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San Francisco Film Society works year-round to bring films to young minds
By Bruce Bellingham • Photos by Jane Richey

Film Society

As the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival begins this month, many might not know that the Film Society works throughout the year on its Youth Education Program, which brings all sorts of movies to classrooms all over the Bay Area.

“The education program was, at first, part of the Film Festival,” explains Graham Leggat, the Film Society’s executive director. “That was in 2005. Later we made it a year-round project.”
The Film Society brings movies to anywhere between 300 to 400 schools. That involves some 8,000 students as eager viewers.

Leggat, who formerly worked for the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center and at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, says he’s more excited than ever about the education program.

“There’s something about the Bay Area that lends itself to this sort of unusual project,” he says. “There’s a unique enthusiasm here with the philanthropy, the foundations, and corporate support. I think there’s something in the groundwater of the Bay Area that makes it a region conducive to this sort of thing. The atmosphere makes the Film Society the thing it’s supposed to be.”

An example of support is Maurice Kanbar’s Skyy Prize – an annual $10,000 award for best screenwriting. The Skyy winner – the prize will be presented at this year’s film festival – is James Toback, who wrote and directed Harvard Man in 2002 and When Will I Be Loved? in 2007. He also wrote the original screenplay for Bugsy, the Warren Beatty film. It won the Golden Globe for Best Picture.

Robert Redford and Francis Ford Coppola will also be honored at the festival’s black-tie fundraising gala on April 30 at the St. Francis Hotel.

“The essence of filmmaking is the writer,” Kanbar asserts. “Without a good story, the movie means nothing. That’s why I think the screenwriter must be honored.”

That’s a refreshing notion. In Hollywood, the screenwriter is the target of derision. Harry Cohn, once the head of Columbia Pictures, famously sniped that screenwriters were “Schmucks with Underwoods.” Cohn firmly believed that writers were chattel, like the furniture on the set, and not real human beings.

That’s changed a lot, of course, and Kanbar is a champion of that newfound respect.

Screenwriting is only one of the elements of movies that are being brought to Bay Area school kids.
“We bring filmmakers into the classrooms,” says Leggat. “That includes directors, screenwriters, set designers, even Foley artists who create the sound effects. These experts talk to the kids about lighting, sound – you name it. They talk to the students about all aspects of what goes into making a film. If you don’t think this effort is successful, then where else do you find kids being quiet for two hours?”

The Film Society is providing almost-weekly screenings at schools. That includes new releases, and indies – mostly contemporary films.

“That’s because the newer films tend to bring up contemporary issues, such a race, politics, class divisions – even death. This is what kids want to hear about and talk about – things that matter to them.”

Leggat says even math and science comes up as themes in the movies.
“There’s a moral in all this,” Legget adds. “That is, if you want a career in the film business, you have to pay attention in class.”

The society has been working with Lucasfilm for special screenings at the Sundance Kabuki and other venues. The students can see films such as Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean, and gets a chance to analyze the layers of their construction, the complexity of the craft.

“It’s all about the question, what is the DNA of these film crafts? This is something they should learn about.”

Other parts of the education program include women in film, with actresses and directors participating. The books-to-film program is an excursion that takes the curious kid from the page to the celluloid.

Some the schools working closely with the program are the Julia Morgan School for Girls, the Bay School in the Presidio, and Berkeley High.

Leggat has particular praise for the Film Society’s board of trustees, which continues its unflagging support during the Big Recession.

“The people clearly love the movies, and they love the way we run the organization,” Leggat says. “I’m truly flabbergasted by their truly enlightened patronage; better yet, they’re enjoying themselves.”
What does it take to be a member of the Film Society board of trustees?

“You have to go to your friends a lot and ask for favors,” explains the ever-ebullient Penelope Wong, who chairs the society’s events.

“We need people on our side who understand what movies are all about. I inherited my mother’s love of the movies. My husband and I sure love films, that’s for sure.”

Wong’s parents ran the storied Pagoda Theatre, which was in North Beach, and often screened Chinese movies. She was the former creative director at the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. Wong is also a novelist, journalist and finance expert. She was head writer at Money magazine.
Yes, Penelope Wong’s life is the stuff of a screenplay.

It’s difficult to stay on point with her – as fascinating as the Film’s Society’s Youth Education Program is – she has an endless stream of great stories. Yes, she’s also written a screenplay – “Shanghai Cafe.” It may or may not have to do with how her grandfather was unjustly convicted of murder, only to be exonerated by the real killer’s confession as he stood on the gallows.

See what I mean?

“The real job of the board is to raise money,” Wong says, suddenly very serious. “Considering what’s happening to California’s public schools and what’s happening to the arts programs, we’re going to have to do something about this crisis.”

That’s why she’s created the Nellie Wong Magic of Movies Award, named in honor of her mother.
“Writing skills have been so eroded, so we sponsor an essay contest for kids, K–12. The father of one of the winners told me that his daughter now writes poetry. She’s encouraged to keep on writing.”

The film critic, Pauline Kael, once said, “A great film can make you believe in possibilities again.” The San Francisco Film Society’s Youth Education Program is providing possibilities to a lot of kids.

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