The Columbus International Film Festival is taking place this week. Somehow, I've never made it to the festival before; so this year I made every effort to get there. It probably helped that I have a personal interest in one of the screening films, a documentary called From the 50 Yard Line.
From the 50 Yard Line is a documentary on marching band. Primarily, it follows The Centerville Jazz Band (the marching band for Centerville High School in Centerville, OH) through their competitive season. Because, I grew up in Columbus and was very involved in marching band (and its big brother Drum Corps), I actually marched with/was instructed by several of the subjects of the film. That being said, I could go on and on about it, but I'll try to be brief and objective.
First time director Doug Lantz, himself an alumnus of the Centerville Band program, was on hand to introduce the film. The film began with the marching band auditions at Easter and followed the band all the way through their culminating performance at the Bands of America Grand National Championships. The primary intent was to expose the often unrecognized impact of instrumental music education on the development of American high school students.
Stand out segments included deliberately understated interviews with politicians and academics on the unintended effects of "No Child Left Behind" on education, and a recurring man-on-the-street segment called "Bandology 101" which tested average people on their knowledge of marching band lingo. In what seemed like an attempt to even out the piece, the filmmakers spent some time with the Fairfax High School Marching Band (Hollywood, CA) which was restarted this year from an anonymous donation after an 18-year hiatus from instrumental music at the school. Perhaps analogous to the disparities in the programs' budgets and community support, Centerville dominated the screen time 10:1.
During the Q&A following the film, Lantz acknowledged that "there is drama that happens in high school
but we made the decision that we really wanted to focus on the band experience." By choosing to include several students (rather than following the more personal stories of one or two members) the film really does emphasize the communal experience. However, at some points these efforts were taken to the extreme: scenes from the "share session" at the end of band camp (in which each band member was given an opportunity to address the entire group) felt more like a lengthy emotional montage than an image of a group united by their goals. However, the film is still being edited giving it a chance to work out some of the "thematic sticking points".
Most of all, I was impressed by the progress you could see in individuals. A rookie tuba player was featured at the beginning and end of the film with not only a noticeable improvement in his marching and playing skills, but a real transformation from an insecure high school freshman to a confident and coordinated young adult.