Arts

Everybody has a story: Mr. Gaines wants you to tell it

The first time new Film and Video Teacher Chris Gaines encountered the Upper School (US) community was with former Film and Video Teacher Bryan Sih, his partner in work and art and the person who recommended Mr. Gaines to lead the US program next.  

“I was blown away by the artwork that was being created here,” Mr. Gaines said. “Walking through the galleries, I thought you had a guest artist displaying work—only to find out that it was student work!” 

Mr. Gaines has seen a lot of impressive student artwork, having spent much of his career developing Real to Reel, a youth media program he said he built from scratch. The program has since attracted significant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, which has supported the program throughout most of its existence with $40,000 annually, Sundance Studios, and Adobe, which has given more than $250,000 in the past four years. In September, a Real to Reel music video for Boston-based hip-hop artist Oompa was nominated for best video at the Boston Music Awards. Mr. Gaines said this is one of several times his teen students’ work have been nominated for this award.

Housed within a larger youth arts organization called RAW Art Works in Lynn, Massachusetts, Real to Reel began in 2000 when Mr. Gaines moved to Boston. Eighteen years later, it has become one of the strongest programs of its kind in the nation with respect to the quality of the films being made and the quantity of those films being screened in festivals, Mr. Gaines said. 

The program invited teens to join and make movies, starting in about seventh grade and continuing until the end of senior year.

“When they’d walk out, they would walk out with an amazing portfolio which would help them get on the ladder to whatever’s next, whether that’s college or the film industry,” he said. 

Mr. Gaines described how one of his students processed his struggles with depression and anxiety by creating a short film in which two emotions personified as police officers chase down a criminal who has stolen happiness.

A second student made a movie formatted as a series of journal entries about her mother, who had overdosed on heroin just a few months prior. 

“She created that film to cope with the reality of her world and her situation,” Mr. Gaines said. “She was a student who outwardly presented as ‘normal,’ so the processing of her grief through art helped her wrap her head around where she’s at and gave her the agency to own her own grief.”

Real to Reel was where Mr. Gaines met Mr. Sih, who worked as his assistant and co-instructor.

“We developed a really good friendship but a really trusting artistic relationship,” Mr. Gaines said. “It was almost like he and I had a nighttime talk show—I was Andy to his Conan, or maybe he was Andy to my Conan. Mr. Sih is probably one of the most talented filmmakers I’ve met, so he and I could see eye-to-eye on the craft.” 

Mr. Gaines said Mr. Sih’s endorsement of the US community was important in his decision to take the job. 

“He’s a really good friend and collaborator,” Mr. Gaines said. “His opinion came with a lot of weight for me.”

Other factors in his decision to come to the school were the kindness he perceived in the students and what he observed was “a really responsive community.” 

Mr. Gaines said he sees the arrival of Head of School Dr. Jen Price as a positive move and expressed enthusiasm for her focus on reinforcing inclusiveness and representation. 

“I’m struck with the feeling that a big change has happened,” he said. “The future that’s being laid out for BB&N is one that I’m more than willing to sign up for.”

A diversity of backgrounds and perspectives is essential to his classroom, Mr. Gaines added.

“When you really pull back filmmaking, it’s art and storytelling, and I just feel that there’s a lot of stories we still haven’t heard,” he said. “Crazy diverse classes are always better because there’s always more to learn from the other side.”

One of Mr. Gaines’ lessons in his year-long film class this fall explored animation, including the racist history of how animation was weaponized to perpetuate stereotypes, he said, adding that he hopes his classes can treat film as a medium that has historical and political depth.

“Filmmaking historically was always kind of an elite medium, really expensive, hard to get into, so you’ve only had one point of view for storytelling. I like that as the medium gets democratized, we have so many other possibilities for stories,” he said.

That potential for storytelling has increased now that more people can access the equipment and education necessary to make high-quality films, Mr. Gaines added. 

“I’m really excited to see what film-making and teens look like in 2018.” 

Mr. Gaines’ own story spans continents and cultures. His stepmother was in the Air Force, so he spent most of his time before college abroad. After being born in Arkansas and living there until third grade, Mr. Gaines moved with his family to the Middle East and lived in Turkey for four years. In seventh grade, he moved to Germany, where he spent most of his middle school and high school years.

Despite going to American schools in international countries, Mr. Gaines said, he was exposed to communities of Americans with a variety of backgrounds. He said that because the military schools were reflective of the diverse families they served, they exposed him to many of the social, economic, and political tensions that existed in America.

“A lot of American problems would make their way over to our schools,” he said. “It was a real cross-section.”

Does Mr. Gaines regret walking away from Real to Reel, a program he built for almost two decades?

“I personally felt like I took it as far as I could take it,” he said. “Once I knew that it was secure and it had an institutional memory bigger than me, it kind of felt OK [to leave]. It felt like it had reached maturity, like a teenager—time for it to go off to college.”

With the organization changing its direction and director, Mr. Gaines added, he saw an opportunity to return to his roots as a classroom teacher. He said that while Mr. Sih and Photography Teacher Andrew Warren before him had done a good job “putting some feet down” in the film and video program, it still had the potential to grow.

 “I also liked the idea of returning to where I came from: a small, underdog program. [Real to Reel] had gotten enormous, almost to the point where I was spending more time managing the thing than in the classroom.” 

“My favorite place is in the classroom,” he said.

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