Building empathy through film

Posted: June 2nd, 2017 | Arts & Entertainment, Features, Film, Top Story | 1 Comment

By Terri Stanley

When the San Diego Film Foundation (SDFF) partnered recently with actress/producer/documentarian Susan Sarandon and directors Thomas Morgan and Jack Henry Robbins to bring the award-winning documentary “Storied Streets” to San Diego high school students, the collaboration brought an immediate response and level of engagement that surpassed expectations.

Thomas Morgan fields questions from the high schoolers after the film. (Photo by Frank Rogozienski Photography)

SDFF is a philanthropic organization that creates and promotes educational programs around social impact areas and this year launched the Focus On Impact Film Tour, which drew attention to homelessness across the country.

Sarandon, executive producer of “Storied Streets,” has worked with Morgan on several documentaries. Their hope is to educate and transform the way people think about social justice issues, Morgan said in an interview.

This idea of using film as a “call to action” for the young people of San Diego is one of SDFF’s driving forces and the energy of the recent screening spilled over to the filmmakers.

“The questions we got from the kids started off being about making the film­ — how long did it take, how did you pick the people,” Morgan said at the conclusion of the film’s four-day tour. “[The students also asked] the deeper questions, ‘What can we do?’ ‘How should we go about finding organizations that we support?’ ‘How do we talk to our parents about this?’ ‘We want to do something, we just don’t know what to do.’

(l to r) Filmmaker Thomas Morgan, documentary subject Guiseppe Pizano and youth empowerment activist Sarah Hernholm speak to San Diego area high school students about the documentary, “Storied Streets” (Photo by Frank Rogozienski Photography)

“They were seeking solutions and seeking ways to be involved and I thought that was a great sign,” he said.

That tour took Morgan and Tonya Mantooth, executive and artistic director of the SDFF, to five high schools in the San Diego area, including Urban Discovery Academy in East Village, Canyon Crest Academy, Francis Parker and King-Chavez Community High School.

The presentations at each school began with the 61-minute documentary, which begins its exploration of homeless-related issues in Los Angeles and ends on the streets of New York.

The film was followed by a Q&A with Morgan and a panel that included Sarah Hernholm, founder and president of Whatever It Takes, a youth empowerment group; and Guiseppe Pizano, a teenager featured in the film. Morgan said that he was “floored” when two students approached him after the screening and told him they were homeless.

“On two occasions, kids came up to us after the screenings and said, ‘I’m in the same position right now,’” Morgan said. “So suddenly we have to figure out how to get them help — one girl was homeless with her mom and her family and the other girl came up and told us her mom had gone back to Tijuana but she wanted a better life so she stayed here. She’s trying to figure out how to keep going. For the first time they are saying this.”

The statistics on homeless teens are sobering.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there are as many as 2.8 million homeless youth in the U.S. and 34 percent of the homeless population is under the age of 24. The average age teen who becomes homeless is 14.7 years old and 75 percent drop out of school.

In the film, Pizano tells how he was determined to finish high school and go on to college, which he did, and how he survived when his mother left him at the age of 14. He attended high school every day, becoming dependent on friends for a bed or a couch, but eventually had to sleep on the streets, living in the bleachers at his high school.

SDFF plans on making the Focus on Impact Film Tours a yearly event and is setting up a system for other schools to access “Storied Streets” and screen it for their students.

“The film tour was a result of the discussions that Susan [Sarandon], Thomas [Morgan] and I have been having for almost two years now,” Mantooth said. “The goal was to take films about important social issues that are screened at the festival and bring them to schools.

“In the fall, the film package will be available to all schools and we aren’t stopping there — plans are in the works for the next two film tours,” she continued. “We are thrilled to bring these impactful films and the filmmakers to our San Diego County schools.”

Morgan will be on the Social Impact Documentary Panel at San Diego’s International Film Festival, SDFF’s signature annual event, which takes place Oct. 4–8 in Downtown. There are several VIP events being finalized and the lineup includes the Opening Night Film and Party at Balboa Theatre, the Friday Night “Party with a Purpose” at the Horton Plaza HUB and screenings at Regal Cinemas.

For more information on the foundation and film festival, go to

—Terri Stanley is the creator, producer and host of the Emmy award-winning Boston lifestyle show, “styleboston” and former executive editor of Boston Common magazine. Since moving to the San Diego area, she freelances as a lifestyle writer and short film producer and is on the board of directors at SDFF. Reach her at

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