DECORAH — The film begins with a harsh wake-up: An alarm sounds as the camera comes into focus. Realizing she’s late for school, the main character is immediately inundated with negative thoughts about all of her flaws and what people think about her.
That sets up the short film “Learning to Love” by Decorah High School sophomore Emma Fretheim, which won her school library a $1,000 prize after it won honorable mention in a statewide Shakespeare film contest.
“Learning to Love” follows an unnamed protagonist as she wrestles with negative thoughts, including about her sexuality, before discovering common ground with others and through a play written nearly 400 years ago.
Fretheim said she was inspired by Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night,” with its themes of gender identity and sexual attraction.
“When we were assigned to read a play by Shakespeare, I didn’t think it would make such an impact on my life — I thought it would be like all the other love stories we were told,” Fretheim narrates in the film. “In ‘Twelfth Night,’ I was able to see that every single character was going through some sort of struggle that impacts their life.”
The protagonist in the film says she was better able to come to terms with who she was — to “love myself” — after reading the play.
“I am able to share my struggles with you because I have come to terms with them,” the narrator continues. “My struggles are my sexuality and my mental health. These problems don’t make up who I am — it’s how I deal with them.”
Fretheim’s film, less than five minutes in length, won Honorable Mention in a contest sponsored by the University of Iowa’s School of Library and Information Science. The award and $1,000 prize was presented to Fretheim and her English teacher, Kathryn Thompson, last month.
“People stop me in the hallway, say ‘congratulations’ and talk about it,” Fretheim said.
Fretheim’s film was one of about 60 projects among 140 student groups in Thompson’s English classes that were entered in the statewide contest.
“I really love Shakespeare,” Fretheim said. “The topics that he talked about, the tensions, are these things that are really current right now.”
She settled on the themes of mental health and coming out as gay after seeing characters in “Twelfth Night” go through similar things.
“I know a lot of people that identify as (gay), so I thought that would be easy for me to do,” Fretheim said. “I really try to emphasize about the mental health — that’s something that needs to be worked on tremendously.”
She chose to film in first person — the camera sees what the protagonist sees — because “I thought it would make you experience what the person is thinking, and it would be much more meaningful.”
Thompson also is featured in the film in snippets of a “coming-out” video she agreed to do specifically for Fretheim’s project, one of two Decorah High School teachers featured. Thompson is married to a woman, something she shared with her classes in the fall.
She said she tries to remain “neutral” and “nonpolitical” in the classroom, but said appearing in Fretheim’s film was not a difficult decision and she’s received positive feedback.
“So often, we are asked to sort of separate our lives from what we do or who we are as adults, and I think it’s really important for students to see my life just like they would see any other teachers’ lives,” Thompson said.
Fretheim said she had to cut others’ coming-out testimonials from the film because of time, but found a recurring theme.
“I noticed a lot of people saying they had to love themselves before they could tell (others),” she said.
The prize money was used to buy about 75 new fiction and nonfiction books for Decorah High School’s library, according to Fretheim and Thompson.
There are no plans to show “Learning to Love” publicly, but anyone can access the film on YouTube — and so far, it’s been viewed more than 700 times.
“At the end of the day, I’m glad I did it the way I did,” Fretheim said. “If I changed one thing, it might not have impacted someone in the way it did. People have talked to me, given me insight on what they’re going through. They’re not going to be afraid.”