Jazz plays as viewers, dressed in their most glamorous attire, flow in to the Sarasota Opera House. They’ve come to see “Newtown at 100: A Glimpse Through Our Eyes,” a documentary premiering at the Sarasota Film Festival telling the history of one of this city’s most oppressed and economically deprived neighborhoods. This area of Florida isn’t known for being very racially diverse, but Newtown’s history hasn’t been forgotten. Judging by the throngs of people flowing through the Opera House doors, people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, it’s clear Sarasota is ready to remember.
It begins with black-and-white images and voice-overs of the five Booker High School students who made the film. They’re on campus and in their bedrooms as we hear them say there are great things in Newtown but also some bad things. A few of the students call it home. It’s a montage that lets us get to know the students while we see them learning the mechanics and techniques of film-making. By the time they’ve mastered the slate and holding boom-mics the picture turns full-color and they’re hitting the streets to do interviews.
They find locals who’ve been living in Sarasota since segregation, when black people couldn’t get an education past the eighth grade. The principal of Book High School, Dr. Rachel Shelley, tells us the story of Emma Booker, who independently founded the school which eventually became the institutions they are today. We also meet Sarasota’s first black politicians, and explore local businesses working to serve the Newtown population. The students, all the while, are clearly learning things about Newtown they’re never even considered, and so are the viewers in the Opera House.
The most chilling part of the documentary, something which audibly moved the audience, was when a shaky, hand-held video of elementary-school children showed a subtitle reading, “September 11, 2001.” Everyone gasped, clearly having been absorbed in the pageantry of the evening and the pride felt when viewing a movie about one’s own community, and it seemed in that moment that everyone felt the intensity of a kind of butterfly effect that begins in a small community in Sarasota but grows in to the most earth-shattering event in a lifetime. A second gasp was let out when it became apparent that the children were disappointed the President was too busy to stay.
Samuel Curtis, the Education Director at the Sarasota Film Festival, guided the students through the process of making this documentary, which is the first undertaking by Booker High School’s new film program. Judging by the strength and success of this film, the new program is sure to continue exposing Sarasota to talented young artists and moving artworks.
After the film was an amazing performance by a choir with an accompanying pianist. A few solo vocalists shared the stage, and the rest of the room joined in. The evening ended with appearances by the Poitier family and Super-Bowl-winning and Newtown-native, Sam Shields. It was a great night to take pride in Sarasota.