Tales of a Teenage Filmmaker | Zachary Maxwell | TEDxSpokane

Tales of a Teenage Filmmaker | Zachary Maxwell | TEDxSpokane

Translator: CJ Maxwell
Reviewer: Queenie Lee Hello, everybody. It’s great to be here
on stage at TEDxSpokane. (Cheers) (Applause) That’s encouraging. I’m really nervous right now. But let me explain by telling you
a little bit about myself and my story. I’ve always considered myself
as having two different identities. The first and more natural identity
is a shy and awkward high school freshman. I’m not very popular in school, and I try to avoid
drawing attention to myself. In fact, nobody at school
even knows that I’m here today. They all just think that I’m homesick. So let’s just keep this whole
TED Talk thing between us, okay? (Laughter) Great. But anyway, I think this persona, the one that you’re seeing
on stage right now started taking shape
when I was just a little kid. As long as I can remember, whenever I wasn’t in school, I was always making
silly home movies with my Dad. As time passed, we started using video to tell stories. And this was back when
Facebook and YouTube were just getting started. So nobody really knew much
about social media or online video. So I started screening
my work in film festivals when I was about eight years old. When I was in the fourth grade, something that was bothering me was the lunch being served
at my elementary school. I asked my parents
if I could pack my own lunch, but they wanted me
to eat the school lunch. They saw the monthly menu published
by the Department of Education and thought the food sounded amazing. I told them that’s not
what I was actually being served, but, of course, they didn’t believe me. So I started sneaking a small
video camera into the lunch room, and over the next six months, I recorded pictures of my school lunch and then compared them
to what was being advertised on the menu. We turned that footage
into a short film called “YUCK! A Fourth Grader’s Short
Documentary About School Lunch.” (Video) Zachary Maxwell:
For this operation, I was going to have to go way undercover. I thought I’d use a few small HD cameras that I could easily fit into my pocket. That way, I could sneak shots when the lunch monitors weren’t looking. I had to keep a low profile because according to the School
Chancellor’s Regulation A-640: filming in school facilities
during school hours is only allowed with the Principal’s permission. I really like our principal
but she runs a pretty tight ship, and I don’t think she’s going to approve. Needless to say … I could get in big trouble for this. (On stage) ZM: Here’s what happened. The film ran in a bunch of film festivals, the New York Times
ran a feature story on the project, and that sparked
international media attention. The school’s Chancellor had to make a public statement
about what was going on. They created a student feedback committee
to work with the food service managers. And my school … got a salad bar. (Laughter) (Applause) I’m not huge fan of salad
but that’s not the point. The point is that the film
raised awareness and caused change. And it was at that moment
that my second identity was born. Zachary Maxwell: Fearless Kid Filmmaker. Meanwhile, right around this time, my other self was learning about
how government was supposed to work. What I was being taught was that government is supposed
to work for the people, and regular people are supposed
to have the power to tell the government what to do. If you were a concerned citizen,
the solution was simple. Just like we learned
in “School House Rock,” you would call your elected official, they would listen to your problem,
and then they would make a law. But it seems to me
that somewhere along the way that simple process became broken. Because today, I think most politicians only listen to rich and powerful donors
or special interest groups. So I started wondering
if there was a better way to get the attention of elected officials and make them aware of the problems
that were important to me – a regular shy and awkward
kid from Brooklyn. For example, I want to tell you
about a problem that I had when I was in the sixth grade. Sometimes in New York City,
we get very brutal winters. We get pounded with snow,
dangerous temperatures, and pretty much
the entire city has to shut down. Everything except, of course,
New York City Public Schools. Nope. We never close. Not even when the Governor
declares a state of emergency. Well, I wanted to figure out why. So enter my second identity. I started writing letters, sending emails, and making short video messages
to the people in charge. And I did this for months
but nobody would respond to me. They all thought
I was some crazy sixth grader. And you know what? They were right!
And I kept coming at them. (Video starts) (Phone ringing) Phone voice: Press Office. Hello? ZM: Hello, my name is Zachary Maxwell
and I’m a documentary filmmaker. Right now, I’m working on
a project about snow days, and I’ve sent a number
of letters and emails requesting an on-camera interview
with the Chancellor. PV: Okay.
When did you send these letters? ZM: Like, for the last three months. PV: Three months? Alright. Let me check and see
if she’s received them and someone’s looking into that for you. ZM: Thank you so much. PV: Thank you, Zach. No problem. ZM: Bye. (On stage) ZM: And here’s what happened. I finally started bothering
the right people, and they helped me
get meetings with officials in charge of both city sanitation
and emergency management. And believe it or not, I was eventually invited to City Hall for a one-on-one sit-down interview
