Cape teen's film takes on social issues

Tuesday, June 6, 2006
Hugh McGowan, 18, viewed the Film Your Issue Web site, checking votes received on his short film and others. (Aaron Eisenhauer)





Between the words -- written in a visually stark white against a black background -- images flash of starving children with huge eyes, homeless men and other representations of the millions of people living on the verge of death daily.

Hugh McGowan V watches the images of despair flash by on his computer screen before the final words appear.

"You can make a difference one life at a time."

This is the 18-year-old's message to the world. This is his film.

"I just like to think all those images could make someone think they can do something about all the bad stuff that's going on," McGowan says when the video stops.

He doesn't look like an activist, or act like one. He speaks softly and, far from self-promoting, verges on shy. Modest might be the best description for his personality and his home in Cape Girardeau.

His room is full of Stephen King novels and comic book and music memorabilia. And of course, his computer.

The machine was his tool in creating the 60-second film "One Life At a Time," designed for the United Nations' Millennium Project as part of the Film Your Issue competition. If enough people like his video, it could be McGowan's life that changes very soon.

Right now Internet users are deciding McGowan's fate. His film is one of 35 semi-finalists in Film Your Issue, which encourages 18-to-26-year-old filmmakers to pick an issue important to them and make a 30- to 60-second film about it. More than 300 films were submitted.

Visitors to the contest Web site vote for their favorite film -- be it "One Life at a Time" or something else. Those votes will count for half the outcome. The other deciding half will be the votes of judges like Walter Cronkite, George Clooney, Anderson Cooper, Dallas Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban and NBC News anchor Brian Williams.

The line-up of jurors is big, and so are the names sponsoring the contest -- USA Today, NBC, Microsoft, Motorola, Toshiba and others.

If he is one of five finalists chosen for the competition, McGowan will be part of an awards ceremony at U.N. Headquarters in New York, and his film could be used as a U.N. public service announcement.

If he's the top filmmaker, he'll get a paid internship with Walt Disney Co. -- the perfect prize for a student entering Southeast Missouri State University in the fall to study mass communications.

The Film Your Issue competition had its genesis in 2003, when competition founder HeathCliff Rothman decided to create a competition to encourage young people to get involved in social issues. Rothman teamed up with the New York Times and its American Democracy Project and the competition was born.

Contestants make films about any social issue they care about, from capital punishment to mental illness to, like McGowan, poverty.

Rothman's goal from the beginning was to get the pulse of America's youth, but he found a surprisingly acute vision and awareness in the nation's young.

"Basically I am thrilled because you never know what you're going to get -- quality, quantity, depth and consciousness," said Rothman. "Today's young people are aware, they're angry and they're conscious of what's going on."

Last year 60,000 votes were cast for the contest. By mid-day Monday, more than 43,000 had voted, said Rothman, with two days left in the voting.

Rothman said when he saw McGowan's film he immediately knew it would be a semi-finalist.

McGowan keeps track of the votes every day. Monday afternoon he was at 3.3 percent of the total vote -- putting him somewhere in the middle.

"I was the first person to vote for myself," McGowan says as he checks the totals again.

McGowan doesn't brag about the film that's getting so much acclaim. When talking about the project, he describes the process simply, like making such a film is just an everyday activity.

Go on the Internet, Google words like "poverty" and "disease." Get the images, synchronize them to music, and the film is complete.

But his video production teacher at the Cape Girardeau Career and Technology Center, Randy McWilson, said his pupil is a great talent putting his skills to good use.

McWilson helped give McGowan some constructive criticism on the film. But those were only minor suggestions, he said. By the time he saw "One Life at a Time," the film was nearly a complete work.

"What was interesting was to see a young person interested in producing something with that type of message and that type of emotional appeal," said McWilson. "It's a very mature appeal. I think a lot of people would be shocked to see that a high school, teenage boy produced a message like this."

One person who isn't shocked is McGowan's dad, Hugh McGowan IV.

At least not anymore, after years of living with his media-loving son.

Young Hugh has long shown an interest in film, said his father.

"It's really funny, because since he's been a kid he's been fascinated with the fact that we would take a video and show it on the TV," said the elder McGowan. "He always wanted to look into the camera. When he was 2 and 3 he would say 'I look in camera?'"

Nor do the McGowans find their child's social awareness surprising. Young Hugh has been involved in mission trips to help the poor in this country. His father said he helps anyone he can.

"That's part of the person that he his," he said. "He's kind and generous and thoughtful of others, and that's reflected in this particular video."

The filmmaker says he saw a competition with a high profile that gave him a chance to create a piece of art with a positive message. So he took the opportunity.

But while he talks about the video, it's obvious the younger McGowan sees the images he used as more than just pictures. His favorite shots are those that clearly show the eyes of children. That makes them more than just statistics, he said.

Those who know McGowan see that social awareness in such a young man.

His father said it is his son's social consciousness and talents with media that are important, not the competition.

"If he wins, that's just icing," he said.

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