Category Archives: Opening Night

AFI DOCS 2018 IS OPEN! Personal Statement sets the tone.

Posted by Larry Gleeson

The 2018 edition of the American Film Institute’s AFI DOCS is open. AFI President and Chief Executive Officer, Bob Gazzale kicked off the festival with eloquent opening remarks reminding a receptive audience of the action by former United States President Lyndon Johnson took 50 years ago to create the American Film Institute and its mission “to preserve the heritage of the motion picture, to honor the artists and their work and to educate the next generation of storytellers.”

Enoch Jemmott, one of the lead subjects of the AFI DOCS 2018 Opening Night Film, Personal Statement, strikes a pose on the red carpet inside the Newseum, in Washington, D.C., June 13, 2018 (Photo credit: Larry Gleeson/HollywoodGlee)

Personal Statement, the 2018 AFI DOCS Opening Night Film, directed and produced by Julianne Dressner, and co-directed by Edwin Martinez, was also making its world premiere. The cast and crew were out in full force on the red carpet before the film’s screening.

Personal Statement Producer, Beth Levinson (far right), marshals Personal Statement actors at the 2018 American Film Institute’s AFI DOCS for press photos at the Newseum, in Washington, D.C., on June 13, 2018. Dressner’s film about three Brooklyn high school seniors who took on the role of college guidance counselors for their under-served classmates was making its world premiere at the Newseum’s Annenberg Theatre. (Photo credit; Larry Gleeson/HollywoodGlee)


The film follows three Brooklyn, New York, high school seniors, Enoch, Christine, and Karoline, as they prepare themselves for college and try to inspire and encourage their classmates to make the jump with them.

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Brooklyn, New York, high school senior, Christine, addresses her classmates on the importance of vocalizing their wants and needs followed up by taking positive actions as a way to get their needs met. (Photo courtesy of Reify Films)

The film opened with a nice out-of-focus frame of a night-time city-scape slowly coming into focus as a textual overlay informs the viewer of the setting. A transition reveals a young black male doing homework with his niece. Another transition reveals a young bi-racial female in dialogue with a young Hispanic female as she explains some of the challenges she is facing. A third transition reveals an Hispanic mother in the kitchen followed quickly by another transition revealing Christina, one of the film’s protagonist. An upbeat non-diagetic score shows the three characters on their way to school meeting. The meeting turns out to be a training so the three protagonists can work as school guidance counselors.

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Enoch Jemmott, right, a Brooklyn, New York, high school senior, prods his friend and classmate as the pair prepare to finalize thier respective college admission processes. (Photo courtesy of Julianne Dressner – Reify Films)

This forms the crux of Dressner’s film. Shot in a direct cinema style interspersed with fragments of cinema verite, Personal Statement uncovers societal issues as it reveals the struggles minority students are facing as they attempt to, not only go to college, but also navigate what will be their collegiate experience.

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Karoline, who has undergone bullying for her dress and sexual orientation, shows her counselor a copy of her personal statement for her college application to Smith College, an all-female institution. (Photo courtesy of Reify Films)

Karoline, an LGBTQ student, wants a place where she can meet people who will accept her for who she is. Enoch, a standout high school football anxious to become his own person, lives with his sister. Christina lives at home with a strong-willed mother, who feels Christina needs to consider the financial undertaking in attending college. All three are passionate about going to college and they want their peers to undertake the collegiate journey as well. At the heart of the narrative is the personal statement that explains why each student wants to go their respective schools.

Karoline is a colorful character who had twenty-three absences in her first year of high school has progressed to where she has perfect attendance in her senior year. Enoch faces obstacles that include a mother who lives in a homeless shelter and a lower than desired grade-point-average from the college of his choice, Cortland. Christina, whose mother financed her older brother’s college education, has reservations in supporting Christina’s college choice. Christina’s brother has been out of work for the last four years and her mother has had her work hours reduced.

While all three students wind up attending college, difficult choices are made along the way and challenging issues are revealed surrounding their pursuit of higher education.

Personal Statement Director and Producer, Julianne Messner (second from left) applauds as her team is introduced to the audience during a panel discussion following the screening of her film at the Annenberg Theatre inside the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on June 13, 2018. To Messner’s left is Co-Director Edwin Martinez and actors Karoline, Christine and Enoch.  (Photo credit: Larry Gleeson/HollywoodGlee)

A panel discussion immediately followed the film’s screening with Dressner, Martinez and the film’s three actors. To close out the evening a Private Gala celebrated the conscience-altering work.

The Opening Night Gala setting following the 2018 AFI DOCS Opening Night Film, Personal Statement. (Photo credit: Gediyon Kifle)

Personal Statement will have its U.S. broadcast premiere on public television’s WORLD Channel and PBS on Tuesday, October 23, 2018 at 8:00 pm. This is a film that needs to be seen and the issues it raises need to be addressed sooner rather than later. Highly recommended.

