Middle school documentary maker gets national recognition

Muskegon County

WHITEHALL, Mich. (WOOD) — A middle school filmmaker from Whitehall is among a select group of 35 students to be honored in Washington D.C. for a documentary she researched, wrote, reported and produced herself.

“She’s an amazing filmmaker,” said Whitehall teacher and National History Day coach Jan Kelso talking about her student 14-year-old Laura Theilman who wants to tell stories through film and video.

Out of the 35 students selected, she is the only one from Michigan.

“I liked making little movies around the house and pretending I was a movie star and then I’d edit all together the pictures and I started doing it for National History Day and it was really fun,” Laura said.

Since Laura was in fourth grade, she has been participating in National History Day, an extracurricular activity that challenges students to dig into history beyond the daily school instruction in the same way real historians look at their subjects.

“She just has such a very good sense of filmmaking about her, but in addition to that, the depth of her research is phenomenal,” Kelso said.

“History is not my favorite subject in school because you don’t really get to learn that much about every subject you’re just grazing over every subject,” Laura said.

Last year, Laura tackled the complicated history and conflict between Pakistan and India. This year, the entry that was chosen to be shown at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture was about Motown.

She personally interviewed Sheila Spencer, the manager of the Motown Museum and Motown songwriter and historian Tena Clark.

“I was really nervous before I did it, but once I did it, it was cool talking to all the people,” Laura said.

“Once people got addicted to the music because it was great music, it did not matter what color your skin was,” Clark said in the documentary.

The subject was chosen months ago before the cries for justice following the killing of George Floyd.

But for Laura, the timing can’t be ignored, and she hopes something like Motown can help bridge the racial divide once again.

“It is kind of discouraging that this has already happened once and now it’s happening again and who knows how many times it’s going to happen in the future. I just hope that people can think about what they’re doing and what they’re saying, so they don’t hurt people,” Laura said.

She ends her documentary with this line: “The Motown record label used its popularity to help break down racial inequalities in America and get all people dancing in the street.”

She was supposed to present in Washington D.C. at the African American Museum, but it will be done virtually because of the pandemic.

You can watch her documentary online.

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