Apodaca: The Spielbergs-to-be show off at festival

I'm going to let you in on one of the best entertainment values in town: the Newport Beach Film Festival's Youth Film Showcase.

The youth showcase, a regular feature of the festival since 2005, is a collection of short films made entirely by kids. High-school graduates need not apply.

This year, the festival has selected 20 entries — out of about 125 submitted — that will screen at 6 p.m. Sunday at Triangle Square in Costa Mesa. Admission is free.

I make a point of trying to attend the showcase every year, and it never fails to delight. I'm so enamored with this event that I hesitated before deciding to write about it because I've long considered the show put on by these talented teenagers to be my little secret, and I selfishly want to be sure of getting a seat.

The films, while raw and amateurish, are also wonderfully creative and promising, and often contain nuggets of pure, unpracticed brilliance. The enthusiasm and excitement displayed by the young Spielbergs-to-be is downright infectious.

"Some are school films, some are just a teen with a camera," said Leslie Feibleman, the festival's director of special programs. "You can tell they're really passionate about their subjects."

Feibleman, a busy Newport Beach mom and an unpaid volunteer who organizes the youth showcase each year, is equally passionate about the teenagers' projects. When I asked her why she's so committed, she laughed.

"My husband asks me that, too," she said. "I don't get my nails done, but I love doing this. We are helping to keep the arts alive in the community."

The selection always includes an array of genres, including comedy, drama, romance, documentary and animation. Over the years I've seen a wide range of entertaining but vastly different offerings. One of my favorites was a tongue-in-cheek take on film noir featuring a Philip Marlowe-type detective who was bent on catching jaywalkers. Another memorable entry was a musical, with an original score, about zombies in love.

Yet another, a moving documentary called "Untouchable," which chronicled the plight of a group of outcasts in India who are denied basic human rights.

The youth showcase is sponsored by the trendy clothing maker Volcom, which gives cash prizes to the award-winners and a bag of goodies to all the participants. The young filmmakers also get a chance to attend other festival screenings and seminars, and mix and mingle with industry professionals at various events. One year, actor and Orange County native Will Ferrell — wearing a bright orange jumpsuit — served as guest host of the showcase.

Many past participants have landed acceptances at top-ranked film schools, including USC and Chapman University.

Though entries come in from around the world, not surprisingly a large number of the films selected are from California. This year, all the films chosen were made in the United States, including offerings by students at Sage Hill School in Newport Coast, Northwood High School in Irvine, El Dorado High School in Placentia, and the Orange County High School of the Arts in Santa Ana.

The current crop of films includes "Wake Up!" that mixes live action with animation; "Poetic Justice Project," a documentary about formerly incarcerated artists who find redemption through a theater group; and "Flags," a dialogue-free piece that uses visual imagery and music to promote peace.

I'm looking forward to seeing "It Happened One Afternoon," a romantic comedy produced by a group of students from various schools who attended an arts program at Pepperdine University last summer. One of those student filmmakers is Katherine Nagasawa, a Sage Hill senior, who celebrated her 18th birthday Wednesday.

Nagasawa recalled how the group crowded around a computer late one night and brainstormed, eventually agreeing on the concept for the film and collaborating on the screenplay.

The story involves a couple of teenagers who video chat, and as the boy falls in love he fantasizes about being a movie hero, such as Spiderman, who rescues the girl and wins her heart. Nagasawa directed some of the scenes, and learned about lighting, sound, camerawork and editing.

"It was amazing," she said. "Film was something I was always interested in, but now I'm thinking of it as a career."

She plans to double major in film, radio and television, and "something else" — she hasn't decided yet — when she attends Northwestern University this fall.

I imagine that someday I just might come across Nagasawa's name, or those of the other young filmmakers, while watching the credits roll at the end of a movie or TV show. And I'll remember that they got their start here, when the Newport Beach Film Festival gave them their first big break.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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