90-Second Newbery Film Festival makes its Asheville debut

SHORT AND SWEET: Local artist Colette Russ films her adaptation of Cece Bell's El Deafo for the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. Russ' movie and 12 other local works will screen alongside favorites from around the country. Photo by Chris Russ

It was a cold day in the winter of 2013. Tacoma, Wash., resident Elliot Weiner could have been inside, but there he was in the elements, filming an adaptation of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted with a group of children for the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival.

“The girls were outside, dressed up in sleeveless gowns and stuff, and it was about 30 degrees … and they didn’t care at all,” Weiner says. “That gave me an idea that kids really loved this creative film process.”

Founded in 2012 by The Order of Odd-Fish author James Kennedy, the annual festival asks students to pick a John Newbery Medal-winner or Honor book — the most prestigious awards in children’s literature — and figure out how to tell the story as a movie in roughly a minute and a half. Joining the ranks of New York, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco, Asheville makes its debut as a host site on Saturday, April 22, when entries by local filmmakers will be screened at Pack Memorial Library’s Lord Auditorium.

After moving to Asheville in 2014 and engaging with some of its passionate young artists, Weiner saw great potential in bringing 90-Second Newbery to the community. He wrote to Kennedy and inquired about making his new home a festival site and, upon receiving approval, brought the word to Jesse Figuera, Buncombe County Libraries’ head of youth services, and Spellbound Children’s Bookshop owner Leslie Hawkins. Both youth literacy advocates offered instant support and proved instrumental in guiding interested parties to helpful resources.

With no fees of any kind to bar them from participating, groups formed at North Windy Ridge Intermediate School, Isaac Dickson Elementary, Mechanical Eye Microcinema and Asheville Community Theatre, along with several independent ensemble and individual efforts. Thirteen films were made, featuring the involvement of 70 kids. Eleven different books are represented, and the two that received multiple takes from different teams — The Tale of Despereaux and Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, both by Kate DiCamillo — were adapted in distinct ways.

Filmmakers used everything from cardboard masks and green screens to human actors and mitten puppets. Florence and Richard Atwater’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins, famously made as a comedy with Jim Carrey in 2011, was turned into a murder mystery. Eleanor Estes’ The Hundred Dresses became a hip-hop musical in the vein of Hamilton.

Those two films were made at ACT with help from Weiner and the theater’s program director, Chanda Calentine, but are undisputedly the kids’ creations. The youths selected the books, and Weiner drafted a script, after which he met with the kids, who promptly proposed a number of changes. They continued to steer the project during shooting, coming up with ideas to try out and, if the experiments didn’t work, something new.

The kids handled the lighting and sound while Weiner operated the camera most of the time. He says it’s good to have an adult involved to help with the organizational process, but, though he also edited the films — with plentiful feedback from the young decision-makers — his goal is for the kids to do the shooting themselves in 2018 and beyond, and be involved in editing. Based on how they responded in the first year, he’s confident that will happen.

“It helps kids bring out their creative sides,” Weiner says. “We had one boy [at ACT] who was very shy, and he just wanted to be my assistant. He wanted to hold the mic and all that — he didn’t want to be in the film as an actor. And so after the first hour of watching all this and holding the mic, he comes to me and Chanda and says, ‘Can I be in the film?’ because he just got so excited about it. Then his mother sent me an email that said she’d never seen him this excited about anything because he’s usually so reserved.”

Weiner continues, “The thing is not to just tap the extroverted kids who just want to get out there and be in front of the camera. It’s tapping the creative soul within so many of our kids.”

For funds to hold the festival and bring Kennedy to town, Weiner applied for a grant through the Awesome Asheville Foundation and was awarded $1,000. At the local event, following a stroll down a red carpet with paparazzi taking their photos, every participating filmmaker will receive a star statuette. Kennedy will co-host the festival with local author Alan Gratz (The League of Seven series). All 13 Asheville films will be shown along with Kennedy’s favorites from other cities.

WHAT: 90-Second Newbery Film Festival
WHERE: Pack Memorial Library, 67 Haywood St., avl.mx/250
WHEN: Saturday, April 22, 1 p.m. Free


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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