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American Portraits

Young Richmond filmmaker Monea Allen chosen for PBS’ 50th anniversary project.

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It was the beginning of her junior year of high school when Monea Allen realized she wanted to make films. When younger, she’d been interested in acting and theater, but never followed through. A year ago, she began writing poetry, which led her directly to filmmaking.

“One day I considered the possibility of making a film that went with my poetry,” the recent James River High School graduate says. “I tried it out and instantly fell in love with it. It felt natural and easy to me.” After posting her first YouTube video and getting positive feedback, she realized that filmmaking was exactly what she wanted to do with her life.

Come fall, Allen heads to Longwood University to study communications with a concentration in digital media. “I chose that major because I wanted to become fluent in moviemaking and the behind-the-scenes of it all,” she says.

While researching scholarships for college-bound filmmakers, Allen came across the PBS American Portrait project, a national storytelling campaign aligned with its 50th anniversary. Envisioned as a mosaic of the country’s diversity, the project features tens of thousands of Americans telling their own stories through a series of prompts such as “The tradition I carry on is …” and “What keeps me up at night is …” so that anyone’s voice can be heard.

Although new to filmmaking, Allen applied but put the project out of her mind given the likelihood she’d be passed over for someone more experienced.

“When Rebecca Blumhagen, the person in charge of choosing the participants, called me, I was so confused because I didn’t think I’d be chosen,” she says. “When I was, I was so excited to be a part of the project because it shows that literally anything can happen.”

As the Richmond representative, her job is to choose five people in her city and give them three prompts to answer pertaining to their lives as Americans, along with their struggles and other topics.

“The cool thing about this project is that the person being interviewed can say whatever they want about a topic and really express their idea of how they see the world,” she explains. “Richmond is a city with so much diversity and culture that it’s a perfect place to learn what it means to be an American.”

In choosing subjects, she considered people whom she knew with a good story to tell and people who she thought had an interesting life. Allen began with Jeff Doyle, a teacher and a musician at her high school, doing the interview over Zoom. “Another person I chose was my boyfriend, who’s the child of immigrant parents,” she says. “They’re two completely different stories, but both are very interesting.”

For a couple of the participants, she chose the prompts for them because she wanted to get an array of strong answers, but with others, she let them choose a prompt that appealed to them. She soon realized that people were inclined to talk longer when they chose the prompt. “I loved how passionate everybody became when they answered.”

A devotee of documentaries – among her favorites are “Dear Zachary: a Letter to a Son about His Father,” “Making a Murderer” and “300 Days Alone” – Allen appreciates how documentary filmmaking allows creators to leave impactful marks on the world, while also spreading their own message.

“Documentaries are so important to society, especially now when voices need to be heard in these troubling times,” she says. “They can change your perspective and leave you feeling in a way that changes you forever. Why wouldn’t I want to be a part of something so big and impactful? It’s a way to be heard.”

The American Portrait project opened Allen’s eyes to filmmaking as a whole and demonstrated to her that all people have stories to tell, even when they don’t think so. More significantly, she’s learned that when creating something about another person or another topic, it’s challenging to not be biased in a way that only the filmmaker understands it.

“Making a film so that the audience won’t feel the bias and will feel what they want to feel about the subject is difficult,” she says. “But it’s where you find the real art.”

Lean more at pbs.org/american-portrait.

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