Keepin' it Reel: The Yale Student Film FestivalLeave a Comment
A sleeping man, nestled in white sheets, stirs awake.
Suddenly, the sun rises. Winter covers a lake. A man applies powder to the exposed skin of his neck. A buttery opens for business; cellophane flutters in the wind; a girl and a guy sit on a bench. A girl and a guy jog through a forest. There’s writing, wrestling, talking, staring, floating, fighting, riding, waiting, waking, sailing; there’s disappearing.
These are only glimpses from a rapid-fire supercut of the 21 films in this weekend’s first annual Yale Student Film Festival, posted on the festival’s Facebook event page. Three days long, the festival commences on Friday, March 27 and will last until Sunday afternoon.
You’ll need an invite to attend the opening remarks by Bruce Cohen ’83, the Academy Award-winning producer of “American Beauty” (1999) and “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012). Anyone, however, can stop by the Whitney Humanities Center for Saturday’s lineup, featuring a dizzying array of films, divided into three hour-long screening blocks.
“The festival is about Yale at large,” Festival Coordinator Travis Gonzalez ’16 said. Indeed, Yale alumni, graduate students and current undergraduates created all of the festival’s projects.
Beyond the screenings, other offerings include a production workshop with Cohen and a roundtable discussion during which audience members can talk with filmmakers and learn about movie-making. In addition, filmmakers who chose to enter their works into competition for prizes will receive constructive feedback from a panel of judges.
“What both the audience and the filmmakers are going to get out of this is the realization that the filmmaking community is diverse, and it’s present, and it’s something that’s very easy to be a part of,” Yale Film Alliance President Dara Eliacin ’15 said.
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The Yale Student Film Festival is a student-run effort — something that makes it particularly forward-thinking, according to Digital Media Center for the Arts Technical Specialist Louisa de Cossy.
The festival’s origins date back to the genesis of the Yale Film Alliance last April, Gonzalez explained. Within the past year, film production on campus has undergone major changes, set into motion by student filmmakers like Gonzalez and Eliacin.
According to Eliacin, students were having trouble meeting other filmmakers with whom they could work on projects. Realizing that they needed support from the University administration in order to make any progress, Eliacin reached out to Associate Dean for the Arts Susan Cahan.
Chief among students’ concerns were a lack of cohesion and resources. Although campus film organizations did exist at that point, such as Bulldog Productions — led by Gonzalez — and the Yale Film Society, such groups were never totally in conversation with one another. Aside from being disparate, the filmmaking scene also faced perceptions of insularity and inaccessibility.
The Yale Film Alliance emerged out of meetings between filmmakers and the Yale College Dean’s Office, pulling these clusters together into a centralized entity. De Cossy describes the YFA as a hub of creativity, where movie-minded people can collaborate, share resources and talk about film. In some ways, de Cossy said, it serves a similar function as the Yale Drama Coalition, the umbrella organization for Yale’s theater community.
In addition, for the first time this year, prospective filmmakers can choose to concentrate in filmmaking in the Art Department. Previously, their only option was the production track within the Film & Media Studies major, which is more grounded in history and theory than in practice.
And then, of course, there’s the film festival. When they convened, the filmmakers bounced around several ideas: a festival was one of them. At the time, however, it seemed a far-off possibility.
“We had never dreamed at that point that it would actually happen within a year, but it’s happening now, and that’s exciting,” Eliacin said.
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The DMCA aims to facilitate learning and equipment access for students involved in the digital arts — film production ranks among these. As the center’s technical specialist, de Cossy has helped the festival’s filmmakers figure out the best way to deliver their projects. She believes that an event like this one can be particularly invaluable for students.
“When you’re in the edit booth and you look at your work, that’s one thing,” she said. “But when it’s a festival, and your film is up there for your peers, community, and strangers to see, you get an incredible read from the audience.”
That’s not to say that films are never shown on campus – just last month, Bulldog Productions held their seasonal showcase. But as things stand, many campus screenings tend to have limited audiences. Although Eliacin’s friends know that she’s constantly working on films, they don’t always get to attend cast-and-crew screenings. According to Eliacin, a goal of the festival is the consolidation of these isolated screenings into a single event, meant for a wider Yale community.
Some of the participating filmmakers are far from new to the festival scene; but even for them, a student event at Yale has its perks.
Eliacin cites the example of Daniel Matyas ’16, one of the festival’s participants and director of “Ready.” Matyas went alone to South by Southwest, an annual film and music festival in Austin, Texas, where he presented two projects. But student filmmakers who submit work to a festival at Yale — their “home base” — can share the experience with family and friends.
De Cossy believes that alumni, too, benefit from a symbiotic relationship with current students. “You leave Yale, but you still feel connected to your time here and you want to help the people pioneering what’s happening now,” she said, adding that their presence raises the bar for undergraduate work. And although many alumni were unable to attend this year’s festival due to scheduling conflicts, the response was overwhelmingly positive, and several asked to judge or host workshops next year.
