Seon Hye Moon

What Do You Believe?

altar boy

What do you believe?

If you ask adults this question, you are bound to hear a variety of answers. But most will have taken the time to develop a clear sense of their beliefs and their faith. If you ask a group of teenagers, on the other hand, you will probably get an ever-shifting set of answers. You may also hear some thoughtful, inspiring answers.

It is for both these reasons-- inspiration and an element of surprise-- that Bay Area filmmaker Sarah Feinbloom set out to make "What Do You Believe?", a new documentary about young people and their religious beliefs and practices.

In a style reminiscent of MTV's "The Real World," the film includes interviews with a number of teens but focuses on six who are particularly articulate about their beliefs. Although the teens in "What Do You Believe" differ in many ways, they all feel a strong connection to their respective belief systems, which range from the typical (Catholicism) to the rare-- (Paganism and Native American spirituality) in varying degrees.

Mazouza is a young Muslim woman who turned to her family religion after a rebellious stage in which she says she was "kicked out of the eighth grade." She says that Islam makes her, "feel [she is] worth something." David, on the other hand, who is Jewish and from a mixed-race background, tell us that he is at a point of doubt. "Everyone has good and bad times," he says, "and I don't think that believing in God is going to change that either way."

The film touches on a number of important themes, such as the importance of family in the shaping of one's spiritual life and the role of ritual and prayer. The youth in the film also touch on social issues, and make connections to their belief systems. For instance, David connects the shift in his faith with the time when he started to learn about the Holocaust and slavery. The mere fact that such terrible things are possible, he says, caused him doubt to existance of a higher power. On a similar note, Carina, a young Buddhist girl, tells a story about a mail man who urges her not to offer assistance to a homeless person. "The biggest thing that bothers me about the world today," she tells the audience, "is how selfish we've become."

Feinbloom says that teens' openness and curiosity, as well as their concern for the world around them make them prime subjects for a film that she hopes will promote tolerance in a world where religious differences cause bloodshed.

Having grown up in a segregated, divided society, Feinbloom has always been interested in the things people have in common. With this film she wanted to examine diversity that surpasses mere skin color.

In a recent interview, she spoke about her motivation. "We all ask the same big life questions like, 'What happens When We Die?' and 'What is the meaning of Life?' These are the thing that we all worry and think about," she said. Just knowing that we all ask the same questions, Feinbloom believes, has the potential to bring us together. "If we are to live peacefully, we have to understand others' perspectives," she says.

In the film, Carina talks about those who use their faith to intimidate or convert other people. "When someone manipulates religion and makes it contepmtuous toward non-believers then it defeats the entire purpose of religion,"she says, Even Anthony, a Catholic altar boy who says "I wouldn't be who I am if it weren't for the Catholic church," is also developing a critical sense of his upbringing. He feels strong ties to the Catholic community but admits that he disagress with the church about issues like abortion and pre-marital sex. When asked about the consequences in the afterlife, he says, "I'd rather do something on this earth that satisfies me as a person than go to Heaven."

Like the other teens in the film, he is grappling with uncertainty--this is what makes the film so interesting. Adolescence is a time for changing, questioning, and exploring. As Feinbloom says, its more exciting to see struggle and change." She has a point: Wouldn't we rather go along on a journey than listen to the stories of one who has already arrived?

"Teens are often the subject of stories about alcohol and drugs, crime reports, and educational statistics" says Feinbloom, "but rarely are they asked for their intellect and perspective." Feinbloom's film is an important effort in the movement to give young people a voice about their own experiences. Because as Mazouza believes, "young people will listen to young people."
In some ways, the question, "what do you believe?" remains unanswered in this documentary. But it re-surfaces throughout as a way to get both the youth in the film and the audience thinking, at a time when religion and spirituality are anything but popular among today's teens. Feinbloom also hopes that the film's format will urge viewers to consider how wide the array of possible answers can be. With this attention to others' beliefs comes awareness. With awareness can come acceptance and peace.

The last sequence of "What Do You Believe?" follows a young Native American boy living on a reservation named Julius Notafraid. Unlike the other teens in the film, Julius feels an enormous amount of responsibility to his ancestors to learn the traditional practices and maintain a sense of spirituality in his life. Otherwise he says, "the teachings will dissapear." Julius is shown beating a drum and dancing at a Pow-Wow, and speaks sincerely about his tribe's core values. His beliefs are in sharp contrast to the other young people in the film, in that they are never portrayed as separate from who he is, where he lives, and what he does on a daily basis. When he is asked about what will happen after he dies he speaks calmly about "the other side," which he sees as a place where his ancestors are happy. julius

Feinbloom hopes that people like Julius will speak to the larger national conversation. She says: "I want young people from different backgrounds to watch it, talk about it, discuss it--together. I want them to talk about being alive."

