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Student Film 'Chuj Boys of Summer' Shines Gentle, Poetic Light on Home


Home - it is central to who we are, and yet it is changeable, like when you leave one place to make a new life in another.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: The student film "Chuj Boys Of Summer" shines a gentle, poetic light on that notion. It follows a teen migrant named Yakin. He's from Guatemala and speaks only Chuj, the language of his Indigenous people. Gradually, we see him settle into life in Telluride, a small town in Colorado. New York University's Max Walker-Silverman is the director and co-writer of this film, and he joins us now as part of NPR's showcasing of excellent student films. Max, welcome to the program.

MAX WALKER-SILVERMAN: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What led you to make this film? It's 16 minutes long, beautifully shot, subtitled, but there really isn't that much dialogue. It's based on real life.

WALKER-SILVERMAN: It came out of a high school I went to in Telluride, Colo., where I'm born and raised. And my freshman year of high school, I made a very dear friend who'd come from Guatemala. That was, oh, gosh, almost 15 years ago now. And through him, I got to know his brothers, the community, uncles, so on and so forth. And we talked for quite a while about how cool it would be to do a film because they're such a special people in an interesting place. And then eventually my favorite English teacher said he had a student who I had to meet, another kid from Guatemala. And he introduced us. We became friends, and we started working on this script together. And when it came time to find who would play the leading role, he said he had a dear friend who'd be perfect for it, and that kid turned out to be my initial friend's younger brother. So the whole thing is, in many ways, the best aspects of a small town

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In a way, "Chuj Boys Of Summer" is sort of a coming-of-age story. We see Yakin become an independent young man in a new place. What would you say is the conflict facing him throughout the film?

WALKER-SILVERMAN: You know, supporting oneself and supporting one's family comes so early. These are guys who at 14 or 15 are the breadwinners, are supporting their parents, are supporting themselves, are living by themselves and with their friends. So there's this antagonism in sort of the lightest way between social, familial, economic responsibilities paired along with being teenagers, with sports and school and girls and all of these things in which age still has very much not yet arrived.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, your film also uses nonprofessional actors, many of whom are actually Indigenous migrants from Guatemala. What was it like working with them?

WALKER-SILVERMAN: You know, for some movies, there's a really clear line between writing and casting and directing. That's really not the case here. Writing was me and my co-writer sitting down, him telling stories, details, things that he cared about, that they cared about, that they would want to be in this film. We structured that into a script. When it comes time to shoot, the actors discuss how they think these moments, these scenes, should go in Chuj, in their language. And then they perform, and they shoot, and things go off in all sorts of directions that I, of course, am unaware of because I don't speak the language. And then we come back to see the footage. We translate it back to English, and one discovers what was really shot there on set. That's the way to give control and to give agency to the people who it's really about. It makes everyone involved entirely a writer, a director themselves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to focus on one scene. The high school staff is registering Yakin for classes. It begins with one of the staff asking Yakin for his birthday.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Yakin, non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) He's 17.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Yakin) Mmm hmm, 17.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Has he had any high school-level education before?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Yakin) A little bit.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) OK, put him down as 16.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Sixteen?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I'm not going to expel him senior year just because he ages out. He's sixteen.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Where did that scene come from?

WALKER-SILVERMAN: That scene is exactly what happened with my first friend in high school, who arrived somewhat older than would be the case for a standard freshman. The powers that be at the high school immediately knew the right thing to do - a small switcheroo with the birthday in order to ensure that he was able to get the full length of the education that everyone is entitled to.

You know, the town I come from, which is now a tourist town, has failed these communities in all too many ways. There are, of course, good people trying to do the right thing, and so often those are teachers who - a small theme of this movie, I think, is the nobility of that profession. And it was really important to pay tribute to people trying to make things better in perhaps small but very brave ways.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the beginning of the film, we see Yakin pushing a vacuum cleaner through the school's hallways, and at the end, we see him enter the school with a backpack. And we hear him say these words.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Yakin, non-English language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The subtitles read, (reading) Things here may look unfamiliar. They may seem far away. But make no mistake - the air up here is your air. The sun up here is your sun. And any place that needs you is the place you're free to be.

Where do those words come from?

WALKER-SILVERMAN: All of the Guatemalan guys who worked on the film wrote theoretical letters to themselves before coming to Colorado, when they were in Guatemala. That's where all of these lines come from, a collage of those thoughts and those sentiments. They're really impactful to me as well because this is a town that has changed so much through history, and its current iteration is a place where wealthy people own homes that they don't live in. And over the course of my growing up, I've watched as the houses have grown far bigger and far emptier, and it's made me question who this town is really for and if there's a place for me in it, even.

And the words of these guys and getting to know them has moved me so much and taught me so much that a place is not who owns it. If the people who own it aren't there, they're not who matters. The people who matter are the people who are there - the people who are working in kitchens, the people who are building, the people who are the wheels and the gears and the machine of the place. And as long as they're there, that is a community.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Max Walker-Silverman, director and co-writer of the short film "Chuj Boys Of Summer." You can watch it on NPR's website, Thank you very much.

WALKER-SILVERMAN: Thank you so much, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.