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Chilliwack high school students soar in ‘trailblazing’ film program

G.W. Graham’s Film Production Workshop gives teens professional experience in classroom setting

A Chilliwack high school has taken its film class to a whole new level, and one teacher is saying the success of the program is proof that they are doing important work in the film industry.

G.W. Graham Secondary School teacher Michael Florizone is calling the school’s Film Production Workshop a “pretty unique” class.

This year marks the second year for the program, an all-day class that about 20 teens are taking. It’s the only class they attend for the entire semester.

Earlier in the year, the students and Florizone built a film set right inside the classroom.

“We’re always looking for interesting locations for film… and it’s challenging. We get tired of seeing hallways of schools in films. Kids will create interesting films at home, but I wanted to create something interesting here together.”

The set is a two-room 1980s apartment which includes a living room and kitchen. Black mould was painted on the kitchen walls and garbage was strewn throughout the apartment.

Florizone calls it a “vintage, divey apartment” and it’s part of the set for their 15-minute drama called ‘The Rat King.’

G.W. Graham Secondary School students are shooting a short film called The Rat King inside a set that was built in their classroom as part of the school’s Film Production Workshop. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)

“It’s a very edgy film about a guy going through major trauma and depression about a loss. It’s very expressive. It’s going to involve a human-sized rat,” he said. “It’s quite intense and emotional.”

Every part of the film – from building the set and writing the script, to acting and makeup, to filming and editing – is done by the students.

The goal of the film set and the program itself is to inspire the young filmmakers, to work on a project all together, and to mimic what happens in the industry as much as possible, Florizone said.

And it’s clear the kids know what they’re doing.

READ MORE: Chilliwack Student Film Festival showcases teen cinematography

On a spring day in May, eight students squeezed into a small, stuffy bathroom at the school. The six-foot-by-10-foot room was packed with movie lights, a camera, reflector and ladder to shoot a scene for the film.

Just like a big-screen movie set, the kids at G.W. Graham professionally moved through take-after-take of each scene, working seamlessly together.

Each one gave their opinion on what they thought of a shot and if they needed to re-shoot. They asked each other for help, respected each other, solved problems, shared input and made suggestions.

“That bonding is pretty special. You see it in this class where people become really close friends,” Florizone said. “I want these guys to remember this as something meaningful they did that was trailblazing for the film industry.”

Not only are the teens professional, they take their job as filmmakers seriously and have done work in the community.

They recently shot a documentary for the Salvation Army highlighting The Pantry, a place where fresh produce and other food is available daily for those in need.

Student Ayush Senanayake got the idea to do the project when he was volunteering at the Salvation Army last summer. People began telling him stories about how they ended up at The Pantry and he said he was “moved” by what he heard.

Senanayake and other students, including Zander Smith-Pauls, interviewed staff, volunteers and clients.

“They were really powerful stories,” Smith-Pauls said. “It’s amazing how you can see growth in someone’s life through stories even in a short amount of time.”

They showed a teaser for the film at the Salvation Army’s recent ‘Plant A Row For Us’ launch and Senanayake said people were tearing up.

“Just with the short three-minute clip, it affected that whole room,” he said.

The documentary is scheduled to be shown at a future Salvation Army event marking its 100th anniversary in Chilliwack.

G.W. Graham Secondary School students test light and camera angles while filming The Rat King inside a set that was built in their classroom as part of the school’s Film Production Workshop. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)

G.W. Graham film students have also shot commercials for local businesses, and they held their annual Chilliwack Student Film Festival on May 16 where films from through the district were screened. They also filmed messages by school trustees that will be shown to high school grads during commencement.

The students were recently recognized for their work as well.

Two groups of kids won three awards at the 2024 Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for Youth, and most recently the school found out they nabbed six awards at the B.C. Student Film Festival. Four of the six awards totalled more than $27,000 in scholarships to Vancouver Film School.

They’ve really connected with the post-secondary film school over the seven years Florizone has been a teacher at G.W. Graham.

Vancouver Film School has taught free workshops for both kids and teachers at G.W. over the years. They also support their Chilliwack Student Film Festival with prizes for the kids.

Earlier this month G.W. Graham found out that they were selected as an official affiliate high school for Vancouver Film School, something given to only a handful of schools in B.C.

“We are thrilled to have this connection,” Florizone said.

The partnership includes 10 per cent off tuition for all current students and alumni for Vancouver Film School’s advanced production and preparatory programs, and 50 per cent off summer intensives and online courses.

It’s clear that the program has set its graduates up for further success in the film industry, and it’s something they’re thankful for.

“I want to give Mr. Florizone a lot of credit for what he has done. He pushes to excel this program and I admire that,” Smith-Pauls said. “He just keeps making it grow. Right now, I can see that this program is going to go a long, long way.”

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Jenna Hauck

About the Author: Jenna Hauck

I started my career at The Chilliwack Progress in 2000 as a photojournalist.
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