Film & Media Studies Senior Lecturer and Whitney Humanities Center Programming Director Ronald Gregg described the festival’s atmosphere as both exciting and collaborative. The rise of the Yale Film Alliance and the festival mark a new era for a community previously characterized by insecurity and competition among filmmakers.
“A number of energies [seem] to have come together,” Gregg said, speculating on why these changes have been made possible. In other words, we’re in the right place at the right time.
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The result is anything but homogeneous. The festival’s projects range from documentaries to experimental tinkerings and even to works-in-progress — as Eliacin says, there’s something for everyone.
“Yalies are doing really varied things in film, and this festival is just a small sampling of what that looks like,” Gonzalez said. Behind the pied visual styles and genres are creators who bring their own diverse sensibilities to the table.
Take, for instance, Anamika Veeramani ’18, who had little film experience before arriving at Yale. She first learned about Bulldog Productions during Bulldog Days, and when she came to campus last fall, she soon began working with the production group.
Her independent documentary, “In Our City,” explores the aftermath of the 2014 death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy shot by a police officer in Cleveland, Veeramani’s hometown. Composed of interviews intercut with surveillance footage of the park in which Rice was shot, the documentary juggles different viewpoints, from those of Cleveland residents to the city’s law director. Eschewing the tendency among activist filmmakers to doctor reality, Veeramani is optimistic that good documentary need not rely on spectacle.
On the other end of the spectrum is Russell Cohen ’17, who discovered stop-motion animation on a trip to the science museum in fifth grade. Inspired, he and his friend spent the next several years making two feature-length movies starring Legos. Cohen, the vice-president of Bulldog Productions, has since moved on from the colored construction toys to live action.
“Legos didn’t have classes or expect to be fed,” he noted.
However, he remains drawn to more offbeat films. The experimental film “Lost and Found,” produced by Cohen and directed by Emily Murphy ’17, features a girl who leaves her watch in the library and then returns to find it gone — replaced by an umbrella. A fantastical journey around campus in search of the missing watch ensues.
Even some individual filmmakers represent microcosms of the festival’s artistic diversity. Livia Ungur ART ’15 and Sherng-Lee Huang, a wife-husband duo, will be screening several films this Saturday that each employ notably different formal strategies.
As a sculpture student, Ungur said that she feels particularly isolated from other filmmakers on campus; she sees the festival as a chance to connect with them and share work previously only seen by peers in her department.
These include “And Then,” which, according to Ungur, is a playful meditation on the passage of time. “Maybe we shouldn’t say too much. It’s only a 50-second film, and if we reveal too much, there’s no point even watching it,” Huang joked. “We’ll just keep it a surprise.”
Longer in duration is “The Listening Party,” which appropriates material from American rock documentaries to tell the story of workers listening to rock music in Communist Romania. Ungur herself grew up in Romania during the Communist period; her father’s story is at the film’s heart.
In addition to such autobiographical influences, Ungur and Huang’s collaborations draw on their differing media backgrounds. Ungur is trained in art; Huang, in traditional filmmaking. Hybrid works emerge that challenge the pair’s assumptions about either discipline.
“It’s sort of like an argument playing out on the screen,” Huang noted with a smile.
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Take the above to be only a glimpse into a glimpse of the possibilities that can emerge from a single campus, and what de Cossy says rings true: “[Film] is a medium that’s exploding.”
De Cossy sees the shifts in film production on campus as reflective of the current climate in the nation at large. She describes the attitude towards filmmaking as dynamic — the medium’s accessibility and interdisciplinary nature have become increasingly apparent. What’s new, she said, is that, in some ways, students are leading this explosion.
Gregg says it’s a pleasure to witness such student-driven endeavors: for him, the festival is an example of what they’re working to build. The current transition on campus raises as yet unanswered questions for administrators about adequate resources — equipment, workshops and so on — to keep up with increased student interest in filmmaking. But, he said, the conversation is happening.
The community is now in place, as indicated by the support that filmmakers like Veeramani have found. Setting aside technical limitations, Eliacin cited confidence as the big obstacle in filmmaking: putting yourself out there.
“If there’s something you want to do, come on. We can help you,” she said.
Cahan underscored her office’s commitment to student filmmaking.
“I’m thrilled to see our filmmakers pursue the benefits that flow from collaboration,” she wrote in an email. “They can count on our office to support their efforts.”
She added that, while Yale has provided opportunities in film and video production for decades, never before have student filmmakers come together to pursue the sort of collective vision embodied by the festival.
Similarly, Gregg believes that the festival, along with the creation of the YFA and the filmmaking track in the art major, speaks to the institutionalization of film production in a wholly new way. In the past, he said, certain students might inject some life into the filmmaking community, but that energy would decline after they graduated. Something’s different now.
“For the first time,” Gregg said, “it feels like film has arrived at Yale.”