Creating in Place, a Youth Beat film screening and fundraiser, takes place on May 18 at 5pm. Credit: Courtesy Youth Beat

This year, amidst the barrage of destabilizing news about COVID, racial violence, family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, and deepening political divides, a diverse group of Oakland teens turned their focus inward and set out to make a film exploring how their own identities and beliefs have been shaped by the city they live in.  

What did they find? Empathy and a shared experience, despite their differences.

The filmmakers are all Oakland Unified School District students who attended Youth Beat’s after-school film program. Despite needing to co-produce the film virtually (normally, the teens would have met in the studios of KDOL-TV, the school district’s public access television station) the students spent the entire school year collaborating on the film, a deeply personal exploration of how Oakland’s diverse communities intersect and how the city is experienced by its youth.  

Titled “Of Oakland,” the film profiles four high school students, and examines how each of their unique identities was influenced by the neighborhoods and diverse communities they’ve grown up around.

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A trailer of the documentary film, “Of Oakland.” Courtesy: Youth Beat

“We had to make this project almost completely virtually because of COVID,” explained one of the filmmakers, Sofia Verani, a senior at Oakland Technical High School who will be attending Emerson College to study film in the fall. “That was entirely new. We had to have the characters film themselves most of the time.”

“Something this film reminded me of is how many different perspectives there are out in the world,” added Verani. “When you look at the four people in the film, they have all lived completely different experiences, but it’s beautiful to see the empathy they have for each other.” 

The filmmaking process began with a larger cohort of Oakland teens making personal, short films delving into their neighborhoods, cultures, and identities. One of them, a video produced by Azi Jao, a Filipina immigrant who discovered her LGBTQ idenity in Oakland, was published last week on The Oaklandside. Another short video, produced by teen Samantha Ivey, explores what it’s like to grow up as a bi-racial person in Oakland.

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A short personal film produced by Youth Beat participant Sam Ivey. A number of teens produced short personal videos as part of the pre-production for the longer documentary, “Of Oakland.” Courtesy: Youth Beat

Sara Lam, also a high school senior, was the editor of the longer documentary film, “Of Oakland.” Lam, who plans to study cinema at Cal State Long Beach, said the best part of the film is that the subjects allowed themselves to be “really vulnerable.” 

“I want people to take away from the film that we are all interconnected in some sort of way,” she said, “even though we might be drastically different in race, ethnicity, or sexuality.” 

“Of Oakland” premiers Tuesday, May 18th at 5 p.m. Pacific, as part of Youth Beat’s virtual end-of-the-school-year screening party and fundraiser.  

You can learn more and reserve free tickets here

And tell a friend! Youth Beat serves Oakland students from all backgrounds, almost all of whom are low-income, with a creative outlet and education in digital media arts, and many go on to pursue further education and careers in media. You might just walk away feeling a bit better about the world after seeing their work—and you will definitely get to see some fantastic films!

The author, Jared Swanson, is a senior teaching artist at Youth Beat.