Interview: CodeGirl Director Lesley Chilcott

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After all the Halloween parties Friday and Saturday, you and the teen in your family might want to schedule some time for some free infotainment. To help, the new documentary CodeGirl will be available on YouTube, for free, from Nov 1st-5th. The film will be available on all major On Demand platforms, including Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, iTunes, Sony PlayStation, Steam, Vudu and Xbox Video, beginning on November 6th, 2015.

The decision was made to provide access to teen—who the film was made for—and hopefully spread the news about the annual Technovation Challenge. Every year, thousands of girls from around the world compete by creating apps in teams to try to solve problems affecting their own communities. Award-winning filmmaker Lesley Chilcott (An Inconvenient Truth, A Mother’s Promise, It Might Get Loud, Waiting for Superman, and A Small Section of the World) spoke with us about her new movie, why it became a passion project, and what made her so excited about the Technovations challenge.

Lesley Coffin (TMS): How did you find out about the Technovation competition?

Lesley Chilcott: I was making a short film (CodeStars) for an organization called Code.org, when they were launching their non-profit site. And I was meeting some great people in the tech community and proponents of computer technology education. And I was looking for a classroom to film in where kids were learning to code in the classroom. And I stumbled upon Technovation, and I thought, “What is this Technovation Challenge?” And I found out it was a competition just for high school girls from all over the world, but the prompt was, make any mobile app you want, but it has to address a problem in your community. And I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard of. Because to take girls who are often under-represented in computer science and giving them the challenge of finding a problem they have to solve with computer technology was a really new way to look at this issue and get them interested. And I decided right then, I wanted to make a feature documentary about the Technovation Challenge. It just happened to take me a year to put it all together. I heard about the challenge and hearing about that I was really inspired and said, we have to make people more aware of this. We have to double their enrollment. I had some opportunities to work on other documentaries, but this just stuck with me and inspired me. And I made it my job to make this movie.

TMS: How did contact the teams and teens that would be focused on in the documentary?

Chilcott: That’s actually a great question, because it was one of the hardest parts of making this documentary. Over 5,000 girls entered from over 60 countries, and we asked Tecnovation to help spread the word and include our announcement in their newsletter that we were making a documentary and to email us. And we got some responses from that, but then we had to start reaching out to the regional ambassadors in different countries. And that was something we did because Technovation was pretty busy running the organization and planning the Challenge, and they didn’t need us calling every 5 minutes. So we would find some adult mentors of the team and reach out to them. And a lot of times we would get a hold of them, but a lot of times we didn’t. I knew that the winning team from last year was from Moldova and we wanted to see if they had inspired other girls to participate from Moldova. So we went there and found 5 or 6 teams coming up with these amazing apps. And then we Guadalajara, and I met 6 teams there. So we were literally flying by the seat of our pants every day. We actually heard about a team in northern California who had created this great app and made it into the finals, and we tried everything to reaching these girls. Finally, we called their principal and he called them down to his office at the end school day so they would get on the phone with us. And their team name was Puppy Sized Elephants, and they were just hilarious and clever and end up being in a big part of the film. So we used every technology available just to reach out to them.

TMS: Was are the added challenges of making a movie about this kind of competition, where most of the girls are underage?

Chilcott: A lot of the girls are very independent for their age, but we weren’t going to take any chances. And girls who are under 18, can’t release themselves, so we were always sure to have a parent or coach there when we were filming, and we made sure they had a signed parental release before meeting them. And the parents were invited when we filmed them and we made sure everyone knew what we were doing and when and where we would be filming. So it required a lot of extra steps on the part of my producer. And if we were filming at their home, we had to get their parents to sign a location release and assure us on the phone or on email, that it would be fine when we arrived. Filming a documentary about kids just adds a lot of layers. If we were filming in school, the principal and teachers had to make everyone was aware. But once we met all the girls, they were incredibly open and excited about participating. But even later, if we were emailing, we’d always say “check with your parents.” And all their parents were enthusiastic about this too. All these girls are over scheduled, not just girls in the US but all over the world, but they are coming to school early to work on this or staying late. One of the teams in Maldova met on Google chat every night at 8, as they were working on different parts of their business model. It was really amazing how dedicated they were.

