In review: The 2016 Notre Dame Student Film Festival
This past weekend, the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center hosted the 27th annual Notre Dame Student Film Festival, showcasing the works of some of Notre Dame’s most promising undergraduate film makers. Scene Writers Sam Fentress, Nick Laureano and Tommy Anderson attended this year’s festival and had a discussion about the lineup that follows below.
Sam Fentress: “Edison Brockwell” featured perhaps the greatest production value of any of the shorts. A well-lit and well-shot bit, “Brockwell” details the exploits of a young serial killer. Such a subject is familiar for the short film, but the style of directors Keenan Kelly, Frank Lanham and Drew Ronson — along with their thoughtful camerawork and sonic ambience — captivated in fresh ways. If I had to complain, I’d say that visual confidence overshadowed the storytelling a bit, but clear synergy between the directors, writers and actors made for a thrilling, nuanced short.
Nick Laureano: “Edison Brockwell” was one of my favorite narrative entries in the festival. It had a certain confidence, which stemed not just from the directors’ understanding of filmmaking language, but also from their very clear vision of what “Edison Brockwell” is supposed to be. Like Sam said, there’s incredible visual style on display: The slightly hazy digital photography evokes David Fincher, the color palette and mise en scene reminded me of “American Psycho,” and the nightmarish sound design recalls David Lynch.
I must agree: The story was convoluted. I’m a pretty attentive viewer, and I didn’t piece everything together until the last shot. Many shorts mistake the tension the audience feels when trying to piece together the plot for the suspense that comes with anticipating what will come next. Keeping Hitchcock’s famous maxim in mind, I would like to have seen the clock ticking down throughout “Edison Brockwell” instead of just the kablooey at the end. Having said that, the confusion often coalesced nicely with the over-the-top, moody style. And that’s really what “Edison Brockwell” is: a mood piece.
Tommy Anderson: “Platonica” attempts to tackle the trials of being gay in a world and at a school where putting on a different personality is much easier. The filmmakers did this extremely effectively by using a nonlinear narrative and settings around campus that uncompromisingly fit the desired mood of each scene. When the two actresses first encounter each other, there is enough acting experience between the two of them to give off that sense of familiarity the scene demands. From there, the viewer is launched into their romantic history, which reveals their true emotions for each other, the tug and pull between them and the conflict of internal gay oppression that the film deals with. Without spoiling the ending, it definitely ties a knot on the subject and fosters a sense of realism that seemed unparalleled, perhaps intentionally, by any of the other films.
The first shot of a film is critical in establishing quality and setting expectations. Unfortunately, “No Presentation” set the bar low with poorly lit cinematography and jumpy editing. However, the film found its pacing relatively early on and maintained that pace consistently and creatively throughout the rest of the piece. Once the viewer has bypassed quality expectations, there are several shots that set up and deliver creative and witty jokes about two deathly hungover boys who do not want to go to their presentation and one who is playing mom in the scenario and forcing them to change. In particular, there is a tracking shot out of one dorm room into the next that follows the mom character. However, the camera stops outside the door and waits until he comes back out. The comedic rule of threes comes into play, and each time delivers a building audience laugh until the payoff had the entire audience laughing. With a witty script, decent acting and marginal editing, the film set itself up as a sleeper but ended up creating a playful piece with moments of absolute hilarity.
SF: My favorite short came near the end of the evening. A documentary in the best sense of the word, “Anthony: Portrait of a Boxer” takes an intimate look at Anthony Sims, Jr., a boxer from Indiana making a name for himself in the world of professional punching. Filmmakers Indi Jackson and Austin Burgett followed Sims Jr. to the gym and the ring, giving the most richly human depiction of the night. They treat Sims with respect but never suffocate his clear passion and drive, leaving him space to speak to his family and his passion. The icing on the cake is some of the most tender camerawork of the festival. Above all, the film is honest, true to its subject and a real delight for the viewers who partake — if for a mere 10 minutes — in Sims’ apparent passion for life.
