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Film: 'Anatomy of a Snow Day' Looks at When a Storm is Enough to Close Schools

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This week's blizzard didn't sock New York City as hard as predicted, but fears about the storm were enough for a rare closing of schools in the nation's largest district. So the snowstorm was the perfect peg to write about a short film I viewed back in November, but for various reasons didn't get around to writing about until now.

"Anatomy of a Snow Day" is a fun, 40-minute documentary by a 12-year-old who was already an acclaimed filmmaker and has appeared on network morning news shows and on Jimmy Kimmel. It was produced last year—not this week—when the Big Apple was hit with a number of winter storms. It's the perfect film to watch if you're home from school this week, or stuck at home with your kids. 

TRAILER: Anatomy of a Snow Day from Maxwell Project on Vimeo.

And the full film is here, and available free on Vimeo:

Anatomy of a Snow Day from Maxwell Project on Vimeo.

Zachary Maxwell, the gap-toothed filmmaker, wakes up in his family's Manhattan apartment one snowy morning expecting to learn that schools have closed. When he learns that they haven't, he sets off to investigate what goes into the decision by New York City municipal officials on whether to shut down schools or not.

We learn that, as of early 2014, the city's schools had closed only 11 times since 1978, despite 55 severe winter storms. (They ended up closing on at least one day last winter, and of course on Tuesday in anticipation of the blizzard of the century.)

Although Zachary at first wants to have a day off from school for the obvious reasons any kid would, his inquiry eventually leads him to take pride in the city's high bar for closing schools. 

"New Yorkers are tough," Zachary told me in a phone interview late last year, after "Anatomy of a Snow Day" had been screened at the DOC NYC film festival. "Even if we have to work our way down to school, we have a lot of resources to do it."

The heart of "Snow Day" is Zachary's dogged efforts to try to get an on-camera interview with New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. "What was this in regards to?" a press aide asks him, after he has explained repeatedly in calls, letters, and emails just what it is in regards to.

Press aides to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who at the time was just days into taking office, are more open to helping the filmmaker, and Zachary eventually gets to sit down with the new mayor. "New Yorkers, by nature, aren't thrown off by challenges," the mayor tells him in an interview at City Hall. Another city official tells Zachary (quite correctly) that in Washington, by contrast, "a little bit of snow, the whole city shuts down."

"Snow Day" wasn't Zachary's first film. In 2012, he made "Yuck! A 4th Grader's Short Documentary About School Lunch." The 20-minute film details Zachary's efforts at sneaking his camera into his public school, where the lunch selections were not living up to their menu descriptions.

Yuck: A 4th Grader's Short Documentary About School Lunch from Maxwell Project on Vimeo.

The film got Zachary on "Good Morning America" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live." The New York Times called him "The Michael Moore of the Grade-School Lunchroom."

Zachary told me his role model is the documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ("Super Size Me").

"A lot of filmmakers focus on what is bothering them, or what is interesting to them, and right now, I'm a kid," says the 7th grader.

Zachary's father, C.J. Maxwell, is a lawyer who is interested in film production, and he helps his son with filming and post-production.

"It's fun to work on this together, while he still likes me," the father said. C.J. and Zachary are developing lesson plans that teachers could use with "Anatomy of Snow Day" to teach topics such as weather, science, and journalism.

Zachary agrees that he and his father have bonded over their film projects. "This was always a hobby of ours," he said. "As I got older, I could hold the camera myself. And as I got even older, I found I could tell stories through filmmaking."

Zachary's says his next project is puberty, meaning as a film subject as well as a matter of personal development.

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