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Student Film Festival Celebrates 20 Years

Observer Scene | Thursday, January 22, 2009

For two decades, students studying film and film production at Notre Dame have had the chance to showcase their films at the annual Student Film Festival. This year, the Film, Television and Theatre department is celebrating the festival’s 20th anniversary, starting tonight.

Ted Mandell, a professor in the FTT department and a 1986 graduate of the University, started the film festival in 1990. Back then, Mandell said in a recent interview with The Observer, the setting was hardly as dressed up as its current residence, the Browning Cinema in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center

“The Festival then was more like a public screening,” Mandell said. “We had about 50 people show up, and it was down in the basement of the Center for Continuing Education.”

Currently, the Festival is an opportunity for students in any of the department’s production courses to showcase preselected sampling of their best work. “It’s not a competition,” Mandell said, “but it’s more of a showcase of their work, and the types of work that our students are doing.”

In its early days, Mandell says, the Festival was much less formally structured.

“It was a screening of any student film they wanted to put up there,” he said. “We had maybe two production courses then, and the students who wanted their films shown put them all together and put them on screen.” In those days, the festival featured a little less than three hours of material. Now, Mandell said, “it’s changed, and it’s grown into the best student work over the past year.”

Mandell also notes that the Festival is a rare opportunity for film students to air their films “to a larger audience,” both within the University and in the greater South Bend community.

This years’ crop of films, ranging from documentaries to period pieces, is a varied one. Highlights of the selections include “Our Lady’s Bouncers,” the saga of trying to get your car past a Notre Dame Security booth, and “Dana,” a documentary piece about a Native American student adapting to student life in the Midwest after growing up on a Navajo reservation.

“It’s a wide variety,” Mandell said, noting that students can check out descriptions of each film on the Film, Television and Theatre department’s Web site. “There are films about being at a party on a weekend, to being stuck at home by yourself on your birthday, to following a member of Opus Dei.”

An impressive number of students who’ve participated in the Festival in past years have gone on to careers in the larger film and entertainment industry. Mandell notes that Stephen Susco, a professional screenwriter who wrote the American adaptation of “The Grudge,” is a former Domer, and other alumni have gone on to work for HBO, the NFL network and EA Sports.

While the success may come later, tough production schedules and tight deadlines can characterize these students’ learning experiences, for better and for worse. Mandell recalled a memorable episode in one of the early years of the Festival that brought procrastination to a humorous new level.

“One time when we were showing the Festival, there was one guy finishing his film while the Festival was actually running. He was doing his final edit, and [the film] was supposed to show 60 minutes into the screening. He got it done 20 minutes ahead of time,” he said.

To Mandell, it’s this organized chaos that characterizes what he calls “the filmmaking age,” and that his students can experience each time they go behind the camera. “It’s about problem solving, writing the script, finding the actor, figuring out what’s wrong with the battery power, and staying up 24 hours to try and edit films. It’s a lengthy and very rewarding process.”

What makes this year’s festival unique is its impressive anniversary: Twenty years of student films are being celebrated as the department features its students’ work, and two decades of memories are packed into each night’s showing.

To Mandell, however, the real legacy of the Festival comes alive when we watch the fruits of these students’ labors onscreen and beyond.

“Honestly, the real satisfying thing is to see the students bring their films to the festival, then go out in the real world using the skills and experience they’ve learned. When they say, ‘We learned a lot here, so we can do a lot of things out in the world – documentaries, features, et cetera – that’s the most satisfying thing,” he said.

Contact Analise Lipari at alipari@nd.edu.