5,000 Days Project documentary follows students from kindergarten to high school

January 3, 2012

By Tom Corrigan

Nicki Cox, now 12, shows off her basketball skills in a still taken from video shot of her in the fourth grade. Contributed

“I wanted to do something that was more like time-lapse photography,” professional videographer/director Richard Stevenson said.

Locally, the project began as an attempt by administrators to gauge how students progress personally or emotionally over time, said Sara Niegowski, executive director of communications for the Issaquah School District. There are plenty of records of academic performance, Niegowski noted.

“But are students healthy, happy?” she asked.

“I think the project is pretty cool,” Hans Bennett, 12, a sixth-grader at Issaquah Middle School, said. “I like that they are going to be following me to the end of high school.”

Parents also seem to be largely supportive and excited about what’s been dubbed the 5,000 Days Project.

“I encouraged him to do it because it is a good outlet for his thoughts,” said Hans’ mom, Rebecca Bennett.

That statement undoubtedly would please Stevenson, who said one of his primary goals is to make his subjects more self-aware.

Beginning two years ago, with a third year of filming upcoming in 2012, the 5,000 Days Project aims to eventually follow 20 to 25 Issaquah school students from kindergarten through high school graduation. Each student involved is interviewed on camera at least once a year. A camera also shadows students through at least one day of their lives each year.

Although Niegowski and others helped bring the project to Issaquah schools, the idea seems to really belong to Stevenson. Some might remember a British documentary series that started with “Seven Up!” and interviewed a number of people every seven years beginning when the participants were seven. Stevenson said he wanted to do something more in-depth, something that would better show the progression of his subject’s lives.

He ultimately was able to put his idea in motion in the Shoreline School District. When the family of two of his favorite subjects moved to the Issaquah district, Stevenson approached officials here about continuing to film them.

Stevenson added that, in the interest of full disclosure, the two students involved are his nephews. Niegowski said the district not only decided to let him continue filming the two brothers, but also wanted to expand the project to include other students who now number about 20.

How were documentary subjects chosen? Teachers recommended students who they felt would not freeze up in front of the camera and would be talkative, Niegowski said. Students said they went through an initial interview process and parents, of course, had to sign off on their children’s involvement.

“I think it’s one of those things that will be better viewed over time,” said parent Ingrid Cox, whose daughter Nicki, 12, is one of the participating students.

She said she felt honored that her daughter was tabbed for the project. As did other parents, Ingrid Cox expressed excitement that ultimately she will have an extensive video record of a large, important part of her child’s life. Students thought the same.

“I think it’s cool that when I get older I’ll be able to look back,” Nicki said.

What kinds of questions does Stevenson ask? Students said they are sometimes simple, about their likes and dislikes, problems and successes. Parents are not present during the interviews, but none of the students spoken with reported being embarrassed by a question or declining to answer one.

Hans has gone through lengthy, though to-date-successful cancer treatments and said he has spoken about those on camera without any difficulty.

“I don’t usually get nervous talking about it,” he said.

An advisory committee consisting of Hollywood screenwriter Stewart Stern and a medical doctor, among others, helps write the questions. The idea of the questions is to get kids thinking about themselves, Stevenson said.

Stevenson has been able to transplant the basic project to other school districts. He tells the story of a young subject in Utah forced by a teacher to sing a song solo in class. At the time of the incident, his classmates started laughing at him and he started to cry in class. He also cried when recounting the story. Stevenson said he had the boy retell the story while yelling and while laughing.

“It was very cathartic for him,” Stevenson said. “That’s what the project is all about … to give kids a voice, to give them power over the things that have power over them.”

After the regular interviews are done, Stevenson starts following his subjects around the district. The camera can be a distraction, according to Hans, who said friends and classmates sometimes try hard to get on film.

At least partly thanks to his nephews, Stevenson has managed to take his project overseas. His nephews have taken mission trips to Cambodia and their uncle followed them, even interviewing Cambodian children last summer. He plans to return to that country and talk further with the same subjects.

For now, the Issaquah interviews and the shoots at various schools are not being made public. Not even the participants have seen the entire videos. The oldest students involved are high school sophomores. Videos won’t be made public at least until some of the students graduate.

“It really is something quite different … But I think that is why it is so important,” Niegowski said.

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