From a small-town island to the city that never sleeps, 13 Key West High School students and the films they produced at the school’s Conch 5 Studios have been chosen as selections for the world’s largest high school film festival. 

The All-American High School Film Festival (AAHSFF) takes place in October in New York City, where the films will be screened, judged and narrowed down to a few finalists. The students will travel to the festival with KWHS television production teacher Ed Smith, who has directed Conch 5 Studios for 20 years. Key West High School was last represented at this competition in 2017.

Tom Oliva, the co-founder and executive director of AAHSFF, announced the official selections on July 22. Nine submissions by 13 Key West students were chosen in categories ranging from short films to action sports videos. The student-produced films will be screened in New York Oct. 8-10.

“I almost lost count of how many we got,” said Smith, the director of Conch 5 Studios. “I was shocked, proud and blown away as a teacher.” 

An AAHSFF official selection is one of the highest honors a high school video production team can aspire to earn. Seeing their film on a big screen in the big city is a dream come true for the students. But there is a step higher: becoming an AAHSFF finalist. Only a small portion of the official selections are honored as the “best of the best” in each category. Smith said he’s confident some of the Conch 5 entries have the potential to become a finalist.

In addition to the screenings, the film festival also provides networking, college recruiting opportunities and a chance for students to earn some scholarship money and perhaps a job in the industry they love. 

“With no student production budget, it is a struggle to compete against the big-city schools that get support from filmmaking icons, like New York University (NYU), University of Southern California (USC) and actual film studios,” Smith said. “But in Conch 5 Studios,  students approach every production with the attitude, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’”

The newest equipment the KWHS students have for their productions was purchased in 2015, proving that the latest, fancy technology is no substitute for hard work, sweat and dedication when it comes to creating something spectacular. 

Smith is constantly furthering his own skills, knowledge and expertise to share with his students. “I like to be able to give my students as much as I possibly can. Hopefully the knowledge I’ve gained over the past two decades of leading Conch 5 Studios can give them an advantage and more experience,” he said.

The connection between Smith and his students doesn’t end with graduation, as Smith keeps in touch with all his former students.

“I’m a teacher, coach, mentor, cheerleader — and harsh critic,” said Smith. “My students are free to ask me anything at any time, which explains the 3,875 texts on my phone.”

The challenges of the pandemic have made fundraising for the New York trip a challenge. 

With less than a month till the event, Conch 5 Studios is raising funds and seeking support from the community.  On Sunday, Sept. 19, they will host a car wash fundraiser from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and on Saturday, Sept. 25, they will host an outdoor movie event. Both events take place at the KWHS Backyard. 

For more information about Conch 5 Studios, or to make a donation, contact [email protected].

The selected students include: Stephanie Jenkins, Robert Malcom, Siddharth Singh, Nicolas Dussias, Christopher “Andre” Otto, Joseph Grobarek, John Searcy, Sarah Karch, Priscilla Castro-Sanchez, Ella Hall, Janelle Waite, Brody McCandless and Jonibek Muhsinov.

Ella Hall is a junior at Key West High School, a former Keys Weekly intern and one of the students whose films was selected for the film festival.

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Ella Hall is a human like you who is passionate about activism. She studies videography, and works at Bahama Village Music Program part time. One message that she stands by is "doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will."