Good For You Productions filmmaker Jeffrey Cobelli records Park Avenue Elementary School fifth-graders in Vincent Fiumara’s class as they reenact a civil rights protest for a movie about Martin Luther King Jr.’s life on Dec. 9. Cobelli is visiting as part of Voice & Vision, a Picture House program that goes to disadvantaged school districts to educate children through filmmaking.
Sarah Wolpoff|Westmore News
Good For You Productions filmmaker Jeffrey Cobelli records Park Avenue Elementary School fifth-graders in Vincent Fiumara’s class as they reenact a civil rights protest for a movie about Martin Luther King Jr.’s life on Dec. 9. Cobelli is visiting as part of Voice & Vision, a Picture House program that goes to disadvantaged school districts to educate children through filmmaking. Sarah Wolpoff|Westmore News

Waking up with the sun at the crack of dawn on a chilly winter day to endure the 40-mile commute from Carmel, Jeffrey Cobelli arrived at Park Avenue Elementary School early on Monday, Dec. 9.

Prepared to spend the whole day there rotating through all three fifth-grade classrooms, his first educational filmmaking project was scheduled for 8:45 a.m.

“You’ve ruined my life,” he recalls Kimberly Zepeda bitterly blurting when he arrived at his 10 a.m. session in Vincent Fiumara’s classroom. Her esteemed title as set makeup artist had been suddenly stripped away as Cobelli discovered he forgot to pack the cosmetics kit during his morning shuffle out the door.

Zepeda’s sentiment changed by the time Cobelli left. Due to the mishap, she was assigned to the role of assistant director. As he departed from the second-floor classroom, Cobelli said the young girl stopped him with a grin. “You just made my life,” she beamed up to him. “That was the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”

“She started following me around, directing other students and learning the lingo. Maybe I’m projecting, but the really cool thing I take away is she thought her value was doing something that was stereotypically for girls, like makeup,” Cobelli later reflected. “Never did she think she had the capability of doing directing, and then she thrived in it.”

While meaningful, empowering Zepeda with the potential girls have in the film production realm was a byproduct benefit of the Voice & Vision program. Cobelli spent the day at Park Avenue School to give all students in the fifth-grade classrooms an educational experience that ideally they won’t forget.

Giving underserved students an artistic outlet

Facilitated by The Picture House in Pelham, Voice & Vision is an education program that seeks to level the playing field for underserved students in Westchester by enhancing curriculum through the art of film. The theater connects with local professional filmmakers, such as Cobelli, and sends them into schools to make movies with students tailored to the coursework or mission of that specific class.

In essence, not only are students learning their curriculum in a different, interactive way, but they’re getting introduced to the production of an art form abundant in their everyday lives—movies, television, commercials and YouTube—which they otherwise wouldn’t have access to in school.

As Francile Albright, the director of education at The Picture House, says: they’re opening up the mystery behind how these things are made and teaching students a new way to tell stories. In the meantime, they may be getting exposed to a viable future career or hobby they never considered before.

“In Westchester, some very affluent areas are right next to ones that can’t afford having the arts in the classroom,” Albright explained. “We’re trying to bring access to those districts that can’t afford it. We’re always applying for grants, we have donors, so we can do this at no cost to the school district.”

The program started in Yonkers Schools four years ago and has continued to expand with tweaks and new developments every year. This is the first time it’s partnered with Port Chester Schools.

Based on a post-class survey, roughly a dozen interested and motivated fifth-graders were selected for a Voice & Vision afterschool program that will continue throughout the year. During the weekly class, the kids take a deeper dive into screenwriting and narrative filmmaking to make their own movie that captures students’ beliefs and aspirations.

When all is said and done, Albright said, they hope to continue working in Port Chester for years to come if the district found the program fruitful.

Park Avenue students bring human rights to film

As Cobelli set up his equipment in Fiumara’s classroom, the fifth-graders rambunctiously prepared. Some made numerous trips to the bathroom to perfect their customs while others interrogated the Carmel filmmaker about his camera and the upcoming scenes. A few quietly sat at their desks to put the final touches on their handmade props.

It was his second time visiting. Several weeks prior, they all met to collaborate on pre-production work—putting together a script and assigning roles for their feature biography film about Martin Luther King Jr.

“The theme is all human rights,” Fiumara explained. One class did a film about Harriet Tubman and another focused on Malala Yousafzai. “Human rights used to be a really big part of the curriculum, we spent a whole month on it, but that changed a couple of years ago. But we figured the kids should continue learning about it anyway because it’s such an important part of life, so we try to tie it into other projects.”

Students were involved in every aspect of production, facilitating a two-fold educational experience. After every take, the class discussed creative ways to make the scenes better while Cobelli gave them acting tips.

Inspiring genuine sadness from the actor playing the harassed Martin Luther King Jr. as a child, Cobelli found that his “favorite thing in the world” is the video game Fortnite.

