The production house shaping the stories of the future
4 September 2019 at 8:32 am
Since 2009, Melbourne production house Youthworx has made over 500 films. It’s also fighting to get disadvantaged young people back on track, into work and give them a creative outlet through filmmaking and production, writes Maggie Coggan in this month’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
Nearly 6,000 young Victorians are without a stable bed to sleep in on any given night, and while the causes vary, one of the biggest drivers is disengagement from mainstream education.
As a social entrepreneur and filmmaker, Jon Staley, the founder of Youthworx, was determined to put his skills to work and take action on the issue.
Youthworx started out running 12-month creative radio and film courses for young people at risk of homelessness, with seed funding from the Salvation Army and partnerships with community radio station SYN and Melbourne Polytechnic.
But as Bessie Byrne, Youthworx business development manager, tells Pro Bono News, the team quickly realised their impact could lie in turning the organisation into an employment social enterprise.
“Jon and the team realised they had these fabulous young filmmakers who were inspired and engaged with the idea of making media, but mainstream society wasn’t ready to employ them,” Byrne says.
In 2009, the concept of a social business was relatively unheard of, and Byrne says the organisation had to fight hard to prove itself as a production house as good as any other.
“A lot of people didn’t believe that it was going to work, but the team could see the skills and passion and dedication of these young people and really wanted to challenge those normative views of what a marginalised young person can achieve,” she says.
“Slowly clients came on board, and when others saw the beautiful work that these young filmmakers were creating, more and more clients started contacting us wanting to work with us.”
The enterprise’s clients include local Melbourne councils, the Melbourne International Arts Festival, and a range of NFPs. It has also made a number of in-house films that showcase diverse voices and experiences.
All students who participate in the Youthworx program graduate with a Melbourne Polytechnic Certificate II and III accredited training in Creative Industries, and are taught in a hands-on way how to write and produce their own documentaries, short films and radio shows.
Students are charged around a couple of hundred dollars for the course, but the majority of the time this fee is covered by job service providers or Youthworx.
A youth worker and an industry professional work alongside the classroom teacher to provide wraparound support for the students, which Byrne says is vital.
“It’s really important there is a dedicated person on our team that can support our young people,” she says.
“The students really benefit from having someone they can talk to and they know they can trust.”
Byrne says the hands-on learning and extra classroom support helps to either launch students’ media careers, or gives them a newfound direction.
“Eighty per cent of our students go onto further study or employment after graduating,” she says.
“The core of our training is building employment and life skills so that our students can lift themselves into better situations.”
Students are also given the opportunity to work on paid productions for Youthworx Productions, and from each round of students around two are taken on as paid production assistants for the enterprise.
The business is now at the point where the production team is predominantly made up of past students.
The organisation’s newest employee, Ebony, graduated from the program at the end of 2018.
She first heard about the program when she was in year 11, and was struggling to stay engaged in her mainstream studies.
“Doing the Victorian Certificate of Education was making me depressed and really unhappy. I wasn’t learning anything I was passionate about and was just going with the system – choosing subjects I thought would get me somewhere, which wasn’t helpful at all,” Ebony tells Pro Bono News.
After talking with an in-school careers counselor, she decided to give Youthworx a shot.
“I was scared at first that dropping out of highschool would affect my future, but as soon as I walked in the door, I knew it was going to be okay,” she says.
“They made it so clear that there are opportunities and I was going to be supported in finding a pathway that was right for me.”
She says the hands-on learning in the course meant she was far more engaged than she ever was at high school.
“You’re thrown straight into it. You get to use the equipment and gear, get into a studio, and go on radio. It’s a brilliant experience” she says.
Ebony also says the emotional support provided by the course social worker, and help with writing resumes or applying for casual jobs has been invaluable, and a massive boost to her confidence.
“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot more confident in my abilities, interacting with other people and I feel more open to express myself and my emotions and being okay with not being okay,” she explains.
To be selected for the production assistant job, Ebony had to put together a resume and fill out an application form.
“It’s been so great working here. I was thrown straight into going on shoots and I’ve loved it so much I’ve been coming in extra days to go on shoots,” she says.
“I’ve just never been so happy, and I feel really lucky to have this.”
Byrne believes one of the reasons filmmaking and production is so effective in getting young people back on the right path is its ability to show them what the world has to offer, and a chance to share their stories and experiences.
“Not only is filmmaking really fun and engaging, but it allows people to start to understand themselves and the world around them,” Byrne says.
“We also work with hundreds of organisations and our young people get to go out on shoot and interview people with such diverse experiences, so they are constantly learning about the world and society.”
She also says it’s important that people from all backgrounds and experiences are given the chance to tell their story through a creative medium.
“It’s really important that young people know that people from all kinds of experiences have the opportunity to be creative,” she says.
“We’ve seen so many young people who pick up a camera and that keeps them passive and passionate and allows them to engage and use that energy in healthy ways, when without that they might have ended up expressing that in more negative ways.
“Mainstream media is quite privatised and very polarising, so it’s really important to have voices that counter the negative stereotyping that happens in the media, because sharing these stories only enhances our understanding of each other and allows people to empathise.”
She says after nearly a decade, the social business has proved itself to be financially sustainable, with their income going up exponentially each year and their reliance on grants going down.
One of the challenges the enterprise does face however is a lack of understanding from mainstream audiences around what Youthworx is trying to achieve, and their credibility as a business offering a professional service.
“The hardest part is getting the message out to people that we are a professional film production company,” she explains.
“There’s no reason why all organisations shouldn’t work with social businesses when they can receive the same products and services, but know they are making a difference to the community and bettering the world at the same time. I really would put it down to a lack of understanding at this stage.”
Looking to the future, the focus for Youthworx is to support telling more stories of the young people they work with every day.
“We do a lot of client works where we’re paid to tell important stories and that’s fabulous, but our goal for us now is for more of our young people to be making their own documentaries about their own stories or other topics they want to share their perspective on,” Byrne says.
Some of these projects are already in the pipeline. A feature film directed by a former student and a current employee of the enterprise is in the works, as well as a TV and web series directed by another former student.
As for Ebony, while her career in the industry has only just started, she has big plans.
“I’m trying to learn as much as possible, but I’ve discovered a bit of a passion for set design, or working on music videos and short films,” Ebony says.
“I often forget how far I’ve come, and remember that I could be in year 12 right now, but instead I’m working full time and doing something that I’m passionate about.
“So whatever I do, I know I’m moving in a really good way and it’s a good pathway.”