‘Character Counts’ contest selects two student-made films as finalists

By Julie Barzilay

Two student-made films were selected as finalists in the “Character Counts” video contest. Students can view and vote for these videos until Feb. 16 to help determine the winner.

“Character Counts” Contest

The contest is sponsored by the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics, and votes can be cast at http://charactercounts.org/teens/Video-Contest_entries-2008.html.

At the school’s Oct. 21 speech about ethics and character, Institute founder Michael Josephson challenged Video Art students to depict one or more of the “Six Pillars of Character” in short films for the contest. The Six pillars are Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship.

“Care” and “Be A Friend,” the two short videos, beat out approximately 300 other submissions to become finalists in the contest. While “Care,” co-written by Romina D’Allesandro ’10, Daniel Edelstein ’11, Henry Braun ’11 and Alex Siegel ’11, emphasized caring, “Be A Friend,” by Jennifer Plotkin ’11, Danielle Strassman ’11 and Melissa Victor ’11 and starring Strassman and Emma Sczudlo ’11, portrayed a conflict between trust and responsibility.


Edelstein thought of the original concept of “Care,” which begins with an empty pair of shoes moving around the campus as if their wearer was invisible. Ultimately, a friend who also feels invisible helps the owner of the shoes to feel appreciated and noticed, enabling both to “become real, visible people to each other,” D’Allesandro said.

Both Edelstein and Siegel acted in the film.

While D’Allesandro handled the photographing of the shoes in different positions to later blend them together with animation, Edelstein held the camera as he walked for his “point of view” shots, D’Allesandro said.

All of the creators edited the video individually for the assignment they turned in to video arts teacher Cheri Gaulke, but D’Allesandro’s version was the one submitted to the “Character Counts” contest.

“I think [caring] is probably the pillar that can tell a short and sweet story without trying to force a cheesy parable out of it,” D’Allesandro said. “The other five pillars can be easy if you follow the rules, but caring is something you can’t make yourself do. You’re not a bad person if you don’t notice the kid nobody pays attention to, but it just makes you a better person if you do, at least in the eyes of the invisible kid.”

“Be A Friend”

“Be A Friend” follows the journey of a girl, played by Sczudlo, who is insecure about her body and is battling an eating disorder.

She leaves her cell phone in the bathroom as she engages in self-destructive behavior, thinking she is alone, but Strassman’s character notices that her friend is in trouble. Strassman’s character is then faced with the choice of risking her friendship to call Sczudlo’s character’s mother for help, or being a passive bystander. In the end, she picks up the idle cell phone and searches for her friend’s mother’s number.

“We wanted to try to convey that situations are not black and white; there are times when two pillars will conflict and you must choose one,” Plotkin said. “Here, responsibility for keeping a friend safe becomes more important than that friend’s trust.”

Edelstein, Victor and Plotkin discussed how to convey this story line without words, after which they carefully planned each shot together. Strassman and Plotkin executed the operation of the camera.

As with “Care,” each student edited their own version of the film, but in this case the one submitted to the contest was a blend of Strassman’s, Victor’s and Plotkin’s finished products.

Videos submitted to the competition had to be between 30 seconds and two minutes in length, and anyone under 18 years of age was eligible to participate.

If the two finalist teams from Harvard-Westlake advance, they have the potential to win $500, $300 or $200 if they win first, second or third place respectively.

Additionally, the winning “commercials” promoting good character will be highlighted on the “Character Counts” website, its YouTube page and in its newsletters.

The contest hopes to inspire students to be conscious of their morals, scruples and character.

“I don’t know if the contest will help all kids be aware of character, but it surely does make the people involved in the contest think about it,” D’Allesandro said.

Several other teams of students submitted films, because Gualke assigned this video as a class assignment. This way all students could practice editing and creating a silent video with a clear message.

Gaulke is happy with the final products of the students’ efforts.

“I’m proud of their excellent work, which was their first narrative film assignment,” she said.