Stefano Da Frè says the kids are all right in new documentary

Photo provided by Gabrielle Lipsky

The Day I Had to Grow Up, directed and created by Stefano Da Frè, conceptualizes understanding’ youth activism in modern political times. The film showcases 6 activists & the events that shaped their political lives. It explores how modern children have had to cope with school shootings, climate crisis, and national tragedies.

According to Stefano, “This film explores the lives of five activists from different racial backgrounds, and genders, to confront each kids’ idealism with the structure of America’s reality.” 

The notable activists include Violet Kopp, Jeremy Ornstein, Sophia Ongele, Griffin Gould, Taylor Nicole Turner, and Saira Salyani.

The documentary premieres as the first showing at the YouFilmFest for the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary this weekend. 

Check out my interview with Stefano!

I loved your documentary. I thought it was so inspiring.

Stefano: Thank you so much, that means a lot. We spent a lot of time, and years, actually working on it. It’s a passion project and a letter to the younger generation to try to understand them really more profoundly and sympathetically and learn about them as individuals, how they grew up, what their parents were like, what their background was like, all kinds of things.

Photo provided by Gabrielle Lipsky
What inspired you to not only create the documentary but to solely focus on these teen activists?

Stefano: The first thing I would say that inspired me was school shootings. I think that I hadn’t had the experience as a kid of feeling unsafe at school. And the title of the film The Day I Had to Grow Up really is like, everybody has Hallmark moments in their childhood when they realize the world is different than the protective cocoon that you grew up in. And for them, I felt strongly, from talking to them and spending time with many youth and kids that were 16, 17,18, that school shootings were at the top of their list. It’s usually climate change, climate crisis, and school shootings.That’s different from when I grew up. And I was inspired. And I also think that I was also in the, like, the juncture, the juxtaposition of how they were growing up with social media as activists. I was a politically active kid in college and in high school, but I wasn’t this involved. I wasn’t in an environment where advertising and algorithms would feed me news and information that they knew I already agreed with. So, you have, essentially, social media creating less of a dialogue because the people that you’re going to be grouped with are people that you already- if you’re democratic, you’re already going to have very progressive people sharing things. And you’re in a vacuum of that, you don’t hear the other side and it is the same thing with Republicans. So that was really interesting.

Yeah, we don’t realize how much social media is a part of our lives and it’s eye opening for sure. 

Stefano: A lot of activism comes from your self, like your personhood on the ground, and this generation has a double edged sword, right? You can have a very loud microphone to tell people and to virtue signal that you believe in certain causes, but you can do it on your couch and you could do it in your pajamas. That’s not the kind of activism I grew up in, which was working in a soup kitchen when I was 16, and protesting outside rallies and different types of things that you had to physically be present. And, it wasn’t necessarily to show anybody. In fact, I hid it from my parents. It wasn’t to look cool or to be virtuous, and I worry a little bit about them, in a concerned way, not in a judgmental way. That’s an issue, for sure, for them because you want to fit in. It’s normal to want to fit in. And so, on social media, when you have a certain kind of ideology that is going on when you’re a kid, which tends to be extremely progressive, which is good and bad, it’s not bad or good, but you have a harder time, I think, in thinking for yourself, and you certainly don’t want to lose friends. When you’re just a kid and you want to belong and, you know, everybody wants to belong. It’s just much more paramount at that beginning, early phase.

How did you choose the young activists that you feature in your documentary?

Stefano: So myself and Laura Pellegrini, we’re a directing team and I had done a documentary called The Girl Who Cannot Speak and it was about a women’s shelter in New York City, and it was about women that were sexually abused. That film had been on and it had been featured at Meet the Press, and the American Film Institute, so I had some pull when I saw Jeremy. In other words, I wasn’t just a director that had no background, no credit, I remember contacting people, any connections I had because I saw his speech, his protest and I remember crying. I remember it was on Thanksgiving four years ago, and I was like, ‘this is really powerful.’ So when Jeremy and I first met up, we just recently talked on the phone and when you start a documentary, it’s like dating. You don’t know whether it’s going to work out, you don’t know whether you’re going to like each other as friends. I don’t know if he’s going to like me. I don’t know if he’s going to trust me and I don’t know if I like him and I don’t know if I can trust him to be on a long project. So I went to Washington D.C., we had a great four-hour lunch and then we started to assemble a bunch of kids and look at people that he had worked with and then also other resources and I tried to have every kid speak individually about one specific topic. Sophia is concerned a lot with Black Lives Matter and climate change. She brings it up a lot in her family and her parents that grew up in West Africa. Violet is from Brooklyn and her father’s involved in politics. But they’re across the country and each with youth activist, we wanted them to have a variety of issues that they cared about… I didn’t want them all to necessarily have the same political points of view either. 

Other than not all having the same views, what stood out about these young activists that almost compelled you to tell their story?

