by Amy Whipple

This Monday, November 25th at the Melwood Screening Room is your chance to get a first look at the some of the 35 video trailers that have been submitted to Sprout for their chance at funding. These projects range from feature documentaries to web series to creative short films, all produced by local people here in Pittsburgh and vying for $10,000 grants to get their work off the ground. It’s been exciting watching the proposals and videos come in, and it got us thinking about some film and video projects that have received Sprout support in the past. Through Seed Awards, Community Connections grants, and Social Innovative Exchange grants, Sprout has catalyzed projects across many genres and platforms. The one thing they have in common? The desire to amplify community voices and put the spotlight on the people who are the building blocks of Pittsburgh.

Telling it like you see it: The East of Liberty documentary series

Chris Ivey of Hyperboy Media first found himself documenting the demolition of the East Mall apartment complex in East Liberty at the behest of East Liberty Development. As he talked with displaced residents and other members of the community, “I could tell a lot of them were angry but didn’t know how to deal with it. There was this frustration that this shouldn’t be happening.”

Sprout first supported Ivey’s efforts to explore the complex issues surrounding the redevelopment of Pittsburgh’s East End neighborhoods with a $6,000 Seed Award in 2005. Two years later, Ivey also received a $5,000 Community Connections grant to continue the project. East of Liberty is comprised of four chapters: “A Story of Good Intentions,” “The Fear of Us,” “In Unlivable Times,” and “Communities Without”—the last of which has yet to be released. “A Story of Good Intentions” has received national and international acclaim.

“I think [East of Liberty] was one of the first of its kind to tackle issues that were never really dealt with by Pittsburghers before,” says Ivey. Pittsburgh has a complicated history of urban development—especially in East Liberty. In the early 2000s, East Liberty’s rapid pace of change stoked fears of displacement among long-time community members and recalled dislocations caused by past urban redevelopment projects. Ivey wanted to document the neighborhood changes as well as give voice to people who were not heard in the decisions that dictated the literal destruction of their homes.

Funding from Sprout “was a good launching pad,” says Ivey. “They were one of the first to really support the project. It was a risky project to support. It was a really controversial project to support.”

In the beginning, Ivey also found reticence within East Liberty itself.

“People were shy and fearful to talk at first because of potential backlash,” he recalls.

While the documentaries feature remarks from figures of authority—community planners, developers, a clinical psychologist—other voices represent the community East Liberty itself. In a cab, on the street, a kid calling out for potato chips, the sounds of traffic and passersby.

“It was like a local bar project,” says Ivey. Especially with regard to the voices of the African-American community, he wanted to show people as they were. “It was just about being honest, raw, and real.”

A few friends chatting on the couch: Front Street, a series of online conversations

Sara McCool closed out 2012 with a $1,000 Social Innovation Exchange grant to support her web series Front Street—a talk show that engages McCool with other Pittsburghers who are invested in arts, culture, and civic life.

McCool wanted to increase “the level of Internet discourse.” With a history in filmmaking, McCool saw the Internet as a way to take podcasts, vlogs, and the like to the next level. The show was broadcast live and incorporated viewer participation. Support from Sprout helped McCool especially in building an audience and creating a stronger project.

On short episodes (less than ten minutes) now available on McCool’s Vimeo account, McCool and her guests cover topics from cultural appropriation to obesity and feminism all while sitting on a delightfully bright overstuffed pink couch—sometimes with a rogue appearance of a passing cat’s tail.

The most Pittsburgh-centric episode is “College Kids Are Terrible” with David Panasiuk, Chairman of the Oakcliffe Housing Club, and Dr. John Wilds, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Community Relations at the University of Pittsburgh.

Both McCool and Panasiuk grew up in South Oakland at a time when students only made up about 30% of the population. The recent increase to approximately 55% finds the neighborhood dealing with the immediacy and aftermath of out-of-control parties.

Panasiuk says, “One way to solve the problem was to get to know the kids. To let the kids know that a neighbor with a baby that lives here. That an elderly lady lives here.”

Pitt has also responded by teaching students how to be a good neighbor, which involves respecting and being a part of the neighborhood, a message that was also spread (for both students and residents and other interested parties) through appearing on Front Street. The goal, says, Wilds, is “to make life better for the long-term residents and to ensure our students are safe.”

It’s exactly this kind of discourse that Front Street was developed to engender: honest, frank discussions about what is happening all over the city and how to continue making changes to improve our communities.

Putting the pieces together: the Neighborhood Narratives collection of shorts

In December 2007, Kristen Lauth Shaeffer and Andrew Halasz received a $5,000 Community Connections grant to support a collection of narrative shorts, Neighborhood Narratives, in celebration of Pittsburgh’s 2008 250th anniversary.

The duo was inspired by Paris Je T’aime, a 2006 collection of narrative shorts set in Paris’s many arrondissements. They saw a similar opportunity for telling a story of life in Pittsburgh.

“We have these very distinct neighborhoods with a lot of character,” says Shaeffer. “We thought that that was a really great concept for a city like ours.”

Funding from Sprout gave Shaeffer and Halasz momentum. When someone believes in your project enough to put money toward it, “you get this confidence,” says Shaeffer.

Shaeffer and Halasz put a call out into Pittsburgh’s vast filmmaking community and eventually picked nine projects that would speak to life in neighborhoods from Oakland and Bloomfield to the Hill District and Homestead to Lawrenceville and Regent Square.

“We were amazed that so many people had the same kind of spirit we did,” says Shaeffer.

One of the most captivating shorts, “Tommy and Me,” is set in the Strip District and was written and produced by Ray Werner. Werner tells the story of Schmoo (played by Jeff Carpenter) as he befriends local street person  Tommy (played by Tommy Lafitte), who transforms into Steelers Santa, attracting as much attention as anything else Steelers-related in the Strip.

The short is dedicated to Operation Safety Net—a homeless outreach program based out of the South Side. And because “Tommy and Me” was one of the most awareness-raising of the shorts, Shaeffer and Halasz decided that all proceeds from DVD sales of Neighborhood Narratives would also go to support the same.

Help us choose the winners

That’s right–you can influence the grant process! After the screening of these new video trailers on Monday night, all 36 videos will be live online and you’ll be able to vote for your favorites.  A committee of volunteers representing Pittsburgh’s film and video community will act as judges, choosing four projects to receive $10,000 grants from The Sprout Fund. Decisionmakers will consider community support as one of several factors in deciding which projects receive grants.  Plus, popular videos that don’t receive grants will be eligible for small honoraria. Support your friends, like your favorites, and help influence which projects receive support.

Voting will be open for one week here online, from Monday, November 25th after the screening until 10pm on Monday, December 2nd. If you’d like to attend the free screening at Melwood Screening Room, RSVP to our Facebook event. Refreshments will be served around 6pm and the screening will start by 7pm.