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Teen's film about impact of gun violence on Gen Z wins student Emmy

"Dear America: When did students become secret soldiers? And when did schools become a battlefield?"
/ Source: TODAY

An 18-year-old Florida high school senior is garnering national attention — and now Emmy awards — for her filmmaking work, specifically for her short film about the impact of gun violence on children, "Dear America: A Film by Generation Z."

Molly Smith, a senior at Montverde Academy in Clermont, Florida, has been taking filmmaking classes at the private school since her freshman year and was a student when mass shootings occurred relatively close to her in 2016 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

In reaction to the tragedies, Smith wrote a spoken word poem from Generation Z's perspective on the impact of gun violence. She later turned that into a script for her short film, which she shot and edited at her school at the beginning of her junior year. Smith and her team — which included fellow high school students Elizabeth Buzbee, Sage Croft, and Allison Fitzgerald —used local actors and the school's equipment to make the film. She has spent the months since entering it into film festivals and distributing it.

In "Dear America," students ranging in age from elementary to high school speak directly to their parents and lawmakers and ask them to hear them when they ask for a solution to gun violence in this country.

"Dear America, where have you been?" a little girl asks in a voice-over as the film begins. "You used to tell me stories of hope and bravery."

As the film shows children going about their school day, teenagers add their voices. "Dear America, how many final texts will students have to send to their parents under a desk for us to be safe again?" one asks. It ends with the students asking America to "Please write back soon. Love, Generation Z."

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Smith calls the film a "call to action" that asks "how people can avoid the perspectives of the those who have to live this experience every day." It has over 17,000 views on YouTube so far.

Molly Smith, now 18, wrote the script and co-directed her award-winning short film "Dear America: A Film by Generation Z" when she was just a junior in high school. Courtesy of Molly Smith

The young filmmaker, who is currently applying to colleges and hopes to continue her work there, told TODAY Parents, "We need to come together to find a solution. Gun violence is one of the leading causes of death for children and teenagers... This is a serious problem."

The film won at the regional level for student productions at the Foundation for the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and then became eligible to win at the national level in the Public Service Announcement category. It was finally chosen as one of five official National Student Production Awards (Emmy) finalists, and November 1, "Dear America" was announced the winner in its category. Smith also won an additional Emmy in the category for Writing.

Smith's teacher and advisor at Montverde Academy, Jim Seaney, told TODAY Parents that just winning one of these awards would be a "white whale" for a young filmmaking student, but Smith has already won two — a feat he called "fairly unprecedented."

"Dear America, Where have you been?" a little girl asks as the short film begins.Courtesy of Molly Smith

Seaney said that what sets Smith apart is "her ability to conceptualize an idea that is important to her and to her generation that needs to be heard and to stand by her artistic choices." He said that he considered himself more of her collaborator than her mentor, because she is so good at listening to suggestions while "sticking to her guns" to protect her vision. With over 25 years of experience, Seaney noted that Smith has raw talent, but also works hard for her accolades. "She's gifted, but she's also a grinder," he said.

Twenty years after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, Seaney said, this generation demands to be heard on a topic that affects them daily. "There hasn't been enough action," he said. "This generation is putting its foot down and saying, 'This isn't good enough.'"