Our Voices

Cameras Up: An Interview with 2023 Speak Truth to Power Video Contest Winners Naba Sheikh and Tohir Hodjakulov

Guns Down, Arms Up, the 2023 Speak Truth to Power Video Contest winning film, is a powerful exploration of the horrific prevalence of gun violence in schools and a stirring call to action. In a recent interview, filmmakers Naba Sheikh and Tohir Hodjakulov of James Madison High School, shared their reasons for making the film, what they learned through the process, and encouraging words for aspiring filmmakers.

The path to making the film started after Naba and Tohir attended a session debate about gun control where they met others who were passionate about ending gun violence in schools. After that event, Naba said she joined Students Demand Action, a group of young people from the “school shooting generation” who are working together to tackle the issue of gun violence. Naba, however, still felt powerless to really make a difference even though she felt emotionally invested in the issue. Tohir agreed, stating that coverage of the 2022 mass shooting in Buffalo combined with reflection on how personal and close this crisis really was galvanized him to want to take action. After the Uvalde shooting, Tohir said he would look at his little brother and think “he’s the same age as those kids – what if it happened to him?”

Their high school, like many in the nation, has metal detectors and requires them to undergo school shooter safety drills, but even these precautions do not guarantee safety. Naba and Tohir, who sit together in class and participate in Mock Trial together, wanted to do more. When their teacher, Robin Kovat, told them about the Speak Truth to Power video contest, they knew they had found a way that they could spark change. Joining together with two other friends, David Shalman and Mina Bacilious, they began the month-long process of researching, interviewing, and editing that would lead them to the creation of their award winning film.

The opening minute of the film features a moving 911 call from Khloie Torres, 10 years old at the time, who alerted first responders to the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 students and 2 teachers were killed. News clips covering different school shootings, each bleeding into the next, punctuated with grim statistics such as the fact that there were over 158 school shootings between 2018 and 2023, underscore the terrible scope of the issue.

“Sifting through the footage, listening to the 911 call, and watching the clips of parents who experienced this loss” was definitely the most challenging and “emotionally taxing” part of the process, related Tohir.

Naba agreed, adding “we had to do a lot of research – watch countless YouTube videos and debates” but the research “encouraged us to want to learn more and take action.”

While the group was given time to research and work in class, they also put in hours outside of class editing the film and continually asking themselves how they could improve it, a process they both said was more than worth it and helped them to grow both as activists and as filmmakers. To complete the “take action” portion of the film, Naba reached out to Lorna Begg, a liaison between Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action, and spent over an hour talking with her about her experiences and recommendations.

“We had this really amazing hour-long interview that we had to watch over and over to decide which parts to include,” Tohir said.

While the interview segment in the film is less than a minute long, it includes clips that were most directly correlated with their goal: to generate action by leaving audiences with specific change making strategies. When asked what viewers can do if they are moved to take action, Naba and Tohir recommended: “Be part of Students Demand Action; talk to your senators and people in your immediate community; do research on organizations like Every Town For Gun Safety; be civically engaged; register to vote; and, most importantly, share your ideas with other people – speak up.”

The team was excited to submit the film to the contest, but said they never thought they would win. When they were invited to attend a screening of video contest finalists, they were impressed by the quality of all the student films.

“Everyone who submitted a project won,” emphasized Tohir.

The moment they won, they said they “couldn’t believe it.” “It was just a really beautiful experience to connect with others our age who are equally passionate about their subjects,” reflected Naba.

Since winning the contest, Naba and Tohir have served as mentors for other students who want to make and submit films. For those aspiring filmmakers, they have a few words of wisdom:

Tohir urges students to “choose a topic you’re passionate about and have fun while doing it, but also be diligent, do your research.”

“If you care, if you’re passionate about your topic, if you want to make a difference, this is the best way to create a pathway for advocacy,” Naba reminds them.

If you are also excited to use film to create change, view the contest guidelines and resources and submit your video to the 2024 Speak Truth to Power video contest no later than April 26, 2024, at 11:59 PM.

Questions? Email Benjamin Higgins at [email protected] or Karen Robinson [email protected].