"What?" Skye wails. "You did this?"
-- "Adina's Deck"
Filmmaker Debbie Heimowitz had never heard of cyberbullying until she started talking to middle school counselors.
The Stanford grad student had been volunteering at middle schools in Redwood City and Menlo Park, and looking for an appropriate master's thesis topic when she first came across this insidious, anonymous form of harassment carried out on hate-filled Web sites, with anonymous posts and spiteful rumors that spread like wildfire.
"It fascinated me," says Heimowitz. "We didn't have this problem when I was in middle school."
What especially struck Heimowitz was that middle schoolers couldn't connect their virtual actions to consequences in real life.
Cyberbullying makes headlines when tragedy strikes, as it did last year when a 13-year-old killed herself after a friend's mother set up a fake MySpace page and then publicly humiliated her.
While that particular incident took place in Missouri, cyberbullying happens every day, in every city.
Some 42 percent of kids have been cyberbullied at least once, according to a 2004 study by iSafe, a non-profit Internet safety education foundation, and 58 percent have dealt with mean or hurtful public messages. And a 2006 University of New Hampshire study found that 75 percent to 80 percent of young teens, ages 12 to 14, had been bullied online.
Experts at iSafe call cyberbullying a "24 hour per day, seven days a week online bashing," that slips under the parental radar because there are no black eyes or torn clothes to give it away.
Heimowitz was appalled.
A former film student with three years' experience in Hollywood's film and television studios, Heimowitz was working on her master's in Stanford's learning, design and technology department at the time. Suddenly, her master's thesis project seemed obvious -- make a film that duplicates Disney Channel production values, but offers a poignant, educational wallop. Use a fictional story to demonstrate the real-life consequences of heartless behavior, and give it a dash of Nancy Drew and Veronica Mars.
"Adina's Deck" emerged with help from friend Jason Azicri, a screenwriter and counseling psychology grad student at Santa Clara University. The script centered on a group of four middle school girls for whom cyberbullying is deeply personal. One is a target --another, a former perpetrator. Using tech-savvy tactics, the foursome sets out to discover who is tormenting "Skye," a popular eighth-grader played by Lafayette teen Kelcie Stranahan. The students chase down IP addresses, track cell signals and do their Nancy Drew-style detecting online.
"It's such emotionally heavy material," says Heimowitz. "It made sense to teach it in a way that showed the stories that were happening to the victims and the bullies -- and to show empathy for the bullies. A lot of the time they don't even realize they're being bullies. What they think is very insignificant could be causing severe psychological problems for their victims."
"It shows kids what's really going on," says Kelcie. "At one of the premiere (audience) talks, we really got to talk about it."
Cyberbullying was considered funny at one Redwood City middle school where Heimowitz volunteered. The pranksters had no clue about the impact. Not so in Menlo Park.
"At Menlo Park, cyberbullying tended to be more intentionally mean, malicious," the Castro Valley resident says. "(But) at both schools, the kids were doing exactly the same things."
Heimowitz incorporated all those things into the film, then started casting. She'd done casting before, when she worked for Warner Bros., but this time Heimowitz was nervous, afraid no one would show up.
But the "Adina" casting call drew hundreds of young actors from across Northern California. By the time Heimowitz was finished, she had signed Kelcie, a Campolindo freshman whose acting resume included a bit part in "The Kite Runner," Stephanie Cameron from the Peninsula, and others from Modesto, Sacramento and around the Bay Area -- plus some very familiar extras.
Heimowitz cameos as a science teacher, and her dad portrays a school principal. Her grandmother plays the librarian.
Now, the gospel of "Adina" is spreading. The 30-minute film has been accepted at five film festivals, including this weekend's International Children's Film Festival at San Francisco's Moscone Center. And there has been considerable interest from teachers, parents and school administrators. Walnut Creek's Seven Hills school has a copy, and the film's cast was featured at San Ramon's recent middle school conference.
So naturally, there's a sequel in the works -- two of them, actually. Heimowitz and Azicri are working on one script about online predators and dating, and another on cheating and plagiarism. And "Adina" will have to break out her laptop once more.
S.F. BAY AREA INTERNATIONAL CHILDREN'S FILM FESTIVAL
Northern California's largest comic book and pop culture fest lands at San Francisco's Moscone Center this weekend, offering not just glimpses of animated nirvana, but the second annual Bay Area International Festival. The festival spans two weekends and offers more than 100 short films for children and teens, on topics ranging from bassoons to aliens.
Debbie Heimowitz's "Adina's Deck" debuts at 6 p.m. Feb. 23 on a program specially designed for teens, but she is not the only local filmmaker featured. Also on the lineup: Oakland's Sarah Klein; San Francisco filmmakers Allan Dye and Marcia Ong; and directors from Pacifica, Fremont and San Rafael.
A full film festival lineup is available online (www.comic-con.org), but local highlights include: