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Behind the Camera with Maia Vota 

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NAME: Maia Vota
AGE: 15
TOWN: Burlington

The film starts with a teenage girl with long brown hair and braces looking directly into the camera. "My name is Maia. I'm a filmmaker," she says.

The three-minute documentary chronicles her budding career, which, despite its infancy, has already had some made-for-Hollywood moments. And no one is more surprised than Maia.

"I'm quiet," she said. "Reaching out is not in my nature."

But say the name Maia Vota around Edmunds Middle School, and, even though she's now a freshman at Burlington High School, kids know she's a filmmaker, said Brent Truchon, the middle school's tech innovation coach: "It's a badge of honor."

Truchon witnessed Maia's start. As her seventh-grade social studies teacher, he asked students, "How can you make a difference?" then had them design their own learning activity for the last month of school. Maia went to Vermont Community Access Media, took a course so she could use their equipment and made a film, called "Anything Helps," about a runner, a homeless man and their serendipitous encounters.

"I've seen a lot of pretty unbelievable stuff," Truchon said. "But it's seldom that I'm floored. And this was one that I watched, and I was [thinking], My god, I can't believe that was done by a seventh-grade student."

In eighth grade, Maia got permission from her principal to pursue filmmaking as an independent study course with Truchon's supervision. That's when she read a New York Times Magazine article about gender bias in the film industry. Maia was shocked by Maureen Dowd's detailed account of "Hollywood's toxic brew of fear and sexism." In 2013 and 2014, Dowd reported, women comprised only 1.9 percent of the directors for the 100 top-grossing films.

"I had never really wanted to make a documentary, because I'd always thought they were boring," Maia said, laughing. But for the last 10 months, she's immersed herself in documenting gender bias in the industry, "because I want to direct," she said. "If this is something that's going to affect me, I want to have a positive impact on that and, hopefully, change it for other people."

Maia's documentary is still a work in progress. It gained traction in February when Maia emailed Lena Dunham, creator and star of the HBO series "Girls." Dunham has been vocal about Hollywood's gender bias and was, in Maia's mind, a "pie-in-the-sky" interview. Maia got Dunham's email address through a friend, sent a message and got an immediate reply.

"I was psyched," Maia said.

Dunham sent Maia a box of her favorite movies directed by women, including The Piano and Monsoon Wedding. "I hope they bring you joy and inspiration!" she wrote. On a "Girls" DVD case, she penned further encouragement: "Thank you for fighting the good fight."

The box is in Maia's bedroom, which is morphing into a film studio. Her well-loved Polka Dot Puppy sits on a shelf alongside interview-release forms; on one wall, the flowers she and her mom painted are partially covered by corkboard squares that hold Maia's storyboard.

Learning to run a camera and use video-editing software has been the nuts and bolts of Maia's filmmaking education. But finding people who believe in her — like Dunham — has been equally important.

"I really feel like I'm qualified," Maia said.

She's garnered additional support and advice from two California filmmakers who came to Edmunds as part of the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools Initiative directed by Digital Promise, a program that equipped students and teachers with iPads, professional development and support.

One of them, Rosa Maria Ruvalcaba, who co-owns a Los Angeles video-production company, called Maia a voracious learner. "You can see her thinking," she said.

Watching her plunge into the male-dominated film industry is thrilling, Ruvalcaba said: "I was just super excited to connect with her."


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