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Invisible Threat Unveiled: Student filmmakers finally see fruit of 2-year effort

Leave it to a bunch of high school kids to stir the pot. But wait - it’s not what you are thinking. Not provocative dance styles, questionable underwear choices, volatile music lyrics, or a new drug fad. This time, it’s a documentary film. Yup, a serious, academic film about disease, the immune system, and conflicting beliefs about the risks and benefits of vaccination.
The film, made by Carlsbad High School students in 2012 -2013, is being released for public viewing after two years of controversy and waiting. Invisible Threat, a 40-minute student film, was intended for release in January 2014, but its public debut was held off until the medical and academic community vetted the film, due to a vocal backlash from critics who claimed that it was merely pro-vaccination propaganda and that the students were pawns used by adults with an agenda.

The truth is not so sinister. As related by the students involved in the film’s making, the reality is that the students chose the topic, which evolved from a short informational clip about the immune system, and pursued the story despite public reaction, as their research revealed much more depth and controversy. Along the way, support was given by the local Rotary Club and other organizations, while opposition emerged from anti-vaccination groups across the country. The disapproval mainly came from people with a belief that vaccination causes autism in some children; the issue is a hot-button topic in the media, parenting, and education circles. The adults involved knew from experience that the early criticism the film was getting would only get worse, and they attempted to protect the teens from public scrutiny. But the high schoolers insisted on continuing the project.

According to Doug Green, broadcasting teacher at Carlsbad High and the film club’s adviser, the Rotary Club approached CHSTV with an idea for a short science film on the immune system. Their idea was to have the students make an educational film that could be shown to high school students locally. In the early days of pre-production, a local newspaper reported on the project, which propelled it into the public eye and resulted in a surprising backlash of online comments. “We were blindsided,” says Green, and adds that they reevaluated the project at that time. But rather than deterring the students, public criticism of the project inspired them to dig deeper. Green describes the team’s thought process: “Our initial reaction of ‘Where is the story here?’ quickly went to ‘There is a story here.’” They wanted to know why there was such a conflict of information on disease prevention. Suddenly, a small, informational video project transformed into an investigative journalism opportunity.

As film projects are proposed within the club, students express interest, apply to work on a team, and complete prerequisite research on the topic in their free time in order to make the cut. This film, begun in spring of 2012, tasked students with intensive summer homework about the science of disease and the immune system. Student Lauren Streicher, who worked on the film in her sophomore year, concurs that all of the reading and research that was required “before the cameras started rolling... helped us further understand both sides of the controversy in our film.” Brad Streicher, who worked on the film as a senior and is now a broadcast journalism student at USC’s Annenberg School, adds that “After we have educated ourselves on the subject of our film, we begin exploring potential interviewees... Occasionally … we are contacted by individuals who have heard of our work and would like to have their side of the story shared. All of these combined make for an effective and thorough research process.”

Throughout the process, students are not only supervised by their teacher Mr. Green, who oversees their academic process, but authorities are consulted as technical advisers. These experts check the students’ facts without providing editorial input. For instance, on the film about the Holocaust We Must Remember, UC Santa Barbara history professor Dr. Harold Marcuse, served as technical adviser. During production of Invisible Threat, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and John Hopkins Hospital were consulted. Dr. Paul Offit, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, was a technical advisor.

These authorities do not provide guidance on content or even see the film until it is finished, and students are still the decision makers throughout the process. Brad Streicher explains the process of vetting of sources this way: “Once we select a potential interview candidate, we try to research as much as we can about the work they have done, articles they have published, media encounters they have had, etc.” Verifying the expertise and credibility of sources is a critical step in the overall process.

The purpose of a club or class like this one is not simply for fun, or to win the school awards, although in CHSTV’s case, it does both. Critical academic standards are addressed through work on the class’s daily news shows and the club’s larger projects. According to Lauren Streicher, the process of making a film requires students to hone research, writing, interpersonal, and critical thinking skills. Students are responsible for researching the topic, note taking during interviews, asking follow-up questions, and writing a script for the narrator to record. Not only are students hitting on multiple Common Core Standards, but also exerting their efforts towards a “practical, real world, … and important” project, in Green’s view, making it meaningful and applicable to their post-high school lives.

The student-produced films are not meant to masquerade as professional movies; Green acknowledges that the teens learn about each topic as they go, and that their learning process makes the films unique from those produced by authorities in the field. He explains, “In other words, the audience takes a journey with the student filmmakers who are making discoveries during the filmmaking process.”

