When the Hudson Valley International Film Festival opens at the Town of Monroe Arts and Civic Center on August 26, the films will include one made by a 2016 graduate of Highland High School. Julianne Shaver’s “An Eye Into the Future” — a documentary short about genetic disorders — was produced for a school project in her senior AP language and composition class and accepted last month for the upcoming film festival. “Julie’s attention to detail on this project was incredible, and I think it shows on the final project,” says her English teacher, Steve Masson. “She wasn’t making the film for the grade; she made the film because she had something to say.”
“An Eye Into the Future” addresses the topic of genetic disorders in a thoughtful way through the perspectives of three individuals who each have a different health issue caused by genetic mutation. Shaver asked her subjects questions off-camera and edited their responses into a nearly-13-minute film that allows the viewer a window into what life is like when one has a genetic disorder. The people she interviewed are at different stages of life and adjusting to different circumstances, but each has developed a unique perspective on facing their situation. “Julie did a really nice job of sequencing her questions and then putting together the individual stories,” says Masson. “You can tell she had a plan going in, in terms of the narrative and what she wanted to bring out of her subjects, and then with the overall narrative of the documentary.”
The AP students in Masson’s class at Highland High School have the option of taking his course or getting comp credit from SUNY New Paltz. His conditions for fulfilling what he terms the “senior inquiry project” are to combine the college’s requirement to write a ten-page research paper and do a verbal presentation with an “experiential” project on something they’re passionate about. For the verbal presentation in his class, the students perform a “TED-style” talk for their classmates after writing the paper and executing a project. “The kids who get really involved and invested in their subject spend a lot of time on the project,” says Masson. “Julie brought her interests in film and biology together and the result speaks for itself. I’m very proud of her.”
Julianne Shaver grew up in Highland, attending district schools each step of the way. She will attend Dutchess Community College in the fall, where she’s enrolled as a communications major. Like many students making the leap into college years, Shaver says she goes “back and forth” at this point in figuring out her ultimate goals, but she’s clear that “every time I do a project that involves film, I love it.”
With the requirement for Masson’s class to produce an experiential project, Shaver chose the topic of genetic disease for her film. In part, she says, it was because “I’ve always had this fascination with genetics, ever since we first started learning about it in middle school.” But Shaver also found out last year that she has a genetic condition of her own, involving her back, with vertebrae shifts causing it to be unstable at times.
So with her interest in the topic to start with and her own diagnosis fresh on her mind, Shaver interviewed her close friend and fellow Highland High School student (now graduate) Victoria Pflaug about the lifestyle modifications she makes to combat living with the MTHFR gene mutation, a genetic variance that (in simplistic terms) creates an inability to make an enzyme called methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, which plays a part in processing amino acids and eliminating toxins from the body. The others interviewed are Dana Weidman, an associate professor of communications and media arts who has a heart condition called familial dilated cardiomyopathy, caused by a chromosomal mutation, and Mary McMahon, who lives with Fuchs Dystrophy, a vision-stealing disease stemming from a genetic mutation.
Shaver’s overall message with the film, she says, is really about bringing awareness of genetic mutations and genetic disease. “Everybody has genetic mutations, but not everybody out there knows a lot about genetic testing,” she says. “I wanted to raise awareness on the options that are out there if something happens to run in your family.”
[According to a report on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” the average healthy person is walking around with approximately 400 defects in his or her genes that are harmless for the most part. Some of the mutations are associated with disease, but a similar gene can take over and the person doesn’t get the disease.]
Shaver says she originally considered interviewing a genetic specialist for her film but ultimately opted to go with individuals dealing with their own situation, because “they’re not professionals, but they can tell you about their own experience.” She points out that as Victoria says in the film, “it’s always better to hear it from someone else who knows what you’re going through.” And, says Shaver, “they all wanted to tell their story from their own perspective. They all had their own message.”
The submission of “An Eye Into the Future” to the film festival came about through her friend, Joe Finnegan, who helped her with the camera work and lighting and arranged for her to meet the two adult subjects of the film (Mary McMahon is his aunt). Finnegan had heard of the festival, and thinking ‘why not,’ submitted Shaver’s film for consideration. It was accepted for the “documentary short” category and is eligible for a cash prize. (Whether that comes about or not, it bodes well for Shaver’s future as a freshman communications student to have had a film accepted to an international film festival straight out of high school. )
The schedule for the film screenings has yet to be announced as of press time, but the website www.hudsonvalleyinternationalfilmfestival.com will have details posted soon. The film is also available to view on YouTube.