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From 6-8 p.m. today, the Ron Robinson Theater at 100 River Market Ave. in Little Rock, will present "Fostering Hope Through Film," a series of short videos by Nathan Willis Films whose stars aren't seeking fame but simply a place to come home -- children in the Arkansas foster care system who want to be placed in permanent homes. Many children in Project Zero reach the age of 18 without ever being adopted.

(The presentation is free, and refreshments will be served. Project Zero gets its name from the fact that it is trying to get the number of kids waiting for adoptive homes down to zero.)

The New Orleans-based Willis' clips are handsomely shot and skillfully edited, but the most powerful element of these clips is the testimony of the kids. Instead of a having an omniscient narrator discuss how 440,000 children are being cycled through the foster system while approximately 360 are waiting for a home, Willis lets the kids do all the talking.

"As a filmmaker I believe filming waiting children in this form captures the essence of their personality and story in a way that pictures sometimes can't," he writes in an email. "When you can hear a child's story in their own words or see their day to day life in foster care, I believe it can be extremely effective in raising awareness" and finding permanent homes for these children.

As a result, these clips seem more personal, honest and involving than a typical public service announcement. Siblings admit they can give each other grief, foster kids talk candidly about the stigma attached to their status and how life with their biological parents put them in danger.

One child, Willis recalls, said: "At the time, I felt like a dog, and the family done thrown the dog out on the road. That's what I felt like because I didn't have no family."

While the youngsters do nothing to sugarcoat their situation, the Project Zero clips won't have you reaching for an extra bottle of Prozac. You may feel sorrow for these kids, but you won't feel any pity.

For one thing, many of these youngsters are astonishingly resilient and can talk about their difficulties, including abuse and neglect, without being consumed by them. Young Michyah demonstrates some formidable gymnastic skills, and Lamont, who has been in foster care for a decade and now has a home, is an enthusiastic and skilled DJ.

Keith Metz, the Public Information Specialist for Arkansas' Division of Children and Family Services, says that during the most recent fiscal year (July 1, 2017 -- June 30, 2018) 235 children turned 18 and "aged out" of foster care. They have the option of staying in care and pursuing educational or employment opportunities under the continued supervision of the state.

There are two brief overviews of how TheProjectZero.org works with Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) to take youngsters out of foster care and into adoptive families, "This Is Me" and "What About Us."

According to Metz, the approach has been effective.

"These films definitely have helped our children find adoptive families," he says. "We don't keep any formal statistics on where adoptive families first heard of a child or sibling group they eventually adopted, but anecdotally we know that we get significantly more inquiries on children who have a short film or video than those who only have a photo and short biographical narrative," he says.

The films also include some impressive musical numbers. The Baptist Preparatory School Choir performs the title song for "This Is Me" from The Greatest Showman, while Pink's "What About Us" accompanies the clip of the same name.

Asked how he obtained Pink's permission to use her song, Willis admits he didn't.

"The song worked so perfectly for the story we were trying to tell and we decided to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. And so far we haven't gotten shut down!"

Willis first met Project Zero Executive Director Christine Erwin when he was a member of Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock. Initially, he was asked to make one short video. Currently, there are more than 100 videos on YouTube, and Willis says he has made videos for nearly 200 children over five years.

Willis, who has frequently returned to Arkansas, has also made commercials for Taziki's Mediterranean Cafe and Everglades Equipment Group. His short documentaries have been featured on Vice Sports (Undefeated: Fightland Specials, which was shot in Little Rock and features boxer Terrance "Tank" Dumas), PBS, Oxford American and MSNBC. (You can check out samples at nathanwillisfilms.com.)

One documentary, The Only Grocery Store in the Lower Ninth Ward, concerns a store that caters to a New Orleans neighborhood that still shows the scars of Hurricane Katrina. The grocery store even features home delivery. Finding Meaning on Death Row features death row inmate Robert Pruett, who had been on death row and in solitary since 1999 until he was executed in 2017.

"I've always been interested in telling stories about people society has forgotten, and many of these children are exactly that. They've been pushed to the margins and forgotten by most of America, and over the past few years it's been really exciting to see the change that can happen when you give these children a platform," Willis says.

"I don't think any of this change is due to my abilities as a filmmaker, rather I think it's because there really is power when you allow these children to tell their own story in their own words. While I'm the director for these films, most of the credit goes to Christie [Erwin] and Project Zero for their vision in starting and continuing this work. I'm not familiar with any other organizations in the country that are working harder to raise awareness of the need of children in the foster care system."

The Owl's Legacy

MovieStyle on 11/30/2018

Print Headline: Project Zero short films playing in Little Rock

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