(Left to right) Katerine Iraheta, 17, and Endia McCowan, 16, are students at Fremont High School's Media Academy. Their shorts are part of this year's Fruitvale Short Film Series. Credit: Pete Rosos

After the pandemic forced schools to adopt distance learning last spring and civil unrest exploded on Oakland’s streets, Fremont High School students Endia McCowan and Katerine Iraheta decided to process these life changing events in a creative way—by putting their thoughts and feelings into short films. Their videos have now landed spots in the upcoming Fruitvale Short Film Series. 

“I was very surprised, shocked,” McCowan said. “They picked my video?” 

“I feel so grateful,” said Iraheta. “To have my film being shown to people is pretty cool.”

McCowan and Iraheta’s shorts, each roughly 2 minutes long, were produced under the guidance of Jasmene Miranda, a career and technical education teacher and the director of Fremont High’s Media Academy

“Originally, we were going to focus on something completely different for the summer,” Miranda said. “But, the more time that I spent with the ladies online, I realized that there needed to be some form of therapy that needed to happen. It just so happened that it was through them telling their stories about how they feel.”

That is how the two students came up with the name of their short films. In the videos, titled “I Feel,” McCowan and Iraheta share how they have emotionally dealt with the pandemic and the social unrest that began after the murder of George Floyd. 

“Usually, I have a really hard time putting things together, but this just came naturally,” McCowan said of working on the short. 

For Iraheta, producing the film was a way to channel feeling angry and isolated. “I was mostly thinking of how I felt closed in,” she said of having to shelter in place, “and how I was never going to see the outside again.” 

McCowan and Iraheta didn’t choose to join the Media Academy because they are interested in pursuing a career in media. Instead, the two said they were curious and wanted to learn more  about graphic design, filmmaking, and photoshop. Both eventually want to work in the medical field.

Filmmaking, said Miranda, can provide students like McCowan and Iraheta a platform to unleash their creativity and connect their personal experiences to larger narratives. In making short films they’re learning “how to tell their story in an authentic way, take that skill, and flip it into telling stories of their community,” she said.

The Media Academy has been helping students express themselves at Fremont High, which is located on High Street and Foothill Boulevard in East Oakland, since 1986. Today, the high school serves a student body that is primarily Latinx.

“We are the first and oldest academy in the district,” Miranda said. “In the past, the Media Academy really focused on journalism—there was a newspaper and a magazine. When I attended in the early 90s, we had a broadcasting branch.” 

As the media landscape changed and print newspapers have shifted mostly to digital, so have the classes at the academy. “We are a safe haven for the really creative kids on campus that choose to express themselves through multiple forms of media,” said Miranda. 

Miranda, a Fremont High Media Academy alum herself, had to adapt to the challenges of teaching remotely, and find ways to provide students what they needed to complete their video projects with limited access to the equipment on campus. Both students had to work extra hard to complete their extensive Media Academy coursework—video production classes, college classes through Laney College, and a media institute internship through Oakland Unified School District—and they had to do it all remotely. In the end, having limited access to the equipment on campus and no in-person interaction with any of their teachers was no impediment for the two students to complete their films. 

Miranda said she is confident that she now has a sustainable teaching plan, should remote learning carry into 2021. 

“I learned so much from my students,” she said. “I got a lot of honest feedback. How do we need to deliver lessons, information, or communicate with you? It was a collective [of students] that helped me prepare for the school year.”

(Left to right) Katerine Iraheta, Jasmene Miranda, and Endia McCowan in front of the Fremont High School entrance. Miranda has been teaching at the High School’s Media Academy for 8 years. Credit: Pete Rosos

“That was the remarkable thing about the project,” Miranda said. “Normally, students on campus would work as part of a production team.” Despite not having the in-person production and editing training, she said, “each produced their own project in five weeks.”

Their hard work paid off when the Fruitvale Short Film Series committee reached out to Miranda wanting to showcase some of her students’ work. In total, four films from the academy will be part of the virtual festival: McCowan and Iraheta’s shorts, and two from alumni of the academy. 

“I feel like we are the best kept secret in East Oakland,” Miranda said. 

Donations from those who attend the virtual festival will benefit the Media Academy’s annual scholarship. Typically, the academy’s students have to put on fundraisers. In the past, the academy has teamed up with SoMar in downtown Oakland, which allowed them to have events with proceeds benefiting the scholarship fund. The academy has also partnered with Tech Exchange, a nonprofit dedicated to narrowing the digital divide in Oakland. This year, thanks to the donations that they will get from the festival, the scholarship is taken care of. 

As the pandemic continues, McCowan and Iraheta are finding ways to cope with being away from their friends and their teachers. 

“At first, I was happy to get a break [from being at school]. But then I realized that it was going to take longer. It was crazy, I needed to be social,” McCowan said. 

“It was difficult at first because my WiFi sucked,” Iraheta said. “It was difficult communicating with my teachers, with my classmates, working together as a team and now being by myself.”

Whenever in-person classes return, Miranda, McCowan, and Iraheta will be ready to take advantage of all the upgrades done at Fremont High as part of the Fremont Facilities Project, a $133 million campus renovation funded by Measure J, a bond measure passed in 2012. The improvements include a full production facility for the Media Academy with an audio booth and equipment and software for live streams. 

In the meantime, Miranda and her students are grateful to see their work being recognized. Miranda wants people to see how talented youth in East Oakland are, and to stop perpetuating a negative narrative about students from public schools. 

“What we are doing right now is a testament to the resilience of people in the flatlands of Oakland,” Miranda said. “It’s a collective, that’s how we make things work.”

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.