BYkids is a not-for-profit which provides children around the world with the training and equipment to make documentaries about their lives. Founder Holly Carter tells us about the value of children’s perspectives on global issues and why documentary can be such a powerful medium.
How would you describe BYkids to those who haven’t heard of it?
We founded BYkids in 2007 to teach people about globalism, global citizenship and empathy. We identify a child somewhere in the world who has a globally relevant story. We send a famous American filmmaker to help them make a film over the course of a month [mentors have included Albert Maysles and Joyce Chopra].
We then help the young director edit their film into a 27-minute documentary. Season One premiered on PBS at the start of this year. The five films were seen in 155 American cities by 64m viewers. We’re now producing Season Two: we've edited a film about climate change in Nicaragua and just shot a film in Senegal about child marriage.
What have been the most rewarding parts so far?
Moments where an intellectual and emotional connection is made between one of our young directors and another young person. For example, our fifth film was made by Faiza, a 17-year-old Yemeni immigrant living with her family in New York. It’s about the Islamophobia and bullying she’s encountered at school.
She attended lots of screenings at schools across New York, and the kids really seemed to appreciate hearing a story about pain and suffering from one of their peers. They were queueing up to meet Faiza as soon as the film ended, and some were crying. The film somehow managed to cut through the intellect to a place of emotion and healing.
How did you found BYkids?
I previously worked for The New York Times as a print journalist [Holly was nominated for a Pulitzer prize for her journalism]. I noticed a superficiality in how foreign stories were reported in the American media that seemed dangerous. I went on to run the Global Film Initiative. I saw kids who had never been able to travel abroad but were nevertheless incredibly engaged by subtitled films.
Next, I worked as a consultant for The After-School Corporation. That experience taught me that the US educational system isn’t always fair. I learnt that there’s so many kids, even in my own city, who don’t feel like they have a voice.
Once I had my own children, I was constantly astounded by how pure and selfless kids’ reactions to the world could be. All of these things led me to start a project that helps kids around the world tell their own stories.
What sort of impact does BYkids have on the people involved?
Our main purpose is to make Americans more empathetic about world issues. Having said that, it is a life-changing experience for the kid. To be a spokesperson for an issue that’s important to them is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.
These kids have developed incredible relationships with their mentors, opening the door to a whole range of new opportunities. They also get to come to America, usually for the big film festival the documentary gets into.
I think the community feels incredibly empowered by the process, too. When we made a film in Mozambique, a local said it was the first time they’d had an American visitor who wasn’t there with a gun forcing them to do something.
How do you find the young directors to work with?
When planning a season, the board and I come up with some very broad topics to cover. From those topics we try to pick a story which proves that we’re all connected as humans, but that isn’t on the front page of the news. Once we’ve picked a country to focus on, we partner with a non-profit there to help us find a group of young people, from which we select our director.
We look for someone with a story to tell who has the essential qualities of a director. As one of our mentors Neal Bear put it, someone who can ‘boss people around with a smile on their face’.
What are the main challenges you’ve faced so far?
I thought the big challenge would be finding the stories, but we have enough for a lifetime. I thought it might be hard convincing big-name filmmakers to go off to a foreign country, but we haven’t had a problem so far. Most people we invite are very enthusiastic and eager to be involved when they have availability between projects.
The real challenge is fundraising. We were fortunate to receive founding money from the Ford Foundation and we have several incredible supporters, but fundraising still requires a lot of our time and effort.
How would you like to develop BYkids in the future?
Our main goal for now is to get Season Two completed and on air in 2017. We’re also working on a distribution deal which will bring our films to the rest of the world. In the future, I want more educators use our films as resources.
We have a partnership with PenPal Schools which allows teachers to use our films as part of a seven-week syllabus. I’d love strike other educational partnerships along these lines.
What makes filmmaking such an important medium?
I think we humans are wired for storytelling, going all the way back to when we would sit round the campfire and tell stories. Although technology is making us increasingly solitary, we still crave sharing stories. Storytelling is a way we connect to others, and for life to have meaning, you have to feel that you’re genuinely seen and genuinely heard. I think filmmaking is a conduit to starting a conversation.
All BYkids films are available to watch on the PBS website.