How CFI Education Serves Thousands of Students Through Film

Last fall, in the lead-up to the 2022 Mill Valley Film Festival, there was a real moment of uncertainty for CFI Education Director Joanne Parsont and her team. They were inviting students back to the theater for the first time since the pandemic, and with a slightly reduced transportation budget no less. “We just weren’t sure who would show up,” Parsont recalls.

The team employed a three-pronged approach to engage as many students as possible with their programming and curriculum, hosting in-theater presentations at the Smith Rafael Film Center, organizing school visits with filmmakers and industry professionals, and providing distanced schools with online resources. In the end, their hard work and ingenuity paid off.

“We were able to serve over 10,000 students,” Parsont beams. “It worked out beautifully.”

Year after year, CFI Education continues to grow and innovate, extending its reach to students across the Bay Area and beyond to help them connect with the world — and themselves — through the power of cinema. From raising awareness about environmental issues with the Environmental Youth Forum, to immersing students in all aspects of the film industry with the Summerfilm workshops, to allowing kids to literally curate a Mill Valley Film Festival program themselves via the Young Curators program, CFI Education is constantly finding new ways to awaken the inner-storyteller in young people from all backgrounds.

“The original vision for the program was about media literacy, cinema appreciation, empowering youth voice through film, and fostering global awareness and cultural understanding,” Parsont explains. “We teach about and through film.”

One of the most extraordinary programs under the CFI Education umbrella is My Place | My Story, an intensive five-day program that helps teenage students create hyper-personal short films, providing them with high-end equipment and software, and guidance from industry professionals. While young people are digital-native and generally enter the program with solid content creation skills already in their repertoire, the program elevates and refined their talents to help them express themselves to their fullest potential.

“What we focus on is teaching them how to put their message together in a way that flows on screen, shifting how they perceive and understand cinema, and helping them recognize how much more powerful it is for them to tell their story on film rather than just verbally or written down,” Parsont says. The students’ finished films are showcased at the Smith Rafael Film Center to an audience of friends, family, and community members, and the responses to the young filmmakers’ work are emotional to say the least.

“They tell really personal, substantial stories about anxiety, challenges at school, experiences with immigration into this country,” Parsont says. “It’s powerful to see them express themselves in a way that they have chosen, and to see that doing so allows others who have similar experiences to feel less alone. They really feel empowered by the end of the experience. It’s been amazing to watch.”

CFI Education
Photo by Tommy Lau.

Beyond its core programs, CFI Education collaborates with partners throughout the Bay Area to organize specialized, one-off events that educate students in ways that typical high school curriculums can’t. This past spring, they partnered with the San Francisco Department of Public Health and BAYVAC, who utilized CFI Education curriculum to help youth make short films about sexual health. And this year, for the first time, the Mill Valley Film Festival’s “¡Viva El Cine!” initiative is extending beyond the festival as an educational program, with the organization holding events and screenings with local partners like the Multicultural Center of Marin and the Pickleweed Center to showcase Latinx and Spanish-speaking films for young audiences.

For the CFI Education team, promoting diversity and representation is paramount. One of the most effective ways for students to learn about peoples and cultures different from their own is through film, and Parsont feels a deep responsibility to ensure students from all backgrounds feel represented. 

“We work hard to find the right balance of representation across our programming to provide a diversity of voices,” Parsont says. “In a way, we’re making up for lost time when all of these movies about people of color weren’t being made, let alone shown. We’re taking advantage of how much amazing content is being made by filmmakers of color now, telling stories that have never been told before.”

CFI Education serves a staggering 15,000-plus young people each year, and considering the exciting projects l Parsont and her team have in the works, that number looks to grow even larger, perhaps exponentially so. Their ever-expanding online platform CAFILM Education Online provides free lessons and resources for distanced students and educators to access, and the team are currently working on aggregating study guides they’ve developed to supplement films they’ve featured over the years to give educators access to decades-worth of CFI Education programming and resources with the click of a button.

“We’re really looking at how to better organize and manage that library of resources to make it useful as a whole for teachers moving forward,” Parsont explains. “Teachers will be able to easily find the films and resources they want to use in their classroom. A lot of these films don’t get a lot of mainstream attention, so this is a really good way for educators to find and access them.”

Though CFI Education continues to expand its reach online, the bread and butter of the organization continues to be its hands-on, in-person, in-theater events and programs. With the 2023 Mill Valley Film Festival on the horizon, Parsont looks forward to entertaining and enlightening kids and families via the big screen once again. 

“Last year’s festival was amazing for us,” Parsont says. “We had so many great groups of kids come out, and the teachers were really excited to bring their kids back to the theater. It was great to see, and I feel like it’s going to be another really strong year for CFI Education at Mill Valley.”