Seon Hye Moon 17, is a junior at Washington High School and a WireTap contributing writer.

Princess For a Day

prom dresses

The music is blasting. The pulse of the bass matches that of your heart. The lights on the dance floor are blue, yellow, and red. You've been pampered from head to fingernails to toe. The corsage is on, dinner reservations are made, picture appointments are scheduled, and of course, you're wearing the perfect dress. Everything's just right. The energy of the room is warmly welcoming. With your date by your side, you feel like a princess.

This is the idealized scene. It is the beginning of the grand, timeless evening, the prom. Of course, the actual effort you spent preparing for this night are magnificently concealed. Preparing can take anywhere from a year to a week. But the bill may present an even larger obstacle.

During the last year of high school, there are countless things that have to be done and paid for. Test fees, college application fees, yearbooks, graduation fees, and the list goes on. Inevitably, there are teens who simply cannot afford to add prom expenses to that list.

That's where the Princess Project comes in.

Thanks to the Princess project, female high school students who couldn't afford them, were given the opportunity to pick out free prom dresses and accessories. It happened on a Saturday, in a warehouse in San Francisco's presidio area. The lines were long, but by the end of the day some 400 girls walked out of the warehouse with prom dresses, purses, accessories, shoes, scarves, and handbags full of free makeup.

It all started when Li Qui, a high school senior, started talking to Laney Whitcanack and Kristi Smith Knutson of Coro Northern California, a non-profit educational leadership program from which Li had recently graduated, about her worries about not being able to attend prom.

Whitcanack and Knutson emailed a few friends to try to find a dress for Li and within a few weeks, they were receiving an overwhelming response from women who wanted to help. Soon, hundreds of dresses were being donated and delivered to the Coro offices. Whitcanack and Knutson, received about a thousand extra dresses and decided to ask for more. They received vintage dresses from the back of women's closets, and corporate donations from stores as large as Macy's, of big named brands like Jessica McClintock. And so the Princess Project began.

Prom or Wedding?
Tickets $40-$75
Hair $25-$60
Shoes $30-$150
Pictures $25-$100
Food $10-$100
Flowers $20-$70
Accessories $5-$40
Limos/Taxis $100-$200
Nails/Makeup $20-$60
Dress $50-$300

Total $338-$1105

Girls didn't have to prove financial hardship to receive a dress. "We weren't here to judge who needed a dress and who didn't," said Knutson. "We just wanted to help." And help they did. Girls came to the Project in groups, alone and with parents.

Some may argue that donating a prom dress is a superficial way to make a difference. Why not give food or money, something that can help change someone's lives for longer than a single night. But that's just it. The prom can be a symbol of something much larger. And Whitcanack and Knutson listened to what many girls identified as a real need. "Girls are telling us that this is important, and that it's expensive," said Knutson.

Attending prom is a choice in itself, and most teens choose to go because it's considered a memorable part of the high school experience. Sure, lots of teens decide not to go, but not having the choice is an entirely different feeling, and the right dress can be an important part of that. The dress is the girl's signature, her expression, and her sense of herself. On the night of the prom, says Li "You want people to comment on your dress. You want people to say, 'Oh, you look so nice tonight!'" Young women are told that these are the kinds of memories that mean something--And it's often true. Even if it's hard to admit. In fifteen years, even the most cynical, jaded teens want to be able to look back and know they looked good.

For many, the prom is the last time that they can enjoy this kind of celebration together with their fellow classmates. It's a "night to remember." It's a right of passage. But what happens after the prom? This project and its effect are different from an ordinary charity food drive or donation. It's about helping create a memory, restoring hope, and an opportunity opened.

This trend of women helping women gives birth to a new awareness for both those who are in need and those who can give. Those who were once discouraged or afraid of seeking any kind of assistance or aid can be assured that they won't be overlooked or left unnoticed. It's about lessening the individual's burden. One frilly dress at a time.

Knutson and Whitcanack hope to construct a plan to expand the Princess Project in the next couple of months. The project received responses and inquiries about starting local projects in states from Wisconsin to New York. Hopefully, with some more preparation and a few changes, the Project will become an annual event.

Seon Hye Moon 16, is a junior at Washington High School and a WireTap contributing writer.


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