the fewest points. Easy. And mostly objective.
This was different.
I wanted every project to win. I wanted to encourage each of those filmmakers to push forward. I wanted to give them all the money they needed to tell those stories.
Some of their finished projects would likely stand up to professional scrutiny. Some might earn awards. Others would look like home videos with bad sound and rough storytelling. But therein lies the beauty.
While I've dabbled in filmmaking, I can't really call myself a filmmaker. Yet. So I may not be the best judge of craftsmanship. But I've worked with and managed enough creative people over the years to recognize the curiosity and ambition that can propel creativity to the next level.
Every entrant in this contest demonstrated those traits. Every person should be proud. Every entrant should apply for more grants. Keep following those dreams. Keep trying to tell those stories. Keep learning. Keep making.
You're an inspiration. Every one of you.