Posted on March 23, 2018 by Sonoma Valley Sun
The Sun: It’s an exciting time for your Sonoma Valley High School students, with their films screened at the Sonoma International Film Festival.
Peter Hansen: Of course. Seeing their work on the big screen at the Sebastiani is a big deal. We will be showing 20 student films on Thursday the 22nd. They will be shown again on Sunday at 11:15 am at the Community Center.
Tell me about the link between your media arts department and the Film Festival.
Every year since 2003 we have had student films at the festival. That first year, there were only 17 people in the audience to see three terrible films. As I said, this year we will have 20 films, all good and some very good. The Film Festival has played a central role in the success of our department. The Festival contributes $20-25,000 annually to the department for operating costs and equipment, as well as scholarships and stipends for our film students. The community has been very generous with us. They supported my passion and dedication. When school starts in January, I start working 6.25 days/week, preparing for the festival at the end of March.
Tell me about your early years.
I grew up on Long Island in a traditional nuclear family – kids, dogs, cats, acre, Catholic, love. I wanted to be a writer. I loved anything off the beaten path. I left NY – and the arrogance, ignorance and stress – for Southern California, ending up in San Diego. Sun, waves, happy people, skateboard. I never looked back.
How did you end up in Sonoma?
I graduated from San Diego State in Journalism and got into selling to media equipment companies in the Northwest. I had great success. Ten years later, I was driving while listening to NPR when a motivational speaker said, “You’ll never be great until you do what you love.” I clapped my hands on the steering wheel shouting, “I want to be brilliant. So I signed up for history and film structure classes at the University of Washington. Soon after, I left the corporate world and in 1996 moved to Sonoma, where I had my own successful video business, Wine Country Media. I was very happy.
What brought you to teach?
I did not know that I was going to become a teacher. In 2002, I volunteered to help with the struggling high school‘s new media center, located in the new H building, which was built with funds from the bond measure. I was asked to teach the film program. From the fourth year, I think I started to know how to teach. Now, in my seventeenth year, I understand that I have made a difference in the lives of children. I can instil social norms, lessons of integrity. I feel like I’m part of something bigger – helping kids be ready to make their world a better place. The students return ten years later to say “thank you”.
Can you give some examples?
I lay seeds of social awareness, then reinforce them with snippets of what’s going on. I help them think about things, about all aspects of media. Like about the #MeToo movement and how it’s changing an entire generation. An example would be how “girls in bikinis” were removed from car shows. During the first 10 years of the program, we made promotional videos for many non-profit organizations in the valley. It really helped them with their fundraising and helped the kids become aware of the needs and services where they lived. The videos created an emotional connection. And the children saw the power of cinema.
How about an example of an individual student?
One of this year’s students made a film about body image. She describes really well how strong the effect of media images has been on her and on other children. And how she learned to be comfortable with who she is.
Is it true that the school wanted to fold the department in 2004?
Yes, but thank God, private donors have mobilized. The community has played a central role in the success of our department. From the festival, its members and the community, we have received approximately $600,000 in funding over the years. Lately, the school district has helped by writing Career-Tech Education grants to the state. We recently received $30,000 for computers.
What lessons are the students in your classes learning?
On the practical side, they learn to use all the video production equipment. They learn to edit their work. A number of our students have gone on to successful careers in the film industry. But all students learn great lessons. For example, they learn tracking. It’s a great lesson to have to go back to something you’ve finished, rework it, and learn that it was worth it. A student had made a beautiful film about the importance of her friends in her life. She ended it with a voiceover of herself saying “I love you” ten times. But when she got to that final step, she cut and pasted the first “I love you” for all the repeats. I had to have her go back and record nine more versions, where she was thinking of her friends as she said those words. The expression and intonation changed each time, and it was a beautiful emotional ending.
What lessons have you learned?
I learned that students want independence. When I assigned a theme to their films, they stuck. But when I let them choose, they come up with the most wonderful work. Films this year include drama, horror, self-discovery, and comedy.
What’s next for the Media Arts department?
Radio. With podcasts getting so big, it’s an important part of media. We already have the soundproof cabin.
You have been named Sonoma’s Treasure Artist for 2017.
I never imagined that. I was truly honored. But this community has been very good to me. The high school film program is a community effort. There are so many people and organizations that have supported him. David Donnelly was my mentor and one of the most influential supporters. The Film Festival. SVTV. I had a wonderful connection with the Boys and Girls Club. Rotary.
Do you plan to retire soon?
Yes, in three to five years. When I retire, I will be completely fulfilled in what I have done. Twenty years well spent. I wanted to be who I was born to be, to know what my dharma is, to be connected to the universe.
— Interview with Anna Pier