Despite the admitted learning curve, the students are vigilant about their journalistic ethics. Megan Kirsch, who will be a senior at Carlsbad High this fall, describes an important principle that she has learned through her involvement in Invisible Threat and other CHSTV projects. She says, “While interviewing, if a person states what they believe to be fact, always double check that it is fact and not just an opinion.” Incoming senior Allie DeGour adds, “Working on a documentary makes one act as a journalist; there's no room to be biased as a reporter...I have learned to respect everyone's views and try to walk in their shoes without passing judgement.”

Hearing the student filmmakers express their process in such professional, academic terms casts accusations such as those levied by Age of Autism in a shady light. On their website, they claim, “The ‘student film’ was directed and produced by adults, not students” and that “Invisible Threat is pharma’s most shameless PR effort to date.” Considering the number of students who gave input to this article and the intimate detail with which they describe their involvement, these assertions ring hollow. Diminishing the website’s credibility even more are the boldly false claims that “The film’s writer, Camille Posard, posted on the ECBT (Every Child By Two) blog that she fears vaccine safety advocates, and she compares us to ‘white supremacists.’” Nowhere on her guest post for the pro-immunization non-profit does she hint at any fear; in fact, she expresses outrage at the adult advisers for wanting to pull the plug on the project in the face of criticism. And her reference to white supremacists was made not as an analogy but as a recounting of actual events that occurred after the film club released We Must Remember, its award-winning documentary about the Holocaust.

Further debunking Age of Autism’s criticism, technical adviser Paul Offit clarifies those “deep pharma ties” that Age of Autism alleges with this breakdown of the funding: “Invisible Threat was funded by an unrestricted grant from local Rotary organizations in San Diego, California. No one but the filmmakers saw the film until it was completed, including the donors and participating physicians.” Parent adviser and producer Lisa Posard confirms this, stating that the film was funded 100% by an unrestricted grant from the local Rotary club and that the Rotarians “had zero editorial control,” not even seeing the film until the final product premiered at the local Movie Max in spring 2013. This is the policy for all donors. She was one of the adults who wanted to cancel the project initially, concerned “about the students being bullied or harassed” and about the “the level of ugliness” shown by some critics. It should be noted that Age of Autism’s website is funded by by advertisers such as Lee Silsby Compounding Pharmacy and supplement retailer OurKidsASD.

Camille, her daughter, was not the only student who felt strongly that the project should continue despite opposition. The film club had encountered hostility before and had learned to persevere. Green recounts, “Some of the students who were privy to the online criticism of the project were incensed that we would consider abandoning a project when we were also criticized by Neo-Nazi groups because of our Holocaust film and we held forth on that one.” Camille’s reminder to all about the lessons learned during making the Holocaust film - "Remember what happens when good people do nothing” - convinced Lisa and Doug to allow the students to proceed.

Have you noticed how we get more cautious as we get older? We protect ourselves and our children from hot stoves, sunburns, and risky stunts because we know all the possible outcomes. Robert F. Kennedy once said, “This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease...”

Megan Kirsch shared her thoughts about the process of making films this way: “We are trying to discover a story, not create it.” Perhaps the real story that was uncovered in the making of this film was that there will always be dissenting opinions, and that people become afraid when they encounter opposition. But our young people, whether through blind passion or because they are not burdened by experience or regret, charge forth into sticky situations, ignorant of the dangers, with the optimism of untested confidence. Merge this fearlessness with maturing intelligence and academic dedication, and you have a dangerous combination: a person who applies passion and intellect towards important pursuits without regard for consequences.

In other words, the kind of citizen who gets things done.

And get it done, they have: the film has screened at over 75 universities including Cal State San Marcos, Stanford, Yale, UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard, for use in science lectures, medical schools, and student health services. It is also in use by over 300 public health organizations such as Rady's Children’s Hospital, Sharp, Scripps, UCSD, Kaiser, San Diego Nurse’s Association, and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

The film club has a distinguished track record; recent film topics include hunger in San Diego, today’s teens and the Holocaust, keeping teens safe from substance abuse… all worthy topics, validated by various awards. The club’s next project will focus on volunteerism and inspiring youth and the community to step up to volunteer opportunities.

Let’s see the public outcry against that.

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