'Common Ground' Documentary Screening on May 22

Arts Emerging project builds bridges among students from local high schools

Over the past five months 112 Syracuse-area high school students were given video cameras and one assignment: to film their everyday lives. Students from Fayetteville-Manlius High School, Fowler High School, Nottingham High School and the Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central filmed everything from their morning routines to after-school activities in an attempt to find their similarities, while also respecting their differences.

The result is "Common Ground," a short documentary produced by Syracuse Stage, which will be screened on Wednesday, May 22, at 7 p.m. in the Archbold Theatre. The event is free and open to the public.

Every year, the Arts Emerging project invites Syracuse-area high school students to explore themes that relate to their lives from one of the current mainstage productions. This year's Arts Emerging project examined themes of class, luck, family and cultural identity, all prominent in Syracuse Stage's production of "Good People."

Before the students were given cameras, a team of teaching artists asked the high schoolers a series of questions to help shape the direction of the documentary, and get the students to think about what they have in common. The teaching artists included video editor Brenna Merritt, CBS affiliate news anchor Jeff Nelson, Sara Sellman from the Syracuse International Film Festival and Syracuse Stage’s director of educational outreach, Lauren Unbekant.

The core questions were: "What is the hardest thing about high school?," "Define family." and "What do you do in your spare time?" The students’ answers to these questions contributed to the overall feel of the documentary and outlined the theme of commonality.

"They got an opportunity to share themselves, and an opportunity to be filmmakers, essentially," says Merritt. "They got a chance to see what it's like to work with a camera and to contribute to a communal project."

Students from the four high schools were thrilled to have a camera in their hands, but also nervous about being open and exposed on film. This team worked with the students to get the conversations going and teach them the technical aspects of using video cameras, such as composition, lighting and creating narrative with video.

The "common ground" that came from the filming included similar rituals, family lives, wanting love, shared insecurities and an overall quest for self-discovery. The concept of what makes a family came out in many students’ footage, and is prevalent throughout the documentary. Students saw family as a bond between those closest to them, not just the people biologically related to them.

Unbekant notes how this theme of family relates directly to Good People. "If you want to thematically go to the play, Margie is closest to her friend Jean and her landlady—and that's family. They help each other out," she says.

"Common Ground" shows what it's like to be a teenager growing up in Syracuse. Told directly from the point of view of the students, the documentary gives a raw, honest take on the struggles and joys of being in high school in 2013. The film gives a glimpse of all the different things that kids go through, and the different relationships they have with their parents, friends, teachers and siblings.

"The audience can expect to see an honest take on what it's like to be an American teen in Syracuse. Everyone's experiences, while inherently the same, are all different in a way," says Merritt.

Arts Emerging is sponsored by the John Ben Snow Foundation, Green Family Foundation, Time Warner Cable, Partnership for Better Education and SU School of Education, with additional support from Constellation Energy Nuclear Group, Tompkins Financial Advisors, Wegmans and Price Chopper’s Golub Foundation.