Churchill County High School alumna Crystal Powell was recently named Student Filmmaker of the Year at the Nevada Women’s Film Festival.
Powell, who attended the University of Nevada, Reno Reynolds School of Journalism, was given the honor at the third annual event in Las Vegas with her nearly 38-minute documentary on child abuse, “Life’s Just Hard.” She also received a $2,000 video camera.
“The award was created for me for the first time this year, which was a huge surprise and great honor,” Powell said.
The young artist summarized her documentary as two child-abuse survivors who struggle to overcome their pasts, learning while the memories never go away, there’s life after violence.
“It was never supposed to be personal,” she said but added that aspect lent the story more authenticity she thought since she had personal legal documents and other material.
The film shots, narration, interviews and stills create a unified story that quickly draws viewers in and makes the production look seamless, even easy, but Powell said the process does take a lot of planning. Figuring out what is going to happen, writing everything down and for example executing voiceovers can be complicated, she said.
She added her teacher would open the school’s lab at 9 p.m. and she would work until 4 a.m. then go to her job.
Powell also explained how the first couple days of filming a piece of the story can be awkward — and sometimes more spur of the moment planning can help, preventing “too much thought” or overthinking it. She also noted she would try to establish a relationship with her interview subjects, making sure they knew she didn’t have to use anything they didn’t want shared.
“Editing really helps,” she added about making a documentary. “We get to put the best stuff in.”
Though she admitted editing feels like “grunt work.”
When asked about the film’s difficult subject matter and her own experience being tied into it, Powell said it was emotionally harder but also easier because essentially the plot had all the pieces there.
Powell was one of the first students to take UNR Associate Professor Kari Barber’s documentary class in 2015 (she teaches it once a year). The professor attended the University Film & Video Association Conference — where filmmakers, professors and researchers celebrate and encourage diverse filmmaking — and showed a one-minute clip of Powell’s film. A NWFF organizer then approached Barber, wanting Powell to submit her work to the festival.
“Kari really believed in it,” Powell said of her professor’s view of the film, adding the instructor encouraged her to be part of the festival and paid the entry fee.
The NWFF supports women in the film industry and fair female representation. The event is the only film festival in the state of Nevada to showcase women directors and production crews as well as seek films with complex female characters and “no tired stereotypes.”
“I was struck by Crystal’s desire to help others and her tenacity in finishing this film,” said Nikki Corda, executive director and founder of NWFF. “But most of all, I was struck by Crystal’s bravery in opening herself up to a very difficult and personal topic. In doing so she inspires courage in others.”
Powell’s documentary was among 34 others including Barber’s own “Struggle and Hope”, about all black towns throughout America which emerged after the Civil War.
“What stood out to me about Crystal as a filmmaker is her tenacity,” Barber said as well. “I could sense it was more than a film, but a fight for justice and she was up against immense odds to tell this story well. Despite these challenges, she pulled through beautifully. She is an incredible writer and storyteller.
“I was struck by her focus and determination to finish, but also her willingness to listen to the input of others and to really hear what others had to say to help make her work better. Often when a filmmaker is so passionate about their story, it can be difficult for them to take constructive criticism; Crystal is an incredible listener which makes her an incredible storyteller.”
Originally from Oregon, Powell also speaks Spanish, has traveled to Costa Rica and the east coast as well as lived in Boston. She is now looking at the Western Nevada College Fallon campus nursing program since she found she has a strong desire for having competence in medicine as well.
“But who knows,” she admitted.
In her film’s YouTube description, Powell included a quote from Maya Angelou: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
While finishing the film was a true feat for Powell, she said she was surprised at the overwhelming positive response rather than a negative one. She said she could complete it then forget it.
“I don’t have to think about it anymore,” she said.
At the end of her work of art — at the end of the credits thanking participating organizations and her former classmate Zach Nance, former teacher Steve Johnson and other interviewees — Powell includes the following:
“Dedicated to the kids who survived. For the kids still trying ... Keep going.”