Stefano: I think that, first of all, that they were articulate, that they weren’t just, ‘rah rah.’ They were thinking beings. They were young, independent thinking activists. They had to have a quality of being able to think independently. Who makes that decision? Me and Laura and the editors that we have, but it’s contained within sort of the four of us looking at our footage, so there had to be coherence. They had to be insightful, have a little bit more insight than you would give them credit for because that’s the beauty of youth. You’re seeing the world’s pain and the world’s possibility at the same time. So, it’s interesting in that way. One of the things I liked about them was that I didn’t find any of the youth activists hating people who had different points of view than them… I didn’t care if the kids were Republican or Democrat, I wanted them to be interested in engaging in conversation, into thoughts, because it was going to be a conversation with us together. 

Photo provided by Gabrielle Lipsky
Was it hard to talk to them or get them to open up about the issues?

Stefano: Let me say the easiest one first. The easiest person for me, actually, the two easiest ones are the ones that I’m still closest with, still on like, three years later. This has now been three years, almost four years since the (Parkland) shooting, not since the film was released. So Taylor, who survived Parkland, ironically enough, I’m probably the closest with her. Sarah who talks about the high student debt crisis and then Jeremy, Sarah was easy to open up to. Taylor, interestingly, was easy, but I think that’s her disposition and she trusted me and we talked and I had background already from the documentary on women’s shelters and sexual abuse. So, I think that humanistically and artistically prepares you for that type of very sensitive material. Jeremy’s was the toughest I found, because Jeremy is a great speaker, extremely engaging, and he knows what he wants to share with you. And I remember once, a time early on in the documentary, pulling him aside after talking about something not even related to a question I asked him. I said, ‘Hey, listen. If you want to do a propaganda film or a video for the Sunrise Movements, we got it. We don’t need to shoot any more days. We have it. But if you want to have a documentary, we have zero footage… What I’m interested in is you and what I’m interested in is not something that you’re going to pre plan and pre prepare. So, if I throw away my questions, you have to throw away all the answers that you already plan to give me and that’s the deal.’ Right and it worked. It worked. It worked, but I think you have to call bullshit and I think you also have to be somebody who’s sensitive enough to want people to open up and you’re walking that fine line because you’re still the director and you’re still having to use this footage. It’s not like you’re just shooting them talking. They’re sophisticated, they know how to filibuster, so, you want to give them time to be comfortable. You want to say, ‘Okay, I see what you’re doing, that’s fine, but you also need to have some structure,’ and so imposing that really, as the leader, you’re the captain of the ship. But yeah, Jeremy was the hardest. The other two were not that hard. Sophia is kind of a hardshell to crack. Griffin was very nervous and very shy… but you, hopefully, know how to read people, that’s your job as if you’re a director. Your composition, your framing your lenses and reading human behavior, that’s essential.

Can you comment more on that performative aspect of activism? 

Stefano: Well, my comments would be that it’s a performative environment that Gen Z is growing up in. It’s a performative social media environment of posting and tweeting and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m getting married to someone who’s famous and was a Broadway singer, and so we post on social media all the time, but we, now in our late 30s, have a sense of what doesn’t belong there, and what is real and what’s not real. And I think that when you’re still finding out about the world, activism is performative because you want to show people what a good person you are. And the advice that I always give to activists, when we do work together, is don’t get caught up in the social causes of the day. There will always be new social causes of the day. But if your passion is to clean up plastics in the ocean, stick to what you love, do what you love. If your passion is veteran’s care, stick with that because over the long term, by not being distracted, you will have a substantial impact. You can have a long term impact as long as you don’t get swallowed up in the social laundry of the week, or the month.

What do you hope people take away from the documentary after watching it?

Stefano: A sense of hope for the generation that is underneath them. I think that they’re a generation that is not well understood. So, the aspect of hope is fundamental, this sense that they’re good, that they’re not particularly less aware than we were. Because information is so bombarding, they’re having to grow up in a media sensory overload. So have some faith that these kids are all right, and that the young generation is going to have a positive impact, and have compassion for them. Even if you disagree with them. Don’t write them off because they’re going to need guidance and leaders… A sense of hope for them, and a sense that there’s a desire from them to really want to understand the world and make it better, not just to necessarily steamroll things, but really, they, every single one of them really want to understand and be involved and make things better. They’re not interested in destroying institutions, for example, or tearing down the government. They’re more thoughtful than I think I had even thought when I first started the documentary. I mean, part of doing the film was also sort of a very healing process for me because I didn’t know how it was gonna turn out and I didn’t know if these kids were going to be going to be completely, you know, I don’t know if they were gonna be anarchists. I didn’t know what I was going to get into. I sort of had a sense when I did a lot of preliminary interviews with them, but I tried as best as I could not to editorialize the film so that it’s really them. It’s not some of my ideas.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Stefano: I’m excited that it’s gonna be playing at the Kennedy Center for a youth program in Washington, D.C. The Kennedy Center is just a massive, beautiful legacy and a beautiful American institution. And we open the festival. The last thing that I would say, is that this is a film that you can watch with your whole family and it’s a film that you can watch if you’re conservative, or Democrat or Republican, or libertarian, or if you believe in the Green Party because it humanizes everybody.

The Day I Had to Grow Up will be shown at the YouFilmFestival on April 2nd and it’s also available on streaming platforms.