“When the bully takes the ball away from you, that’s like him taking Fortnite away,” Cobelli encouraged. “You’ll never be able to play again.”

Meanwhile, the discussions kept the historical context front and center. During a civil rights protest scene, the filmmaker explained the purpose of the demonstrations while showing them the “big movements” that will make a fight with police look more realistic on camera.

When students suggested the protesters combat the police back, he delved into the pacifism Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy encompassed. Therefore, violent actions were discouraged.

“I had a little bit of knowledge about Martin Luther King before, but I definitely didn’t know as much as I know now,” student Gabriella Sculky energetically said in the hallway after Cobelli moved on to the next class. “I knew about the protests and stuff. But I didn’t know when or where he was born, and I didn’t know about the (depth) of racism. How if you were black, you didn’t have as many opportunities and how they had to use different bathrooms.”

Because Sculky was able to combine her favorite hobby and school subject through the Voice & Vision program, she was eager to give the experience a favorable review. During the summer months she actively participates in the Port Chester Council for the Arts acting programs. But she never imagined a scenario where her thespian interests would benefit her academic pursuits.

“I love to act, and this was such an amazing opportunity to do these things with my friends,” she said. “It’s pretty cool because I love history and I love social studies. And it’s easier to learn about it when you’re having fun. Way better than reading a textbook.”

Student Alexandra Dattilo agreed, adding that not only did they learn new things about the historical figure but they were able to recognize it in an inclusive way.

“I think this was a great way to honor him and show that he changed the world,” Dattilo reflected. “It was a great thing we did, and it was really fun that everyone got a part. Everyone got to participate and do something. We did something that I think is really cool.”

From the classroom to the big screen

As a former history teacher, Fiumara said bringing these topics to life is an essential tactic in educating children. That’s what got him intrigued in the field as a student at Port Chester High School, he said while reminiscing about his teacher who would theatrically pretend to trudge through the woods while lecturing about the Civil War.

“It’s difficult to get kids to pay attention and care about history, so you have to bring it to life. That’s the way to do it and that’s what this is doing for them now,” Fiumara said. “You can see how excited they are, and what’s really so great is that it’s hands on. This is something they’ll retain. They’re reenacting the whole civil rights movement, and hopefully with that it will ingrain it in their heads even more, compared to just reading about it.”

Cobelli took interest in The Picture House program because it aligns with his philosophy—he originally got into filmmaking with a spear of righteousness, aspiring to make a beneficial impact.

Inspired by a mission trip to the Dominican Republic, he founded his film company Good For You Productions in 2009. Within a year, they set the benchmark for the enterprise with the film “Someday Melissa,” which gained traction while shining a light on the tragic fatalities associated with eating disorders.

In an age where financially struggling school districts are forced to cut art from the curriculum, Cobelli wanted to immerse his career in education because he was appalled to hear of the “art on a cart” model that replaced creative classes.

“Schools have a cart that goes from class to class and they say ‘you have 20 minutes to be creative, be happy. But then you have to study and take a test,’” Cobelli said. “I remember having art every day, for 40 minutes a day. It’s supposed to be a platform where you break boundaries and not have limitations. I would have suffered, I would have been oppressed, if I had that.”

“I’m not blaming the schools, but it’s the culture,” he continued. “It’s a disservice to teachers. They complain, administration complains. But no one complains when I come in with a camera and take a piece of their education and make it creative. Those kids won’t forget the experience.”

Dattilo feels like she understands Martin Luther King Jr.’s life better than other class topics. There’s no doubt the information will stick, she said, because the class acted it out.

In fact, the fifth-grader added that she wishes they could apply the same project to other lessons throughout the year. If they could use filmmaking to learn about other historic figures, the Civil War and World War II, she thinks education would be enhanced.

“I hope our film also teaches other people,” Sculky chimed in. “People could learn you should always treat people how you’d like to be treated, no matter how you look or appear. You should always be sure to get to know them and not just be judgmental.”

The film will have that opportunity to impact other students, both locally and beyond Park Avenue School. The Voice & Vision program didn’t end in the classroom.

As the final piece of the program, Albright said The Picture House hosts a red carpet premiere event in June and invites the entire grade at every Westchester school they worked with through the year. Theater staff take photographs and set down a grand red carpet as dressed up students enter to munch on popcorn and watch their masterpieces on the large screen.

Following all the features, Albright said they have a screening of a short age-appropriate documentary—an educational experience that most of the children wouldn’t have a chance to see otherwise.

“It’s so much fun to open up the theater to them. And it’s so exciting when the bus rolls up and they see the names of their schools on the marquee. We try to make it a big fancy experience for them,” Albright said. “They get to celebrate themselves as filmmakers and then see what other great filmmakers do, potential insight to the future.”