Towns#039; gaps fuel film

by Beacon Staff • February 7, 2007

Five seniors from two high schools in the towns of Andover and Lawrence, Massachusetts were provided with video cameras last school year and for over a month, they recorded more than 55 hours of footage documenting their lives at school, at home and with friends according to Rich Farrell, the head of the film program at Andover High School.,A recent documentary chronicling the lives of high school students in two racially and economically divided towns has captured the attention of an Emerson freshman who hopes to help create a nationally recognized film.

Five seniors from two high schools in the towns of Andover and Lawrence, Massachusetts were provided with video cameras last school year and for over a month, they recorded more than 55 hours of footage documenting their lives at school, at home and with friends according to Rich Farrell, the head of the film program at Andover High School.

Farrell, who started Andover High School's film program four years ago, got the idea to do a documentary from a previous experience working for HBO's "America Undercover," where high school seniors in Minnesota documented their lives.

When he moved to Andover to teach, he took the idea with him.

Now, over a year after Farrell and his students began working on the project, the film is in its final stages of production, and Farrell has called in some help from an Emerson student.

Freshman film major Dan Sarno, who graduated from Andover last year, has offered to help Farrell, who he says was an inspiration during his years at Andover High.

"I have a long history with Rich Farrell," Sarno said. "He was a good mentor."

Sarno, who grew up in Andover, took a special interest in the film; the issues addressed are all too familiar to him.

After looking through the footage, Sarno felt that there was definitely the potential for creating an interesting film on the subject.

"A lot of the footage was stuff that we didn't expect to find," he said.

The documentary does not merely focus on the lives of typical high school students, but digs deeper into the underlying prejudices between the two schools.

Andover and Lawrence are neighboring towns divided not only by the Merrimack River, but by wide disparities of income and racial makeup.

While Andover is affluent and predominantly white, Lawrence is poorer and largely Latino. Due to the dichotomy, Farrell reports that high school students in Andover have developed prejudices against Lawrence and vice versa.

As part of the project, students switched places and attended each other's school.

One former Andover student, Adam Cuomo, who is currently a freshman architecture major at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, said that he went over to Lawrence High School with certain expectations.

"A lot of people weren't familiar with this culture and were just trying to get by. A lot of people barely spoke English," Cuomo said. "One thing that I noticed was how difficult the teacher's jobs were because all the students were on different levels."

Despite his culture shock, Cuomo suspects that for the Lawrence students, coming over to Andover was much more of an awkward experience.

"When they came to my town I thought they felt very threatened and uncomfortable by us," Cuomo said.

Farrell recalls that the other students had reactions much like Cuomo's.

Lawrence students envied Andover for its impressive academic programs; Andover students pitied Lawrence for having such a difficult and often violent learning environment.

Yet, despite the vastly apparent gap between the school's facilities, race and social class, the participants discovered that as students they really were not so different after all.

"Andover is definitely a very one dimensional place. It was interesting to see how different cultures live," Cuomo said. "Andover has a lot of assumptions about people at Lawrence, but after spending time with them, you realize they are trying to do the same things but they're just a lot worse off."

Farrell claims that all of the students that participated had a similar eye-opening experience.

"Their viewpoints changed across the board," said Farrell. "They realized that people are people and kids are kids. Regardless where they are from, everyone faces the same issues."

Sarno is currently looking to find an Emerson group that would like to join forces with the two high schools to assist with additional shooting, editing, and post production.

"The film has not yet been proposed to a specific organization, but within the next month I'm looking to propose the idea of joint partnership between two communities," said Sarno.

Emerson's involvement is especially appreciated by Farrell, who feels that the expertise of Emerson students will be helpful to those from Andover and Lawrence who want to go into filmmaking and attend a school like Emerson.

"It's great to have a school with that reputation on board," Farrell said.

He said he hopes to have a rough cut of the film done by April or May and plans to send it to some film festivals and television stations, possibly including The Emerson Channel.

Farrell believes that the film would do well nationally and both he and Sarno agree that the film will send a message about social reputations that even people outside of the two towns can relate to.

"It represents a microcosm of America and gives a social perspective on these issues," Sarno said.

Farrell voiced a similar opinion on the film's universality.

"The documentary is not just about Andover and Lawrence, but is a snapshot of America."