In the new short film “Dismissal Time,” a Black teen sees himself as just another student at his prestigious prep school. The school community, however, views him in a completely different way.
“They just see him as unusual, and that plays into the ‘that kid doesn’t belong here’ theme,” filmmaker André Joseph said.
When Joseph appears in Charlottesville to screen his film during the seventh installment of the Indie Short Film Series, which begins at 7 p.m. Saturday at Vinegar Hill Theatre, he hopes audience members can recognize their own roles in the story — and understand the impact of one person who stands up and seeks the truth.
When a “kill list” that appears to threaten the lives of other students is discovered at his predominantly white private school, the young protagonist is accused almost automatically. He doesn’t fit the stereotypes of star athlete or promising rapper on the rise, and others view him with suspicion simply because he’s different.
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“When he gets accused of writing this kill list, no one else is a suspect,” Joseph said.
Joseph tells the first half of the film from the young man’s perspective, and then another voice emerges. Enter Vance, a history teacher who wants to get to the bottom of the incident and find out what really happened.
“She has a little bit of an intimidating presence,” Joseph said. “She sees his potential. No one else is saying that to him.”
Joseph based “Dismissal Time” in part on a painful experience during his own time at a respected Catholic high school. He was accused of writing a kill list that was floating around, and he didn’t recognize right away the toll the wrongful accusation could have on his school career, his reputation — and the rest of his life.
“I thought it was a joke until the Columbine [school] shooting happened,” Joseph said. Even though Joseph eventually was cleared, school officials “didn’t do enough to exonerate me. It just kind of lingered out there. They didn’t look at me as just a normal kid; they looked at me as an outsider.”
And during a different era, the fact that he’d been wronged wasn’t taken as seriously as it is in today’s climate, Joseph said. “My particular incident wasn’t talked about the way it is today,” he said.
Joseph said he created Vance as a composite character who represents several teachers from his own school career — teachers who cared, and who realized that their daily actions had the potential to shape the lives of their students.
“It’s not about your paycheck, and definitely not about putting in your hours,” the director said. “It’s that they [the students] have greatness and the potential to succeed. What can be done to overcome the politics?”
Joseph said he hopes community members can use “Dismissal Time” as a springboard for discussions of bias, harmful assumptions and the power of one person to speak up and demand something better. Teachers, parents and students can come away with new insights from each other’s experiences, and together, they can seek change.
“I feel that this story is one of those that is not told enough,” Joseph said. “I’ve had a decent amount of success as a filmmaker, and I can give back through my work. It’s simply about what I can do to help a student.”
The Indie Short Film Series, founded by award-winning filmmaker Ty Cooper, will screen a variety of short films Saturday evening that audience members otherwise might not get a chance to see.
Cooper is a writer, director and producer who has served as outreach and promotion consultant for the Virginia Film Festival since 2017 and has volunteered with the Sundance Film Festival since 2015. His most recent film, “Amanda,” is touring and picking up such awards as best short drama, best narrative short and best ensemble cast in a short film.
Tickets are available online for $20; go to https://isfs.july20.eventbrite.com. Plan on buying your tickets ahead of time and bringing your photo ID to pick up your tickets at the theater, which is at 220 W. Market St.
Filmmakers who’d like to see their own short films considered for future installments of the series can learn how at www.FilmFreeway.com/IndieShortFilmSeries.