*Featured photo: Bob Gazzale, President and CEO of the American Film Institute (Photo credit: Tom Kochel)



The AFI DOCS Interview: Juliane Dressner, Director of Opening Night World Premiere PERSONAL STATEMENT

Posted by Larry Gleeson

Karoline, Enoch and Christine are Brooklyn high school seniors who just want to go to college, but like so many public school students throughout the country, their schools don’t have enough college guidance support. Refusing to give up, they decide to work as college counselors in their schools, becoming the very resource they don’t have themselves. Inspirational and moving, heartwarming and heartbreaking, PERSONAL STATEMENT is a testament to the power of knowledge and the ability to lead with a dream.

PERSONAL STATEMENT opens AFI DOCS on Wednesday, June 13 at the Newseum. Get tickets here.

AFI spoke with filmmaker Juliane Dressner, in an interview below.

AFI:What led you to pursue documentary filmmaking?

JD: Before my film career, I worked as a consultant in the nonprofit sector, documenting best practices in social programs, including youth organizing. I was so inspired by the young people who were addressing problems in their communities that I decided to become a filmmaker so that others could see the power of their work.

AFI: What inspired you to tell this story?

JD: College access is one of the dominant civil rights issues of our time. People from low-income backgrounds are increasingly excluded from higher education. One reason why this disparity exists is because many low-income students don’t have access to enough college guidance support.

When I learned that young people were taking it upon themselves to close the college guidance gap in their schools, I realized this was an extraordinary opportunity to both understand the obstacles they face, and to draw attention to their inspirational determination to surmount them.

AFI: How did you find the subjects in your film?

JD: I reached out to the staff at CARA (College Access: Research & Action), the organization that trains students to work as college counselors in their schools, and they were open to collaborating on a film. They knew that seeing these young people bringing about change in their communities is the best way to understand just how effective they can be.

CARA invited me to the peer counselor training, and that is where I met Karoline, Christine and Enoch. They were three of the 70 inspirational young people I met that day who had decided to step up and fill the guidance gap in their schools by working as peer college counselors.

AFI: What was a particular obstacle you faced while making the film? 

JD: When I showed up on the first day of the peer college counselor training with a camera crew, I had raised enough money to make a short video.

After meeting Karoline, Christine and Enoch, and understanding the enormous responsibility they were taking on, we realized that the best to way tell their stories was to follow them through their senior year and into college. This would mean shooting at their schools and homes at least weekly — and sometimes even more often. But I did not have the funds to pay for a crew to do that much filming. I considered delaying to raise money in order to film the next cohort of peer college counselors. But after meeting Karoline, Enoch and Christine, who were all interested in collaborating on a film, I felt compelled to continue. So I used what little money we had to purchase a camera.

I ended up doing much of the filming on my own. In some cases, and especially when capturing sound would be challenging with a one-person crew, Eddie Martinez and I would work as a two-person crew, with Eddie shooting. Even as I was filming, I was raising funds for the film. It was hard, but I think that the film benefited from having a small crew. Karoline, Christine and Enoch, as well as their families, classmates and teachers, became accustomed to us. As a result, we were able to capture pivotal and intimate moments.

AFI: What do you want audiences to walk away with after screening your film?

JD: Low-income teenagers want all that higher education promises: the possibility of prospering and moving beyond survival mode. They know that a college degree is their best bet. But many of them can’t get there, and as a result, income inequality persists.

One of the main barriers keeping low-income students out of college is the lack of college guidance in public schools. Many people don’t realize that most public schools don’t employ college counselors. Instead, guidance counselors are expected to provide help with the college process. But nationwide, the guidance counselor to student ratio is one to 490. And guidance counselors report that they can spend only 22% of their time on college guidance. The lack of college guidance support is especially troubling for students who don’t have someone at home who can help them with the college process.

I hope that audiences walk away from the film with a better awareness of the college guidance gap. The film sheds light on both the systemic barriers that keep so many young people from attaining a college degree, and the power that already exists within their communities to address problems of inequality. In the film we see that the very people who are affected by a problem are in fact the ones who are best situated to solve it.

AFI: Why is Washington, DC, a valuable location to screen your film?

JD: There is no better place for PERSONAL STATEMENT to premiere than Washington because the issues addressed in the film are national ones. We hope that the film will build support for systemic change throughout the U.S.

AFI: Why are documentary films important today?

JD: Documentary films are a powerful vehicle for transporting viewers to worlds they have never experienced. Watching PERSONAL STATEMENT, the audience comes to understand what it is like to navigate the daunting college process on a terribly uneven playing field. We see how challenging it can be for low-income students to become the first in their families to go to college. We hope the film will build support for the reforms that are needed to enable all young people to fulfill their potential.