'The Red Notebook' receives second-place honors at the Central Oregon Film Festival

by: KEVIN SPERL - The cast and crew of ‘The Red Notebook' sit along the wall that was featured in their award-winning short film. From left: Tyler Owens, Trevor Smith, Rebecca Reed, Katy Norris, Lilyanna Jensen and Addison Peer.

The seventh-graders in Jim Crouch’s Crook County Middle School journalism class set out to make a movie about being sensitive to other students’ feelings and ended up learning a lot about themselves.

In their short film “The Red Notebook,” a student receives a letter from his dad, who is deployed in Afghanistan. It is a pre-written letter, to be sent to his son only upon the father’s death.

“The direction of the film was to tell the story about someone having a bad day,” explained Crouch. “The students needed to decide how to show a student having a bad day and how it would end with someone supporting that student.”

The idea for the film came from Alex Bitz, prevention specialist with the Crook County Community Coalition.

“I am passionate about helping kids and them finding ways to express who they are,” said Bitz. “I contacted Jim and told him that I wanted to help his class make a movie. He gave me a group of kids and we started talking about film making.”

Seventh-graders Addison Peer, Trevor Smith, Lilyanna Jensen, Rebecca Reed, Katy Norris and Tyler Owens quickly went to work and ideas for the film came fast and furious. Stories about zombies, helicopters and a variety of falling objects were offered.

But, Bitz was quick to turn the conversation to a more serious tone.

“Let’s talk about things you do here in school,” he suggested. “Think about how difficult it is to be a middle school kid, to figure out who you are and how to share your struggles.”

The idea for “The Red Notebook” was born.

The movie tells the tale of a boy and his notebook, written by his dad while deployed -- a journal keeping track of his days at war. It was also where the letter from his dad was kept.

A group of bully’s find the notebook and take it, playing a game of keep-a-way with the grieving student. While doing so, the boy’s father’s tags and chevrons fall out of the book.

“The lead bully takes the tags to her locker and looks at the picture of her dad who also had not returned from Afghanistan,” explained Reed. “She sets out to find the boy to return everything.”

For about one hour a day for eight weeks, the students worked to put the film together.

According to Smith, the first thing the group did was cast the parts, talk about the main characters, and audition for the roles without the benefit of a script.

For Jensen it was difficult to figure out how the characters in the story would feel.

“Getting into the emotion was hard,” she said. “With this group it is always hard to stay serious.”

Smith agreed.

“We are all really good friends and we had to shoot the same scene many times to get it right,” he said.

Reed added that it quickly became a collaborative effort.

“We all had notebooks and wrote down our version of the script and then we combined them into a single script,” she said.

The production of the movie, although short, offered a variety of challenges to the students.

Norris said that making the movie over the course of a number of weeks meant they had to set things up the same way every day.

For Smith, who played the role of the boy in the film, it meant wearing the same clothes, washing them when he got home and putting them on in the same way the next day.

“Chairs in the library had to be in the same place every day as well,” explained Reed. “We had to shoot one scene over a few days in the library, and everything had to be the same way every time.”

Jensen explained that the moral of the story is that others may be having the same problem as other students.

“Kids have a hard time expressing their feelings and understanding that they are not alone,” she said. “We know it is hard for us to share with each other.”

The students discovered that they had not only created a good message, they had learned from it as well.

“When we first came to this class, we were hesitant to talk to each other,” said Norris. “We didn’t know each other, but when we began filming we started hanging out and interacting with each other a lot more.”

Jensen agreed, saying that she learned a lot about her classmates because of the film project.

“We started to open up in different ways,” she said.

Bitz was so impressed with the film that he submitted it in the adult category to the 2014 Central Oregon Film Festival in Redmond, earning the students a second-place award. The festival also recognized the efforts of both Bitz and Crouch, bestowing them with the outstanding teacher award.

Bitz hopes this is just the first of many stories told.

“There are so many stories that can be written from the hallways of a middle school,” said Bitz. “They are about how hard it is to figure out who they are and realizing that it takes a lot of people to help them deal with hard times.”

There will be a showing of the film, "The Red Notebook" at the Crook County Public Library on Saturday, June 7 at 1:30 p.m. Popcorn and drinks will be available.

A link to the film's trailer may be viewed at or

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