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Summer school students at Riverway Learning Community, a charter school located in Winona, recently wrapped up a six-week film project with Project Get Outdoors (Project GO), a local nonprofit organization.

Over the past year, Project GO has been working on a documentary film, “The Legend Hunters,” to engage middle school youth with our public lands. Riverway students helped create animated story segments that will be woven into the final film.

Project GO founder Sara Holger was excited to team up with staff and students at the charter school. “We were looking for a way to engage teenagers in the making of this film so it would be more authentic and really speak to middle schoolers through the perspectives and artistic styles of young adults,” she said.

Project GO began collaborations with the school in May, planning for the six-week project. Faculty with the Winona State University Film Studies Department helped find a recent graduate to help as well. The graduate student, Mina Tham, visited with Riverway students over several sessions to introduce them to the fundamentals of filmmaking, including creating a storyboard, setting up a film shoot, capturing B-roll footage, editing basics and more. Students worked with Tham to create short commercials as a practice run with their new skills.

Holger, who works full-time as a naturalist for Minnesota State Parks, guided the Riverway crew on explorations of nearby public lands to investigate the histories of these sites. One session was spent hiking up Mount Charity overlooking the Mississippi River at John Latsch State Park. Sara shared the story of Winona philanthropist John Latsch, and also of how early steamboat captains used the three bluffs at the site, Faith, Hope and Charity, as navigational waypoints. These are well-known stories, familiar with local history enthusiasts. But then Holger shared a lesser-known history lesson.

“I asked the kids,” Sara explained, “to imagine they were runaway slaves from the south, stowed away on a steamboat heading north. I told them to imagine peeking out a crack or small opening of the boat to catch a glimpse of Faith, Hope and Charity; to feel the goosebumps prickling up their arms and spines as they realize they have made it past Winona, the last hold-out for slave hunters. Imagine they are almost to freedom, for once they reach Minneapolis, they can move about less detected alongside the free Black men and women who reside there and they can continue on their journey to Canada and to freedom.”

These stories aren’t usually shared in classroom textbooks, especially with a local context. But our public lands are full of these hidden histories. And the students worked to tell these kinds of stories in their own unique styles using music, art, photographs and other formats. On the final project day, students presented their films and an Academy Awards-style ceremony was held to recognize various categories of the films including; most creative, best narration and most artistic.

Jaime Harper, a teacher at Riverway, expressed that “each student had a different experience through this project and each were impacted in their own way.” Holger observed, “I could tell there was a very deep emotional reaction by some of the students up on Mount Charity. I think these places now hold more sacredness and importance to the students.”

Staff with the Frozen River Film Festival have reached out to Project GO to encourage submission in the festival in February. Holger hopes to wrap up the project in time to participate.

But Project GO is still short the fundraising goal for the film and is working to secure dollars to cover contract fees for the professional documentary producer who has been gathering high quality footage and who will be overseeing film editing.

Working on a short budget, Holger has lined up a student from Rochester Community and Technical College to create an original soundtrack and several local youth from the region have been involved in aspects of the film from art and graphics to film shoots at public lands in the area. “If we can’t secure the rest of the funds, we’ll just continue to be really, really creative and innovative!” she said.

Learn more about “The Legend Hunters” film project at www.mnprojectgo.org .