Seventh-Grader Investigates the ‘Anatomy of a Snow Day’

1-28-15 Snow Day doc
Zachary Maxwell, 12, made a 41-minute documentary about what goes into a New York City snow day. Maxwell Project/Vimeo

New York City all but shut down late Monday and Tuesday in anticipation of a “crippling” nor’easter that never showed. Schools around the city announced a snow day on Tuesday for what ended up being a manageable amount of snow. Historically, the city’s schools shut their doors only once in a blue moon—only three times between 2000 and 2009 and five since, including yesterday.

Last year’s particularly harsh winter—and a controversial decision by the newly appointed Mayor Bill de Blasio to keep schools open on February 13, 2014—spurred a pint-sized documentary filmmaker to dissect the issue in Anatomy of a Snow Day.

Zachary, a seventh-grader at NYC Lab School, began shooting winter scenes with his father, a lawyer, who also edited the documentary, and asking questions to find out what goes into the snow day decision in a city with roughly a million children in its public school system. Zachary’s family asks to withhold his last name because of his age; Maxwell is his middle name.

“As a seventh-grader attending public school here, there has always been something that bothered me. Even though our area will probably be pounded by snow, it is likely that our Mayor and Schools Chancellor will keep schools open,” Zachary wrote in an essay on Quartz in November, just ahead of his documentary’s premiere.

“I wondered how the City made these decisions. Since I couldn’t find any clear information on the Internet, I decided to investigate the issue myself.”

The 41-minute documentary had its world premiere at the 2014 DOC NYC on November 15. “Anatomy of a Snow Day marks the fest debut of a born storyteller,” wrote Kurt Brokaw, a senior film critic for the Independent.

“It’s funny to edit a project that was shot over six months when your voice is changing,” the young filmmaker said at the premiere.

But Anatomy was not the 12-year-old’s first foray into documentary. He previously worked on shorter docs such as A-D-Something-Something (a film about ADHD) as well as Yuck! A 4th Grader's Short Documentary About School Lunch (screened at the Manhattan Film Festival), Last Letter to Santa and Blockbuster: Prelude and Pitch.

“Instead of just sitting back and complaining,” Zachary wrote, “kids should get involved, stir up some trouble, and seek out the answers themselves.”

Zachary shares his answers about New York City snow days, including interviews with de Blasio, meteorologist Bill Evans, Department of Sanitation Assistant Chief Edward Grayson and Commissioner Joseph Bruno from the Office of Emergency Management, in Anatomy, which can be viewed in full online.