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Alameda Teen’s Mental Health Journey Leads to Successful Film

Anika Jensen is having a good year. At the end of May she graduated with honors from Alameda High School, and rather than heading off to work or college like most of her peers, she decided to take a gap year.

Alameda Post - a poster for Missing You

To explore an interest in film-making, she attended a summer workshop at the San Francisco Film School and shot a short film in Alameda, Missing You, a teen mental health story. With her teacher’s encouragement, she submitted it for consideration to 20 film festivals. So far, it has been accepted into five, and she is still waiting to hear back from half the festivals.

Following is a conversation with the young filmmaker.

Why did you decide to take a gap year?

I came out of high school feeling burned out and struggling with my mental health. I was going through big changes emotionally, and I felt that if I went straight to college I would get caught up in more busyness and not have time to sift my feelings and understand what was happening to me. I wanted time to pause, reflect on my purpose in life, and live slowly.

So far, I’ve interned at the police department, written songs, performed as Juliet in the Foodbank Players production of Romeo and Juliet, volunteered at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, and made a film besides doing childcare work. I’m exploring creativity and getting a chance to breathe.

What inspired Missing You?

During my senior year, I had a sort of epiphany/panic attack that my entire life purpose was to get good grades. Since elementary school, I had taken it on faith that if I always got good grades I would get into a good college, get a good job, and be happy. But when I started seriously thinking about the future, I realized that getting good grades isn’t directly related to happiness or success.

I started researching the impact of grades and how grades encourage students to be less creative because being creative means taking risks and possibly failing multiple times before you discover or create something of value. I reflected on how many fellow students didn’t enjoy learning and relied on social media dopamine shots to get through their days. I remembered how the school newscast reported that 10% of our students experienced suicidal thoughts. I thought how messed up this was.

With this passion bubbling within me, I wrote a speech connecting the ideas of mental health and grades. I contacted teachers and fellow students about where to share my ideas. One teacher encouraged me to lead a discussion with her 10th grade students. I asked, “Is there any time you’ve put school/grades above other important things, such as sleep, extracurriculars, relationships, and your health?”

The following week, I led a similar discussion open to the whole school. Many students opened up about their experiences with mental health, including one who spoke about the week she spent in a mental hospital and her struggle to re-engage with school upon returning. I also connected with two school district administrators working on a concept called “grading for equity.” They were impressed with my speech and said they would use some of my insights in the talks they were leading with students.

Though I initially felt alone with my concerns, opening up to my community helped me come out of my isolation while helping others to emerge from theirs.

Then, one day, I was in that great creativity incubator, the shower, and started humming a tune I quite liked.  Over the next couple weeks, I added lyrics, and the song ended up forming the basis for Missing You, a film about nostalgia for childhood, the sadness of feeling like you’re letting your inner child down when you don’t know what your purpose is or where you’re going, and the mental health struggle that results.

I feel it’s important to tell mental health stories. I want to destigmatize mental illness, which is hard to talk about.

Anika is interviewed at the Hemet Film Festival. Photo Hemet Film Festival / Facebook.

What was it like making the film?

I shot my film as a class assignment, so I had access to the school’s equipment, and my teacher and classmates were my crew. My only other expense was for food and drinks for the crew. The actors were a friend of mine from high school and her little sister, who performed as a favor to me.

We shot the whole thing in one afternoon and early evening at Crab Cove. That was intense and stressful. We were working against the clock because half of the film happens during the golden hour and half during the late afternoon, so we didn’t have much margin for error. At the same time, I was working with a novice non-professional crew and shooting in a public area with people walking in and out of shots; the little girl started getting tired and grumpy. Somehow, it worked out with everyone pitching in to do their best work and keep up our spirits.

I was thankful to the City for letting me shoot at Crab Cove without charge. I had planned to shoot at a park in Oakland, but when I inquired, they wanted me to submit a permit application 30 days in advance and pay fees. I panicked until my mom suggested calling Alameda Recreation and Parks, and they were helpful and kind. I wasn’t asking to close off any areas. I just didn’t want to be shut down or ticketed in the middle of shooting.

Something fun was that my parents did cameo voice-overs, and my Dad played guitar for my vocals.

How has Missing You been received?

Missing You made its theater debut at the Hemet Film Festival, south of Los Angeles. It was a small festival in its first year, but I was super impressed with the films in my category. A lot of them clearly had decent-sized budgets, and I was proud that my shoe-string student film was among them. One of the directors in my category was Brandon Leake, the 2020 America’s Got Talent winner. I couldn’t quite believe I got to meet him. I enjoyed participating in the Director’s Question and Answer session.

Missing You took second prize in the Young Directors category at the Inner City Short Film Festival of Los Angeles and Honorable Mention for Best Child Actor. It also received a Special Mention at the Global Shorts Film Festival.

What’s Next?

Missing You makes its Northern California debut this Saturday, December 2, at San Francisco’s Another Hole in the Head Film Festival at the Balboa Theater. I look forward to participating in their Director’s Question and Answer session. I’ll find out if it was accepted into the Alameda International Film Festival in January. Fingers crossed! It would be special to see it screened in my hometown.

I continue with gap year explorations. I’m auditioning for film acting work. And maybe it sounds crazy, but in the spring, I hope to secure a live/work situation on a farm to experience rural life. There are small, non-corporate organic farms that offer these experiences. I’ve enjoyed growing up in Alameda, but after so many years of suburban life, I’d love to spend time closer to nature.

I’ve nearly completed my college applications. They are stronger now than they would have been in the fall of my senior year. I have a deeper sense of purpose and more meaningful experiences to share. I’m not totally sure what major I want to pursue, but I feel more confident in my abilities and instincts.

I’m starting to look forward to spreading my wings.

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