A shot from Lion Birnecker's winning film, "Take Action Against Lead,” about lead water pipes.

Evanston eighth grader Lion Birnecker developed an interest in filmmaking last year.

Lion, who is homeschooled, took a couple of online filmmaking classes, including a video-editing class, and decided to submit a film to the One Earth Young Filmmakers Contest, which invites students from third grade through college to create a short film on an environmental topic. The annual contest is sponsored by the One Earth Collective, an Oak Park-based nonprofit.

Lion Birnecker (Submitted photo)

“I thought it’d be a fun opportunity to practice my skills and learn about an important topic,” Lion said. 

On Feb. 3, an exciting email landed in Lion’s inbox. His six-minute film “Take Action Against Lead,” won the $200 first place prize for the contest’s middle school level. 

Lion’s film provides a brief history on the use of lead in ancient Roman aqueducts before examining the toxic substance in modern-day Chicago, which has more lead pipes than any other city. 

“It is durable, strong, cheap and easy to obtain. It has been used for 6,000 years. It is also poisonous,” he says in his film, which concludes with a list of measures people can take to protect themselves from the substance, linked to neurological problems and especially harmful to children and infants.

Lion said he chose lead as the topic of his film because he wanted to highlight an environmental issue that affects the Chicago area

In their Feb. 3 email, the judges wrote that Lion’s film brought a new sense of urgency to the issue. “We’ve known about the harmful effects of leaded pipes in Flint, Michigan, but had no idea that Chicago had such a serious problem as well,” the email read. 

His film will air virtually at 3 p.m. Saturday. Tickets for the screening are available here and the film will later be posted here

In addition to receiving $200, Lion won a $200 matching grant which he may donate to a nonprofit related to his film. He selected Current Water, a Chicago nonprofit that develops technology in water management.

“They are doing a lot of great work,” he said. 

Lion learned about the One Earth Young Filmmakers Contest after his mother, Sonat Birnecker Hart, found it online while searching for youth filmmaking opportunities, she wrote to the RoundTable. 

“I am truly proud that Lion decided to work on a film regarding a local environmental topic,” she wrote. “I cannot wait for the screening.”

She added that Lion learned a lot about lead, particularly its prevalence in Illinois. 

Lion has been taking primarily online classes since the start of the pandemic. During that time, his family moved from Chicago to Evanston, where his grandmother lives. 

The teenager has big projects on the horizon. Friday morning, Lion received an email from a startup company asking him to do some video editing. “That’s probably what I’m gonna work on next,” he said.

Adina Keeling

Adina Keeling is a photojournalist and reporter, covering city news, sustainability, schools, and art. She also investigates mental health systems and environmental injustices in Evanston, and puts together...

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