Educating Onscreen: Civil Rights & Activism

Our Education team is constantly hard at work putting together a variety of programs. Each year, we strive to reach 11,000 Bay Area students, bringing school groups into theaters and filmmakers into classrooms. Much of our activity this past fall centered on social justice issues in film, from the struggle for gay rights and the fight for universal education to detailed explorations of local activist groups empowering young black Americans to stand up against systemic oppression and gang violence.

Early in the fall, we presented a very special screening of Freeheld in partnership with the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Adapted from the Oscar-winning doc short, this film tells the true love story of Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree and their fight for pension rights in the face of terminal illness. We were very fortunate to host costars Julianne Moore and Ellen Page and director Peter Sollett for an onstage Q&A following the screening.

At the event, we distributed 100 free tickets to the local education community in efforts to celebrate diversity in Bay Area classrooms and to show support for all who provide a safe and welcoming learning environment for LGBTQ youth and their families.

After attending, one teacher wrote to us: "By inviting the educational community to the screening of Freeheld, the Film Society is contributing to the societal progress of inclusion and equality not only for the individuals privileged enough to attend, but also for hundreds of children who those educators serve every day. Every human being needs to feel they matter. Hearing teachers name queer liberation as a part of the greater civil rights movement matters. Knowing school systems support teachers to do what it takes to interrupt systemic inequality matters."

Nearly thirty of the seats reserved for educators and their students were given to Lyndsey Schlax, a teacher at San Francisco School of the Arts who recently started an LGBT History class—the first of its kind in the nation. The school has the highest percentage of LGBTQ-identified students at a San Francisco public high, at 28 percent.

This film was very touching to me because of my own sexual orientation. It is rare that I see representations of healthy lesbian relationships in the media.
— Student

Later in the fall, we organized a classroom visit with Lindsay and her students to present the documentary Freeheld—the inspiration for the feature-length narrative production that they saw at the Castro several weeks prior.

For the classroom session, our Education team collaborated with the producer of the doc, who was keen to have the kids watch the short and hear their reactions to the original, nonfiction story in contrast to Hollywood’s portrayal of events. Steven Goldstein, the founder of Garden State Equality (played by Steve Carell in the feature), joined us for the visit. Currently a professor at Rutgers Law School, he remains involved in civil rights activism.

He spoke frankly with the students, discussing his honest opinion of Hollywood’s Freeheld and sharing personal stories about his lifelong commitment to the fight for equal civil rights—a struggle that he joined in as a teenager.

I want to work in the media for the same reasons Steven became a producer. I have a dream of one day telling the stories that don’t get told, giving opportunities to actors who don’t fit the standard.
— Student

In the autumn months we also had the pleasure of working with director Stanley Nelson, whose Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution—the first feature-length documentary to explore the Black Panther Party and its significance to the broader American culture—screened in the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival. Our Education team was excited to finally have the opportunity to work with Stanley directly. Although we have screened three of his films at various Schools at the Festival programs, we’d never had the chance to have Stanley join us for classroom visits.

The day began in East Oakland at Fremont High School, where Stanley spoke with a group of students in the school's media class. The kids immediately felt a special connection to his film and it’s subject matter having been born and raised in the birthplace of the Black Panther Party.

Unfortunately, many of the students felt that the rights of minorities in America haven’t changed all that much since the days of the Panthers. Stanley encouraged them to think critically about civil rights and activism and to use their newly learned media skills to help give a voice to the current youth movement.

As we consider the similarities between the injustices of yesterday and today, it is important to understand that the Panthers were energized largely by young people—25 and under—who started as a small group of actively engaged individuals that collectively became an international human rights phenomenon.
— Stanley Nelson, in his director’s statement

Stanley and the SFFS Education crew then headed to San Francisco to meet with students at Balboa High School who were part of a special program called PULSE (Peers United for Leadership, Service, and Equity). PULSE is a leadership curriculum pathway designed to help youth take essential leadership roles within their communities. After hearing Stanley speak, many of the students proudly stood up to talk about the movements they had been leading at their school and within the Mission and Excelsior District community.

Davis Guggenheim, another major working documentary filmmaker (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman), also joined us for Education programs this fall. In early October, we held a special preview screening of his latest, He Named Me Malala, for Bay Area teachers and their families.

The film follows 15 year-old Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai, an advocate for girls’ education who continues her campaigning despite in Pakistan despite pressure from the Taliban.

As a counselor I am always trying to help students understand why education matters and to encourage them to take advantage of the opportunities they do have.
— Teacher

It was a very inspiring evening celebrating the importance of education in the lives of children around the world. Fox Searchlight, the studio behind the film, went to great lengths to make the movie accessible to teachers and students during its theatrical run. Many of the educators in attendance at our screening told us that they’d begun to coordinate field trips to connect their students to the film.

In December, we teamed up with the crew behind SFIFF58 Best Documentary Feature Audience Award winner Romeo Is Bleeding for visits to with classes at the Oakland School of the Arts and at Berkeley High School. In the film, a fatal turf war between neighborhoods haunts the nearby city of Richmond, but Donté Clark transcends the violence in his hometown by writing poetry about his experiences. Using his voice to inspire those around him, he and the like-minded youth of the city mount an urban adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with the hope of starting a real dialogue about violence in the city.

It was very fitting that we should end the year working once again with this powerful documentary. The film’s main subject, Donté Clark, was able to join us as our guest for both presentations. We were also joined by Molly Raynor, the inspirational educator who leads the RAW Talent program featured in the film. Throughout this year Donté has attended seven different Film Society educational programs, reaching over 950 students. His talent for connecting with young students is unparalleled, and it is an honor to see him work each and every time we are lucky enough to have him join us—these aren’t easy Q&As by any means.

The most powerful films we screen are the ones where students can relate to the main characters and then get to meet them.
— Teacher
After school I went and bought some books (something I never do). I’m hoping to give myself some skills so I can make a difference in the world.
— Student

The first question of the day had to do with Donté’s personal faith in God and how hard it must be for him to not question that faith with all of the death and violence he is surrounded by in his daily life. The discussion then turned to more challenging subjects, including police brutality and the misrepresentation of young black men in today’s media. While tackling all of these difficult topics, Donté never strayed from his passionate and positive message, and his energy empowered these young students, inspiring them to grow beyond the recent depressing news cycle.

All in all, we are feeling very good about starting up another year of these programs. To find out more about Education at SFFS, contact Keith Zwölfer at

The Film Society's Education programs serve more than 11,000 students and teachers every year, from kindergarten through college, to develop media literacy, cultural awareness, global understanding and a lifelong appreciation of cinema. SFFS Education aims to cultivate students' imaginations, prepare them for filmmaking careers and empower them to succeed in a media-saturated world.