Sex ed as art film

A new series about sex -- on Showtime this weekend -- dares to make movies for teens by teens.

Published February 14, 2003 8:40PM (EST)

A nonprofit company called Scenarios has created a concept that just might be the first of its kind: The sex education video as art film.

Here's how it works: Each year, Scenarios solicits screenplays for short films from students between the ages of 12 and 22. The writers of the five winning screenplays are then paired with a professional filmmaker to make their movie.

It's a project brilliant in its simplicity. The movies are relevant, because the scripts are written by teens for teens. And they are without a doubt the hippest, best-edited, most entertaining sex ed videos ever made.

The roster of directors that have worked with Scenarios, founded two years ago by Maura Minsky and Kristin Joiner, include David Frankel ("Sex and the City"), Doug Liman ("Swingers" and "Go"), Tamara Jenkins ("Slums of Beverly Hills"), and Michael Apted ("7-Up" series, "Gorillas in the Mist.")

Salon talked with two teenage girls whose films have been made by Scenarios. Verena Faden, 19, worked with Frankel to make her movie "Just Like You Imagined," a story about three couples in Miami dealing with gay romance, one-night stands and HIV. Sophia Tavernakis co-wrote "Lipstick" with four other teens. The movie, which Apted directed, follows a star soccer player who is coming out to her friends. The series airs Feb. 14, 15 and 16 on Showtime.

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Faden wrote her screenplay when she was a senior at Hialeh-Miami Lakes high school in Hialeh, Fla.

How did you get involved with Scenarios?

I was the drama club president last year. We had this great, really active teacher. He made everyone submit a screenplay. Some of the kids were like, No way. What if they take it and make something terrible?

What was it like working with David Frankel?

It was great. I still talk to him all the time. He let me ask him about a thousand questions. It was just like talking to a new friend -- well, a new friend who's won an Academy Award.

The first time I met him, we went to Starbucks with the writer I was working with. I knew I wanted the three stories to intertwine, in a cut-up documentary film style. But the original script I turned in was really rough. When I found out I won, I thought, omigod, it must be a mistake. I wrote it like a madwoman. I don't even think I spell-checked.

How did the script change over time?

The outcomes were very different in the first draft. By the end everyone had HIV. I realized I really wasn't happy with that. We went through 15 drafts. I'm happier with how it is now. The first version just wasn't realistic. Some people are going to have sex and have bad things happen; others will do the same thing and nothing will happen.

Back in the '80s, if you saw a film about HIV, the gay couple always had it. In my film, the gay couple is a normal, hesistant, cautious couple. It's the straight couple who ends up with HIV. Anyone can get it. I wanted to break those stereotypes.

What do you remember about your sex education classes in school?

I think I had the best sex education in elementary school. And of course, I learned from my parents. But by middle school, they had turned it into part of science class. In eighth grade, they showed this really graphic video of the birth of a baby. And the films in high schools were awful. You had these kids in knee socks going, "Far out!" They had to screen them on a projector! You just knew they were from 1976. It became an inside joke amongst my friends. We knew the real stuff, and that was not it.

Your film has a very flirtatious openly gay character going on a date with a boy who is shyer than he is. Were kids in your school openly out?

Being gay is just not a big deal anymore. People don't really care if you are gay or not. The characters in my film were based on different gay males I knew. One of them is somewhat restrained. He still has hangups. The other one just doesn't care. For more conservative kids, it can still be an issue to come out. Others have no problem saying, I have a date tomorrow.

Are the kids you know having safe sex?

Most people I know having sex are in a consistent relationship. And they are being safe. Condoms are no longer an issue. I never hear of a guy saying, Oh I don't want to put it on. It's common.

It's more a self-esteem issue. A big percentage of teens may not be ready to have sex in high school. It's different for different kids. Most kids who were having sex were doing it safely. In high school you have a bunch of kids trying to figure out who they are. They may think that sex is a rite of passage, something they are supposed to do in high school. But not all kids are really ready. It's a hard thing to take a stand on. It's all about making choices.

In my school it was a mixed thing. But the more educated group of kids weren't having sex so quickly. There were also lots of kids who had only been in the country a few years. In some of those families, if your parents found out you'd had sex, they'd want you to get married.

Still, sometimes my friends will come up to me and say, I'm so mad at myself. I just had sex and I didn't use a condom. And I'll say, What? I just made a movie about safe sex! And some people were shocked to find out that you could get HIV from oral sex.

What movies about teenagers do you like?

