Editor's Note: This article was published for Reel South July 2021.
For the PBS Short Film Festival, two Reel South shorts will be featured — "Coup d’état Math" and "Kids Game." We caught up with the creator of "Kids Game," Michiel Thomas, to speak with him about the creation of the short. He shared his insights to his inspiration, favorite parts, and more during his filmmaker interview below.
Heather Leighton: What inspired you to create "Kids Game?"
Michiel Thomas: Nature has always been a big part of my life. Growing up in a small green Belgian town, I quickly became true nature geek. After my move to Los Angeles in 2008, I found myself escaping regularly to the beautiful Californian beaches and mountains to clear my mind from the hectic city life. That passion for the outdoors sparked me to make a film that aims to reduce the gap between the inner city community and nature. I also wanted to encourage people to live life to the fullest instead of living it virtually through a digital screen.
During the research process, I was pleasantly surprised to find many wonderful organizations whose mission statement was aligned with the goal of the project. City Kids Adventures in San Antonio stood out. The organization is led by Leon McNeil, a middle school teacher, who is also a well-regarded South Texas quail hunting guide. Leon’s partner and co-leader of the organization is his wife, Leticia McNeil, who is also a teacher. Their son, Lee Charles, has been involved in the program since he was a child. The McNeils have devoted much of their life, and certainly all of their spare time, to ensuring that City Kids Adventures continues to have a positive impact on the lives of inner-city children. They welcomed me with open arms to capture the variety of activities they offer.
Heather: What do you hope viewers learn or get from the film?
Michiel: City Kids Adventures introduces San Antonio inner-city youth to a wide range of outdoor recreational activities including archery, camping, canoeing, freshwater, saltwater and offshore fishing, hiking, kayaking, open-water swimming, horseback riding and hunting. I had never participated in a hunt myself, so for me suddenly a new world opened up. There are a lot of misconceptions about hunting and I was amazed by the educational training, the rules and ethics these kids were learning prior to the actual hunt.
I also came to find out that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2019 the San Antonio Metro Region in Texas leads the nation in poverty. According to the Census, one in four children experience hunger. City Kids Adventures works mostly with at-risk youth, so for them to teach these youngsters about the value of food, and offer them the opportunity to harvest meals for themselves and their families, were a very powerful motivation to focus on this aspect of their program.
Heather: What did you learn during the creation of the film?
Michiel: During an earlier cut, I used a lot of interviews, but I it felt like I was trying to lecture the viewer too much. I really wanted the viewer to be in the moment, and experience the lessons and rollercoaster of emotions these kids went through as a fly on wall, so I decided to change the style into a more cinéma verité approach.
Heather: Was there any part of the film you wished you could add, but couldn't? If so, what was the reason you couldn’t?
Michiel: I filmed a variety of activities with City Kids Adventures: from ATV and horseback riding to camping and fishing… you name it! But at the end of the day I came to Texas to film a documentary and not just a promo video. Eventually, from a documentary style and storytelling perspective, the angle on the hunting experience felt the most compelling to focus on for this specific short documentary project.
Heather: What were your favorite parts?
Michiel: My favorite part was just to see these kids have fun, open up, and watch their confidence increase. They had a great time while learning and growing.
Heather: What is next for you? Anything you'd like to brag about?
Michiel: I’m finishing a next feature documentary project, which will be something completely different, but nonetheless close to my heart. Unfortunately I have to keep my lips sealed until the end of this month, but more news to come soon!
Heather: Would you like to add anything that my questions didn't quite cover?
Michiel: Please visit City Kids Adventures to support City Kids Adventures and to find out more about the non-traditional outdoor recreational opportunities they offer to inner-city youth.
“Kids Game” will be streaming on PBS.org from July 12-23 as part of the PBS Short Film Festival 2021.