NL: I was stunned at just how violent the punches thrown in “Anthony: Portrait of a Boxer” were. You could hear the nylon of the glove impacting upon flesh, limp bodies of flesh pounding the canvas and, most of all, the gasps of audience members learning just what it means to be a fighter.
Some of my favorite moments of the recently released “Creed” focused on Adonis Creed’s mother, Mary Anne, and her struggle with sending her son into the ring. I have to say, seeing the Sims family hug and kiss Anthony before he stepped into the ring — seeing the real thing— undermined my appreciation of “Creed.” With quick jokes and a whole lot of spit, Anthony Sims managed to put the heavyweight blockbuster on the ropes. Credit Jackson and Burgett, who wisely refrained from attempting to squeeze Sims into a clichéd narrative arc, opting instead for a lucid sketch of a man’s life in a brisk 10 minutes. In fact, when Jackson and Burgett showed 10-year-old boys training at Sims’ gym, you remember the heartache of Anthony’s mother when he stepped into the ring, and you realize this wonderful short is about a lifestyle as much as it is about a single life.
SF: The filmmakers behind “patrolling sandy hook” — seniors Kelly Quinn and Caroline Clark — took home this year’s audience choice award, and though I concur with both of you about the quality of the craft, I think there are difficult questions about the value of this film in practice. For instance, if the purpose of the film is to contain the spread of lies perpetrated by “hoaxers” who claim the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary didn’t happen, then why make a film interviewing the perpetrators themselves? Quinn and Clark took a serious risk here by giving a platform to the people whose goal is to spread ill-formed lies, even if it becomes clear to us (as it does in the course of “patrolling”) that these people are maniacs.
I’d bet few members of the audience embraced these hoax claims or knew about them in them in the first place before the film festival. Even if they had stumbled upon them online without the guidance of strong argumentative filmmaking, I’d like to believe most humans with a conscience would be able to discern the difference between a real possibility of hoax and the bizarre assertions of the man in “patrolling sandy hook.” I have difficulty seeing the value, then, in spending time with a perpetrator to get “perspective” on what happened. Even if it puts the nail in the coffin (I think the nail was hit well long ago), it has still overrun its own purpose in voicing ideas that have no need of a megaphone.
The far more interesting exercise, I think, is to ask how people like the man in “patrolling” — people who dedicate their time and money to perpetrating hoax claims — come to these conclusions. Is it pre-existing prejudice? A political agenda? Fame-seeking delusion? Or, as the man himself suggested, some form of mental illness? I appreciate Quinn and Clark’s tenacious filmmaking, and I admire the question they dared to ask. I’m just not sure it was the right one.
NL: Yes and no. You bring up a valid point, but my question is this: For every would-be “hoaxer” proselytized by “patrolling sandy hook,” how many anti-“hoaxers” walk away from the same movie? I was always aware in the back of my mind that deranged people congregated into groups of 9/11 truthers and Sandy Hoaxers, but to be honest, I had never truly considered the phenomenon until seeing “patrolling sandy hook.”
And in addressing your concerns over the film’s role in providing a platform for maniacs, I hope I’ve also convinced you of the film’s relevance. Yes, Clark and Quinn provide necessary commentary on our messed-up internet age, where those cloaked in anonymity feel free to wreak havoc on the lives of others. But, more importantly, they come to the proverbial rescue of victims like Lenny Posner and the Newtown, Connecticut, community. “patrolling sandy hook” isn’t about illustrating how crazy the hoaxers are — like you said, anyone with half a brain can see that — it’s about shedding light on a true injustice and the deeply felt pain that comes with that injustice. Whether viewers like myself are compelled to act against internet-terrorists like Wolfgang Halbig or simply send their thoughts and prayers toward the victims, I think “patrolling sandy hook” is a noble and necessary success.