I've been watching movies from the '80s. They are so great. My friends and I are always saying, Why couldn't we have grown up in the '80s, when guys cared about us? You know, when the cute guy would come serenade you with Peter Gabriel on his boombox. Back then, it was more about relationships. I have a poster from "Pretty in Pink" on my wall. But then, in a movie like "Dirty dancing," Jennifer Grey has sex with Patrick Swayze after she's only known him a few days. But it seemed less about sex and more about love.

What are you going to do next?

I always want to write. I'm interested in acting, I was interested in theater, but that was more of a substitution for film. When I found out I'd won the contest, I thought, This could be the chance of a lifetime. I was a trouper. It really gave me a taste of filmmaking.

I'll always care about HIV and kids making good decisions. I'm always looking for a cause, to mix film with a message. I want to make a commercial film, one that grosses lots of money at the box office, that you want to watch at home on a Friday night, that is also good for students. I'm a double-major in film and education. I really want to do both. I want to teach children and I want to be a filmmaker.

You know, a lot of times I sound like I'm pretending to be Miss America. I want to make a lot of money and give it to the homeless! But I do want to do that. That's really important to me.

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Sophia Tavernakis co-wrote "Lipstick" with four other teens who were peer educators at Planned Parenthood in Orange and San Bernardino counties. She is 19 years old and a student at Orange Coast College.

How did you get involved in the project?

I was working as a counselor at Planned Parenthood when they told us about the project. None of us were drama students or writers or anything. It just seemed like a chance to do something different. We were all good friends. It gave us a good excuse to come to work.

Orange County teaches abstinence-only in the schools. What did you do as a Planned Parenthood counselor?

I was trained to work in the clinic as a before-and-after counselor for teenagers seeking services. Teens were more comfortable if they saw a familiar face, or could talk to someone who was on their same level. We also did outreach in the schools. Whenever we went into schools, we were always greeted warmly. There were a few schools we weren't welcome in because they had their own programs. If there was anything the classrooms we went to had in common, it was that most of the time the teachers were relatively young. They were usually just out of school themselves and not set in their ways. They could relate to what their students were thinking and wanted to give them the best information they could.

"Scenarios" likes to work with local school districts to provide sets and support for their films. I was told that your group had difficulty getting the Orange County school district to cooperate in your film about an out lesbian. What happened?

When we first started the project, I approached one of my former teachers. I thought he was the coolest guy in the world. He told us that he was behind us but that he couldn't get involved. I wasn't as involved in dealing with the school districts as some other writers on the team, but I can tell you what they told me. One political figure who was very supportive of Planned Parenthood told us she was behind us 100 percent. But when we went to her for help, from what I'm told, she turned her back on us. It was around election time, she was running for a position in the county, and it was a touchy subject. She knew she wouldn't be reelected if she got involved.

Your film is about a girl who comes out to her friends with relatively little trauma. Were there many out kids in your high school?

I don't know of anyone in my high school who was gay. I don't know if the other writers did. At my school, we had a club called the Gay-Straight Alliance. I attended one meeting, but I don't know if any of those kids were gay. We wanted to keep the focus of the script on the group of friends. A lot of kids I went to high school with had been together since kindergarten. I think that many people may want to come out to the people they know. You may want to go to your friends and say I want you to know the real me, but you may not want the entire school to know.

We didn't show any violence or gay bashing in the film. The main part is just about friendship. That's why it has a happy ending. We didn't bring in any outside characters who may have had a negative reaction.

What do you remember about the sex education films you were shown in school?

They were terrible. The acting was terrible. And from what I learned at Planned Parenthood, I know how much information was out there and how little information students are getting. There is not a lot of focus on birth control, just STDs and how they will kill you. There is nothing that says, If this is what you are going to do, here is how to protect yourself.

How are the films made by Scenarios different from the films you remember from school?

It's definitely an amazing program. It makes sense. In this day and age kids are so into TV and movies that they really appreciate a film that has good acting and cinematography. I wanted to make the kind of film that kids might pay $7 to see if it was two hours long. The kind of film that gives you something to relate to, so that when you are done, you think, This is something that could actually happen.

How well do you think mainstream filmmakers portray teenage sexuality?

Well, movies are a form of entertainment. I don't think you can expect mainstream film to provide a message in the form of a neat synopsis. But they are getting better in portraying sex. Still, I can't think of a time when I saw a sex scene were they showed the condom.

The one thing I found missing in this film series was a couple who chose to have safe sex. Couldn't someone have included a story line in which a couple decides together that they want to have safe sex, discusses it beforehand, and chooses their birth control?

You're right. I didn't think of that. I don't know why there isn't that kind of film in the series. Maybe it's because it doesn't make for good storytelling. If you have safe sex, and everything is fine, then there is no conflict and resolution.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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