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Lights, Camera… Activism!

A local neighborhood group turns to filmmaking to preserve a historic school.

When faced with a problem in their community, most people would organize meetings, distribute flyers or speak at public forums.

Mark Antell did all of that, but he also went one step further: he made a movie.

The problem facing Antell, president of the North Rosslyn Civic Association, was the uncertain fate of the Wilson School, a historic but long-dormant school in his neighborhood.

When the Arlington School Board announced that it was beginning a process to determine how to best use the property, which hasn’t housed a full-time school since the early 1970s, Antell decided it was time to break out the cameras.

"The impetus for the film was [Arlington Public Schools] saying ‘We’re going to do something about Wilson,’" he said.

The title of the ten-minute film is "Save Wilson School." It mixes images of everyday life in Rosslyn with testimony from local residents about the potential benefits of maintaining an open area where the Wilson School now sits.

"People don’t really think about it as an area for kids," Rosslyn resident Estee Levine says in the film against a backdrop of children playing. "But more and more people are moving to our building in Rosslyn."

"This is the only active recreation park anywhere between the river and Courthouse and… between Crystal City and Lee Highway," community activist Jay Wind says while standing in the Wilson School site. "It’s the only park where kids can play and it’s been like this for 20, 30 years."

The film also touts the historic qualities of the Wilson School, built in 1910 and named after President Woodrow Wilson who visited the school many times during his presidency.

"You can’t have a community without a history," Gerry Laporte of the Arlington Historical Society says in his home. "In order to have a history you have to have signs of the past."

"SAVE WILSON SCHOOL" was created by local filmmaker Wayne Westbrook.

A resident of the North Rosslyn neighborhood, Westbrook was a director and producer of commercials for companies like McDonalds and Wal-Mart.

He moved to Arlington recently after closing up shop on the company he ran for 26 years in Richmond, Main Street Productions.

Reading the North Rosslyn newsletter one day, Westbrook noticed a request for people with media experience who could volunteer time. He met with Antell who explained to him that North Rosslyn needed something to counter the flashy productions put on by developers wanting to build high-rises in the neighborhood.

Westbrook decided to donate his time and equipment to Antell and his cause. The result was "Save Wilson School."

Westbrook estimates that he and Antell spent more than 200 hours working on the film, which would normally translate to a price tag of around $60,000.

"[He] contributed numbers that are way beyond our budget," Antell said. "It’s very professionally done."

"It was a labor of love," Westbrook said.

Westbrook also noted that, throughout the process of making the film, he developed a deep respect for Antell’s tenacious brand of civic activism.

"Mark is one of these guys who’s just diligent and works hard," he said. "He’s an old hippie like me."

UNDOUBTEDLY, THE MAIN audience for the film is the School Board, which will have the final say in what happens to the Wilson School. The Board is scheduled at its June 19 meeting to make its final decision on what to do with the property.

School Board member David Foster has seen "Save Wilson School" and called the film, "A very smoothly, professionally-done production," that is "a helpful contribution to the discussion."

"It underscores well the importance of the site," Foster added, "And the importance of preserving as much open space in Rosslyn as we can."

Other School Board members such as Libby Garvey and Ed Fendley said that they have not seen the film yet but were intending to.

Fendley acknowledged that the Wilson School is an important property but said that the School Board has been lobbied by a host of different interests and groups as to what should become of it. He also said that he wanted to join with the County Board to maximize the benefit of the Wilson School to the community.

"Given the importance of the piece of property… it’s very important that we work closely with the county government," Fendley said. "We need to make sure the decisions we make are coordinated."

While the School Board will have the final say in what becomes of the Wilson School, Antell and Westbrook want to circulate their film throughout the community because they feel it affects everyone in Arlington.

"Save Wilson School" has been shown on local public access television and the North Rosslyn Civic Association has been attempting to show a screening at the school itself.

The film has also been posted on the video-sharing Web site YouTube where it has been viewed more than 800 times.

Westbrook said that while the film is meant for "The people who make the decisions," it is also for the people in Arlington who are unaware of the Wilson School.

"[The community activists] can help keep this issue alive," he said.