New Jersey high school seniors Christopher Rodriguez and Julio Villegas were studying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in their social studies class earlier this year when their teacher gave them an assignment to create and produce a short public-service announcement (PSA) on the subject.
But there was a twist.
The short film would be submitted to “Speak Truth to Power,” a contest sponsored by Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, the American Federation of Teachers and the Tribeca Film Festival.
The young students quickly got to work.
They landed on the topic of genocide quickly because it touches so many aspects of human rights that they could focus on, Villegas, 18, told Fox News Latino. They decided to examine the subject of genocide through the life of author and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, and the activism work he did throughout his career.
“The competition is to make a PSA and raise awareness but people tend to make it too educational with what you learn at school with facts and so forth, but I feel what drives it home is the emotion behind it,” Rodriguez, 17, said. “It’s the compassion and trying to empathize with what all these human beings went through.”
“Genocide, to me, it’s a difficult topic to fully elaborate upon because I view it as the complete removal of an identity, the eradication of identity,” Villegas added. “We’ve been taught to be very individualist [and] that was near to me in the making of the work – to emphasize individualism, to emphasize that we are all unique and we can’t be categorized or eliminated on whatever facets or nuances or nature that we possess.”
The final product was called “Another Look at Genocide,” in which the teens highlighted horrific images from the Holocaust and Wiesel’s life to make the point that, in order to create a better future, it’s important to not forget the past and resist being silent during times of human anguish.
The 4:22-minute film was selected out of more than 500 entries from 100 schools around the country and was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on Thursday.
“It was astounding. I was at a loss for words when we found out,” Villegas said. “I was hyperventilating I need to gasp for air when we found out, because to know that this project that you made, that you made for school, you didn’t expect as grand prize.”
Their teacher, Jennifer DaSilva, said it was very hard to keep it a surprise from her students, but she could not be more proud of them.
“I saw the winners from the last couple of years and I knew [Rodriguez and Villegas] were among the best,” she told FNL after the screening. “I am making the contest mandatory from now on. It’s a great experience for the students.”
The high school seniors are graduating this year with plans of heading off to college and majoring in film school. These see the opportunity to screen their film at the Tribeca festival a big step toward sharing the stories they feel are important.
“I want to be a future filmmaker. So the dream has always been having this image in your head and put it out there, try to produce it. Grab a camera and go,” Rodriguez said.
Villegas told FNL, “It doesn’t matter the equipment involved, it doesn’t matter how many actors or fancy eloquent words you write, if you make someone feel something, if the story touches them, at the end of the day, that is what I feel is the accomplishment.”