Over the past year, young people participating in this year's “If I Had a Trillion Dollars” National Youth Film Festival have been learning how U.S. taxpayer money is spent.

Seeing the breakdown of the federal discretionary budget—with more than 60 percent spent on the military — is surprising for most of the students, whose everyday reality paints a very different picture of the U.S.s use of its resources: one where the schools at the center of their communities have to close, where the economy has no room to employ them, and where attending college requires assuming decades of debt.

It was surprising for Mina Al Doori, whose experiences in Pittsburgh, Pa., are pretty typical of 18-year-olds there: She attends a public magnet school with the teachers and students she’s known for a few years, as well as the population of another school whose building was recently closed. “In my school now we have two schools in one school,” she explains.

Minas group’s video entry, “Educating Hope,” considers the effects of overcrowded and under-funded schools on students futures. The video links the military-industrial complex to problems with education funding, showing how one young mans poor high school education leads him to seek a future in the U.S. Air Force to make ends meet after he drops out of school.

Though Mina can understand this scenario, she also knows what it's like to be on the other side of war. Mina is Iraqi, born and raised in Baghdad; at age 11, she and her family left their home when sectarian violence made it too dangerous for them to stay.

“We stayed two years after the war happened,” she says. Her mom worked as a secretary and her dad worked with an American company. As the violence increased, “We decided there wasn’t any future for us, for me and my sister being there. That’s when we decided to come here.”

After four years in an apartment in Syria, Mina, her sister, and their parents were granted refugee status to come to this country.

Mina is a painter, and it was through art that she found a way to express her feelings on the U.S. presence in Iraq. Last year, she collaborated with a U.S. veteran through Pittsburgh War Dialogues to create a special installation on their memories of the human cost of war. 

Her group's decision to use stop-motion for their video gave her another opportunity to share her message through art.

“Art is a way of making people see something, without actually reading something to them,” she says.

Her chalk drawings serve as the backdrop for scenes in the video, including a classroom in the U.S. and bombs dropping on a village flanked by mountains.

If things were different

Mina thinks that the proportion of the budget spent on the military “is way too much.”

“That’s why we came up with education, because it’s more important to spend [more than] a minimum of money on it,” she says. Her group’s entry for the film festival shows an alternative scenario, where money is spent on education instead of on war, allowing the main character to attend college and graduate school instead of joining the military.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t want to go to the military, but they just go because it’s easy to sign up,” says Mina. “If education was easy, and they got good education for less money, they would want to go there and do whatever they would like to do.”

The 25 official selections for the festival, including Mina’s video, will be screened at a special event in Washington, D.C., on April 14. It is open to the public.

The videos are also available online: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLVA_5QO0UecBvNbY-c4536pRRuMskD8Tt