Tag Archive: documentary

  1. Keepin’ it Reel: The Yale Student Film Festival

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    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 where they sort from many videos to leave only the best just like mike morse films.

    “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.

    * * *

    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.

    * * *

    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.

    * * *

    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.

    * * *

    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.”

  2. Forestry, Film and Food: Ian Cheney

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    Q: Why did you choose to make a film about Chinese food?

    A: Just after grad school my best friend and I were on our way to Iowa to shoot “King Corn” [his first film]. We stopped at a Chinese restaurant in a small town — middle of nowhere America — in the middle of the night and ordered General Tso’s chicken. It made us wonder, who is General Tso, and why does he have chicken everywhere in America? That’s something we wanted to chase. The idea simmered on the back burner for a few years, and then we teamed up with Jennifer 8. Lee, a nonfiction writer, who has a chapter in her latest book about General Tso.

    Q: What’s your favorite thing about making film?

    A: Probably my favorite thing about documentary filmmaking is meeting remarkable, smart people in interesting places. Every film is an adventure in its own right. On a film like The Search for General Tso, we wandered into Chinese restaurants all across America and were welcomed into people’s back kitchens to hear their stories about how they came to America, or how they got into the restaurant industry. Even though putting a camera in front of someone’s face changes the interaction, the filmmaking process challenges people to value their own stories. You knock on someone’s door saying, “I want to share your story with the world,” and they take a certain pride in their own life and adventures.

    Q: Right, people tend to act differently when they know they’re being filmed. How do you deal with that difficulty?

    A: The question is, do you acknowledge that, or keep the camera around long enough that people forget that it’s there? Documentary filmmakers take lots of different approaches to the “truth” question. In some cases it has made sense for me to be in films, to be the narrator, but in others, fortunately, I was not present. I was in the Viola Question at Yale, which was a lot of fun, and prepared me for acting. One of the guys in the group, Jeff Miller, was the editor of “King Corn.”

    Q: What’s the most challenging thing about making film?

    A: Fundraising is always a challenge, but that’s a boring answer. With this film one of the challenges was balancing the whimsical premise of the film with the stories of immigration, assimilation and repression that were very much a part of the Chinese-American experiences. We heard stories relating to the 1882 Assimilation Act, countless episodes of discrimination that Chinese-Americans have faced in coming to America.

    Q: What was your first experience with filmmaking?

    A: I did a lot of photography at Yale. I got one of those art grants from the residential colleges that allowed me to buy rolls of film, and I would ride around New Haven at night on my bicycle and take pictures of the stars. It wasn’t until after I graduated forestry school that I starting making film.

    Q: Do you have a mission as a filmmaker?

    A: I’d be reluctant to say that I have one core agenda that permeates all of our projects. I do try to make films that are entertaining enough that people will want to watch them, educational enough that people gain something from them and beautiful enough that people enjoy sitting in the theater. But the goals change with every film, and the story you want to tell shifts with every film. Each film is a three-year adventure into entirely new territory, and that certainly presents a lot of challenges because there’s a steep learning curve. I always have to learn new material and call upon knowledge from college classes I never thought I would need. But also, each adventure is incredibly rewarding because you meet people who become your lifelong friends or collaborators. We wanted to make “King Corn” because we wanted to tell the story of America’s broken food system; that’s an agenda. But in making that film, our sense of how to tell that story changed dramatically. I didn’t know anything about Chinese-American history when I started making General Tso, then in the process of making and researching, it became clear that we had an opportunity and a responsibility to tell a larger story than one just about chicken.

    Q: What topics are most interesting to you?

    A: I’ve spent much of the last decade working on films and projects related to food and agriculture, and their effect on their environment. Food is inherently a very interdisciplinary subject — it can get you into politics, chemistry, history, etc. I’ve also had a lifelong interest in the planetary sciences. I’m halfway through a journalism fellowship at MIT, so I’m spending the year auditing classes there and at Harvard, and talking to scientists about their work. I think that’s really crucial for understanding contemporary global issues like climate change.

    Q: Do you have any advice for people who want to make film?

    A: I did not specifically train in college and graduate school to be a filmmaker, but I do find that in documentary film I call upon all sorts of things I learned throughout college. Documentary filmmaking is a big umbrella, and if you’re prepared to put some long hours into grant writing and fundraising and being broke for a while it’s a really rewarding way to explore your interests. In many ways, it means inventing a job for yourself. It’s a path we’ve had to clear.

    Q: Do you consider yourself to be an artist? An activist? A journalist?

