Freshman documentary filmmaker travels the country to give students a voice
High school senior Ankur Singh walked down the hallways of his Normal, Ill., high school toward his counselor’s office.
He was freaking out.
The previous day, Singh’s Advanced Placement French teacher had handed out yet another practice test to prepare students for the final AP test at the end of the year. Instead of taking the test, he spent the period writing an angry letter to the College Board in the margins.
He wrote the letter because he was frustrated. Frustrated with the focus on standardized testing. Frustrated with his fellow classmates who could talk only about ACT scores, GPAs and AP tests. Frustrated with what he felt was the absence of genuine learning.
He had assumed his French teacher wouldn't look at the tests very closely.
When he entered his counselor's office, his French teacher was there, too. They wanted to know why he had done it.
He told them both how he felt, and he was surprised to find that his teacher shared his frustration.
The issue was very political, though, they said. It was very complicated.
Then Singh’s French teacher said something that would stick with him: “Maybe if the students themselves spoke out against it, it could all change.”
Just do it
Singh has been making movies since the fifth grade, ever since he saw Jurassic Park for the first time.
“I just really loved how film could take you to different worlds,” he says. “When I got older and started becoming more socially conscious, documentaries seemed like a way for me to express those things.”
Shortly after his conversation with his French teacher in 2012, he set out to make a short documentary about education.
“I was just going to put it on the Internet, but then it was just really bad, and I never finished it,” he says. “I thought I’d go to school for journalism and learn how to be a really good journalist, and after I graduated I’d make a documentary about education.”
That summer, though, Singh realized he didn't have to wait that long.
He got the chance to meet Josh Fox, the director of his favorite documentary, Gasland, which explores the impacts of natural gas drilling.
He asked if Fox had any advice for an aspiring filmmaker.
Fox’s response: “Just do it now,” he said. “There’s no reason to wait.”
Fox said today’s technology is so advanced, you don’t really need to wait for funding to make a documentary.
Singh started as a freshman journalism major at Mizzou in fall 2012, but he couldn’t shake Fox’s advice.
“I remember watching this video on YouTube from CNN and it was just a bunch of adults talking about kids, but they never talked to kids, which I thought was really messed up,” Singh says. “They never ask the students what we want from our own education.”
He wanted to give students a voice. He wanted to make a film by students, about students, for students.
“There’s an old saying that goes ‘Nothing about us without us is for us,’” Singh says in the film. “Education is supposed to be for students, and yet we are never given a seat at the table.”
He decided to take his second semester of his freshman year off to film a documentary that gave students a chance to talk about what really mattered to them when it came to education.
He set up a Kickstarter campaign, which raised about $2,500, to fund his adventure. With the help of social media, he lined up interviews across the country and began planning a semester-long, 11-city journey.
On the road
He rode Greyhound buses, took planes and slept on couches; some were the couches of people he was interviewing, and some belonged to complete strangers he found on couchsurfing.org.
Thanks to the generosity of strangers, he had to stay in only one hotel the entire semester.
His family had been understandably hesitant when he first told them his plan.
“At first they were worried, with the traveling and staying with random people I’d never met,” he says. They warmed up to the idea once they saw the attention Singh’s story was getting from the media, including The Washington Post. “They knew it was something I really wanted to do, and they didn't want to prevent me from doing it.”
His journey took him to Colorado, Minnesota, Florida, Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago and Texas.
Along the way, he talked to 34 different people.
He had to contact about 300 public schools before he found one (in Texas) that would let him film on the premises.
At the end of the semester, he had about 90 hours of footage.
He spent the summer in his room with a laptop piecing together the 106-minute documentary. Even with help from a few friends back home, it was no easy task.
“There’s this quote by George Lucas, and he says ‘A film is never done; it’s abandoned,’ and I really understand that now,” Singh says. “Even when I watch it now, there are still a thousand things I could change and make better.”
Finally, two weeks into the 2013 fall semester, he had the finished product: Listen: The Film.
After a test screening for family and friends, Singh hosted the first official screening on the MU campus in mid-October.
Screenings in Arkansas and Florida are planned, and other locations are in the works.
A major change
Singh made his documentary to inspire others to think differently about education, but making the film inspired him to make changes of his own.
He’s switching his major from journalism to elementary education.
Singh still plans to make documentaries, but the conversations he had with students and teachers during filming had a big impact. (Another small detail: Making films doesn't necessarily require a college degree, Singh says, but becoming a teacher typically does.)
He’s also the Missouri chapter leader of Students United for Public Education, a group he plans to promote and grow after buzz from his film dies down.
Singh says when he is a teacher, he hopes to be supportive of what his students want for themselves.
“I’d like to support them in what they choose to do,” he says. “I’d like to let kids have more say and the freedom to learn what they want to learn.”