Student documentary on Merrimack explosions featured at Boston International Kids Film Festival
When the 2018 academic year began, the senior class at Four Rivers Charter Public School in Greenfield, way out in Western Mass, had not yet aspired to become young filmmakers championing the fight against fossil fuels and climate change.
Fast forward to now. For their for-credit senior class project, the students created Under Pressure, a 45-minute documentary that tells the story of the tragic events of Sept 13, 2018, when excessive pressure in natural gas lines owned by Columbia Gas spurred a series of explosions and fires in 40 homes in the Merrimack Valley, impacting the municipalities of Andover, North Andover, and Lawrence. Among the wreckage, one person was killed, and over 30,000 were evacuated from their homes.
“This topic felt like the most applicable to our lives, because it happened right here in Massachusetts,” said Madeleine Lombard, one of the students who worked on the film as a producer. “It was such a dramatic situation. The idea of exploring this was really interesting.”
Last December, the Four Rivers students travelled to the Merrimack Valley and interviewed residents and survivors, business owners, first responders and firefighters, local authorities, scientists, and elected officials and utility representatives, including a spokesperson for Columbia Gas of Massachusetts. Since the disaster, the company has agreed to pay $143 billion in settlements of multiple class-action lawsuits brought by victims.
“It was hard to decide what lens we would look at the whole situation through,” Lombard said. “Some people just wanted to tell the story of the survivors who had experienced this, with no stake on the part of our gas supplier. Other students like myself really wanted to look at this through the lens of climate change and of our energy system.”
In the end, Under Pressure not only documents what happened on the ground, but also explores the dangers and safety issues in the natural gas industry, as well as the environmental impact of using fracked gas as an energy source. “That’s one of my favorite aspects of the documentary,” Lombard said. “Natural gas is a dirty energy that produces more greenhouse gases than coal does.”
Since its February 2019 wrap, Under Pressure has won the Massachusetts Economic and Environmental Affairs Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Energy and Environmental Education, and more recently became an official selection of the 7th Annual Boston International Kids Film Festival, which takes place from Nov 15 through 17. The BIKFF, which was launched in 2013 by Filmmakers Collaborative, a Boston-based organization that sponsors and supports independent filmmakers across the US, is on its seventh consecutive year.
“We noticed that although in the city it is possible to go to a film festival all the time, there wasn’t one geared specifically towards middle and high school students,” said Laura Azevedo, executive director at Filmmakers Collaborative and director of the Boston International Kids Film Festival. “We created the film festival to introduce youth to independent films and have them realize that they also have the power to change people’s minds.”
This year, the festival will feature 60 independent films, all geared toward kids and selected from roughly 300 submissions from all over the world, plus an additional 20 short films created by students in the FC Academy, an after-school and summer filmmaking program run by Filmmakers Collaborative that teaches film production to middle and high school students throughout Greater Boston. About half of the movies that will be screened are student-made, with highlights including New Homeland; directed by Academy Award-winner Barbara Kopple, the film documents a group of refugee children from Syria and Iraq who experience a summer camp in the Canadian wilderness. And My Beautiful Stutter, a feature documentary that follows five kids who stutter as they work through a lifetime of bullying and stigmatization at an interactive arts-based program in New York City.
Awards will be given out for the best films in seven different categories, including best documentary, best short film, best foreign language film, and best student-made film and documentary. The festival will also give out its traditional Peggy Charren Award for Excellence in Media, in recognition of a film or group of people using media in the best way possible. The award honors Peggy Charren, one of the founders of the groundbreaking Massachusetts nonprofit child advocacy group Action for Children’s Television, which spearheaded the idea of commercial-free television for children in the 1960s.
In 2018, the festival had a turnout of around a thousand people. This year, Filmmakers Collaborative anticipates about 1,200 attendees, all of whom will have an opportunity to engage with the programming. Throughout select screening sessions, people will be able to vote for their favorite film to compete for the Audience Choice Award, which will be announced via social media.
“The audience matters most,” Azevedo said. “Everybody who has spent the time making a film, whether it’s months or years, their ultimate goal is to just have people see it. The validation of knowing that your peers and the people in the audience think that what you did is fabulous, I can’t imagine how good that feels.
“The kids really shine at this festival. That is what we’re more proud of—just giving them this platform to feel good about themselves and to just continue to encourage them to explore their creativity and to use their collaborative skills to work with others towards a common goal.
“In this case it’s a film, but down the road it could be whatever they go into in life.”
So much is true for Madeleine Lombard. The student producer of Under Pressure says making the documentary helped channel her passion for environmental issues and inspired her to pursue climate change activism.
“If you’re showing something that you’re really passionate about, and that you care about, then it’s very easy to find the motivation to create an interesting piece of film,” Lombard said. “I feel incredibly grateful. There’s nothing I want more than this documentary getting out of my small community and into the world.”
BOSTON INTERNATIONAL KIDS FILM FESTIVAL. 11.15–11.17 AT THE CAPITOL THEATRE (ARLINGTON), SOMERVILLE THEATRE, AND LESLEY UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF ART AND DESIGN (CAMBRIDGE). MORE INFO AND TICKETS AT BIKFF.ORG.
Journalist. 2018 @PulitzerCenter Fellow. MS in Journalism @COMatBU. Formerly @BUNewsService & @prodavinci. Telling stories as a full-time job.