    A: I would say documentary film is a combination of activism, art and journalism. I got into journalism because of my interest in the topics I wanted to explore, and I had a desire to make some form of art. The combination of art, activism, advocacy, storytelling and journalism makes documentary filmmaking a good job for me.

    Q: Thoughts on Yale?

    A: I think that Yale was supportive of my interdisciplinary interests. I majored in EP&E and was able to take a lot of classes at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. I didn’t feel like there was a prescribed program that was perfect for me, but Yale gave me the space to invent it for myself. That’s been a really helpful foundation moving forwards with my career. I continue to collaborate with many of the people I met in college — one of my old roommates does the sound tracks for all of our films. I know this is corny, but the people I got to meet were really what college was about.

    Q: Was there another career you thought you’d pursue before filmmaking?

    A: [Laughing] You’d imagine that I was thinking about having some sort of job, but for the life of me I can’t remember what I wanted! I just thought I would figure it out and that I would make it one way or another. I’m still paying off my college loans, but I do think I’ve figured out how to balance my outlandish interests by making films that get funded and get produced.

    Q: So, do you feel like you’ve “made it” as a filmmaker?

    A: Whenever a documentary filmmaker tells you that they’ve made it, you should be skeptical. I do feel like I’ve been really lucky in being able to make a number of the films that I’ve dreamed up. None of the films have brought huge financial reward, but they have brought opportunities for me as a person, and I consider that success. But that’s definitely a struggle and a process, and I’m still trying to make that work.

  3. How to save a memory

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    About three-fourths of the way in to “How to Survive a Plague,” director David France’s documentary on the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, we see footage of two leaders of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) thinking about whether they will to see a cure to the disease. Bob Rafsky answers first, without hesitation: “No. I don’t.” Peter Staley pauses for a long time. Then, “No … no.”

    The Academy Award-nominated documentary, shown this past Wednesday at the Whitney Humanities Center, is a tour de force that combines these kinds of moments, conveying an urgency foreign to any domestic movement today. Activists weren’t just campaigning for better healthcare or for more investment in AIDS research. They were screaming for their lives. And those moments of raw, emotional protest are, coupled with the images of Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions and sunken cheekbones, how the film hits you.

    The archived footage, 800 hours of which David France sifted through to create the 109 minute documentary, is grainy, shaky, real. Its chaotic feel is that of the movement itself, initially strong and united under ACT UP, but still desperately clamoring for the release of AIDS medications. There’s the first ACT UP protest in 1987; the FDA headquarters protest, police dragging away protesters as they scream for the release of dextrin sulfate; the protest within a New York cathedral, the infected lying down in the aisles; the sit-in at the U.S. headquarters of a Japanese drug company; the dumping of the deceased’s ashes on the White House lawn. It’s an exhaustive display of sign-holding, lying down and screaming moments. But it shows just how much the activists were willing to do, and how far they were willing to go to not suffer crippling, accelerated deaths.

    If the above-mentioned scenes anger and galvanize you, then there are the more personal moments that make you cry. The film starts with faces and bodies. The New York City hospitals are overflowing with patients who, as ACT UP’s medical expert Iris Long says, were first being diagnosed in the emergency room. When AIDS-infected patients died in the hospital, she says, “they used to put them in black trashbags.” We see Rafsky, an ACT UP public relations executive who came out when he was forty and married, call a drug company executive who refuses to release potentially life-saving drugs “my murderer in your suit and tie.” We see Staley, an ACT UP member and founding director of Treatment Action Group, stare into the camera and say, “Like any war, you wonder why you came home.” And then, the moment from which the film gets it name: Larry Kramer ’57, the force behind ACT UP’s founding, can no longer stand the organization’s infighting. “PLAGUE!” he yells in the middle of a meeting. “We’re in the middle of a fucking plague, and you behave like this. Until we get our acts together, we’re as good as dead.” It’s poignantly ironic, a statement made immediately before the worst years of the epidemic, in which patients start to show signs of resistance to AZT, and AIDS becomes the leading cause of death among Americans between the ages of 25 and 44.

    With “How to Survive a Plague,” you get a comprehensive history of the AIDS activist movement. But more importantly, you understand the reason behind its desperate urgency, and you feel some of the loss at its core.

    At the end of the film, David France, sitting on a panel, noted that the archived footage and microfilm is beginning to deteriorate. And today’s young gay men don’t know the history of the movement that brought the AIDS epidemic to the forefront, Staley said at the panel, creating a “profound sense of abandonment within the gay community.” How do we keep the memory alive?, they all seemed to ask.

    “How to Survive a Plague” is one of the best answers to that question. It’s not all that needs to be done, but it’s a breathtaking start.