with the Mayor of New York City where I grilled him
on his decision-making process. (Laughter) Later that year, the resulting film
“Anatomy of a Snow Day” premiered in the country’s
largest documentary film festival, and it’s also drawn
a lot of positive attention. But more importantly, the film raised awareness
about how our city works. We all hear about how technology
today is so advanced, and just about anybody can make a film as long as they have a cell phone
and a modest computer. Well, unfortunately, what I’ve been seeing
is that most kids my age are just wasting this opportunity
and only using this technology to do things like record themselves
playing video games or babbling about their life. When I think we can
be using this technology to flex our creative muscles and highlight real issues
in our community. Because what I’ve started learning
with the stuff that I’ve been doing is if you work really hard to create
something interesting and unique, people pay attention. And when enough people
begin to pay attention to an issue, elected officials pay attention. And when that begins to happen,
change can happen. I want to give you just one more example. This is my little brother Lucas. He goes to the same
elementary school that I went to. The lunches are much better now. You’re welcome, Lucas. But anyways, he was scared of the traffic at a dangerous intersection
near his school. So earlier this year,
I helped him make a video to send to the Commissioner
of Transportation for New York City. Now, look. When you’re going after somebody
very busy and important, you have to grab their attention with a concise, yet compelling
title for your video. So we decided to title this one … “Dear Polly Trottenberg:
Urgent Imminent Death.” (Laughter) (Video) Lucas: When I leave school
with my friends and family, sometimes we have to walk
to the downtown six train. To get there, we walk north
on Centre Street, then we go west on Kenmare Street
to Lafayette Street. Or as I like to call it … The “Corner of Death.” (Children screaming) Okay. There’s a big problem
at this corner. When westbound vehicles
on Kenmare get to Lafayette, they have to merge left. But when they get to the intersection, all they see is a green light
and a big sign that says “all traffic.” So when they make the turn,
they don’t even realize that kids with the walk sign
are trying to cross Lafayette. And since they drive real fast
and there are two lanes, sometimes, they don’t even see us
until it’s too late. (Singing) La la la la la. (Screeching tires) (Gasp!) Kid: Oh no! They killed Lucas! Lucas: Ugh. Uh. I’m not dead
but I’m hurt really bad. (Sirening) It’s okay, everybody. I’m fine. But it could have been a lot worse. (Groans) Ugh. Uh. Oh the pain! Oh the pain! Go away from the light. Agghh. Go away from the light. Aggh. (Laughter) (On stage) ZM: I think you
already know where this is heading, but let me tell you what happened. The video drew a lot of attention. The City Council got involved
and the Dep. of Transportation responded. The Commissioner invited Lucas
to a press conference where she announced
all kinds of new changes to the corner, including new traffic lights,
new crosswalk markings, and a 12-second head-start signal
for pedestrians. Lucas was a hero for 15 minutes, but most importantly, that corner is now infinitely safer
for millions of pedestrians. (Applause) You have the power to do this too. Even if you’re just a kid, you have the ability
to make meaningful change in your community. Think about something in your hometown
right now that’s always bothered you. Do the cars drive too fast? Is there too much litter? Should lightsaber dueling
be a varsity sport at your high school? Yes. Yes, it should. Then find a creative and interesting way
to tell the story of that problem. I make films, but maybe
that’s not your thing. You can write a poem, compose a song, take some pictures, paint your canvas. It doesn’t matter
how you express yourself, just that you do it with passion, and that it’s in your own unique voice, in a way that only you can say it. And once you’re done
with your masterpiece, share it with the world. Post it online. Generate buzz through social media. Send it to your TV station
or the local newspaper. You have to make some noise. But most importantly, go directly after the people
that hold the power. Don’t be afraid to call somebody out. Name names. Shine the spotlight on the issue
and the people in charge, and I promise you they will pay attention. Because the fact is, we’re no longer
living in the simple days of just sitting back and hoping that our government
is going to work for us. You need to make it happen. So even if you’re shy and quiet like me, find that other side of you. Be bold. Be creative. Be fearless. Channel your inner badass
and make change. (Applause) (Cheers) Thanks. Thanks, everyone. And with that, I guess I’m going to head back home now and resume my other life
as a shy and awkward ninth grader. (Laughter) Thanks again. (Applause) (Cheers)

11 thoughts on “Tales of a Teenage Filmmaker | Zachary Maxwell | TEDxSpokane

  1. I'm 74 now and it warms my heart to see a kid have so much sensibility and gumption. When I was his age adults would just say "Get outta here kid..let the adults handle this." Well, the adults /didn't/ handle it. Thankfully we now have YouTube AND kids like you that will end up fixing a lot of things. Good for you kid, GOOD FOR YOU. America should be proud to have someone like you in the next generation. And please realize that you are NOT a 'kid' but are smart young person.

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