TMS: The challenge is limited to girls because women remain underrepresented in the computer technology field, but the Technovation Challenge encourages girls from all races, ethnicities, and class to participate. Were you conscious about showing the diversity that exists in this challenge in the documentary as well?

Chilcott: It mostly just happened. We would go online and find the apps, and there were so many interesting apps which reflected all the different communities these girls came from. So the truth is, the stereotype we’ve been told, about the certain type of girl interested in this or what a nerd looks like simply isn’t true, at least what I saw in this contest. These girls came from all different back grounds. So we didn’t have problems finding diversity, but I was very conscious of showing girls from a wide variety of economic backgrounds, because here in the US, it is pretty easy to hop online and work on APP Inventor. But the team from Nigeria were saving their lunch money just to get internet time. So I wanted to make sure that we could show those differences. But we had no control over who entered the contest or who made it to the finals.

TMS: Compared to a film like Waiting for Superman, which also dealt with education and economic inequality, was it a different experience for you making this movie, considering how hopeful it is about opportunities for change?

Chilcott: When I made Waiting for Superman, we were trying to tackle the education system in the US as a whole. And that is pretty much impossible to do in 100 minutes. And what I loved about making this movie is, these girls don’t have to want to be computer scientists to participate. They just have to give it a try and want to learn. And the question is really, does this make them more confident girls or more logical thinkers. Are they going to be able to use technology for problem solving in all areas of their lives? And it was so inspiring to see that no matter the type of girl, 13 or 18, from Mexico or Massachusetts, she was able to use this technology to address a personal problem she faces in her community. So this felt like a great equalizer. Income levels didn’t come into play. So I felt unusually inspired to be able to see this contest, which is like a microcosm of life for girls throughout the world, and to know that so many of the girls realized they had found out they were able to do something they didn’t know they could do before. And the thing I’m worried about is that if 51% of the population isn’t making the technology, then 51% of the population are being left out of the design and decision making and that can have long term consequences for everyone. So witnessing girls having light bulb moments at a young age, even if they want to be a sports star or journalist or dancer when they grow up, they will hopefully realize that taking a computer science class can be helpful. So the whole experience of making this felt very pure.

TMS: How did FilmBuff and Youtube get involved and decide to distribution the film in this unconventional way?

Chilcott: When it came time to finish the film, I thought “how do I get teen girls and boys to see this movie?” They don’t go to theaters to see documentaries or film festivals, which is where most documentaries build up word of mouth. So I just said, I’m going to pretend I’m on one of these teams and use technology to address my problem, which was, getting teens to see a documentary film. And I thought, where are all these teens getting their content, and realized it was Youtube. So I approached FilmBuff and the CEO Janet Brown, who is brilliant. And she is a female CEO, which factored into my decision. And I approached YouTube and met with Made with Code, and said, let’s do something which has never been done before. Let’s give the film away for 5 days, and then put it in theaters and VOD. Which sounds crazy, because why would anyone pay for it if they can get it for free? But not everyone will see it during those 5 days and all our marketing for that YouTube release is aimed at getting teens to see it. So at the end of 5 days, we can market a film that hopefully 5,000 teens have already seen. There are a lot of theater owners who want to support documentaries, and I still want to see my films in theaters. But teens watch films differently, so the YouTube window if primarily for them.

TMS: You mentioned this being for teen boys and girls. Do you feel it was as important for boys to watch the film as it is for girls?

Chilcott: Absolutely, and I almost didn’t called it CodeGirl because I didn’t want to discourage boys from seeing it. But there is a lot of unconscious bias and stereotyping we’re raised with, that we might not even be aware of, and teens might not even consider. And there are guys who want to enter Technovations, and ask why they can’t form a team, so it’s an interesting thing to come across. But I definitely want boys to see it as well as girls. And hopefully, I made the film appealing to both.


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