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ND Alumni Film Fest exhibits powerful films

Mark Bemenderfer | Tuesday, September 20, 2005

In the world of business, the term “benchmarking” plays a vital role. It allows analysts to look at similar organizations and compare them to their own.

Last Thursday, Notre Dame film students were able to do some benchmarking of their own.

Four short films, created by Notre Dame alumni, were shown to a full theater for the ND Alumni Film Fest. Imaginative, powerful and executed to the standards one expects from such a prestigious University, each of the alumni films earned an ovation once they were completed.

Ted Mandell, a film professor and the organizer of the reunion, said, “I thought the film fest was a nice way to show off the Browning Cinema to our alums who just arrived Thursday night.”

The first film screened that night was “Keys of Life,” an award-winning film by alumni Jeremy Rall (Class of 1995). It centered around what appears to be the worst day in the life of an urban locksmith. It begins with a fight over a phone between the locksmith and his girlfriend, and it only spirals downward from there.

A powerful, moving piece, “Keys of Life” has played in 35 film festivals around the world. This type of success is not foreign to Rall however. In his current role as a music video director, he has won numerous awards for his music videos. He has won such awards as the MVPA Best Hip-Hop Video for his work on “Roll Out” with Ludacris in 2002.

The next film to be presented was “Dirty Old Town” by director Justin Mitchell (Class of 1995), an interesting documentary on ND alumni Ted Leo (Class of 1994) and the Pharmacists, a music band. It was essentially focused on their performance at Coney Island on July 19, 2003, for the Third Annual Siren Music Festival. The film alternated between performances with the band and personal interviews with Leo, mixing music and dialogue to great effect.

Creating documentaries that mix music with dialogue is not a stranger to Mitchell though, as he had previously directed “Songs for Cassavetes,” a documentary on the West Coast punk underground. It was critically acclaimed when it was released and showcases Mitchell’s talent to capture artists on film that remains true to its subject.

The third film of the four scheduled to be shown was the emotionally charged “Trip to Tehuacan,” directed and edited by Gina Vecchione (Class of 1997). The film was centered around the Mercy Outreach Surgical Team and their work in Mexico. They are a volunteer group that dedicates itself to filling the medical and surgical needs to those in need around the world.

“Trip to Tehuacan” is an incredibly touching picture, as it focused on the patients before and after their surgeries. The film highlighted how the volunteers were helping people physically and mentally. Seeing the children post-surgery is a generally heart-moving experience, one that people should try not to miss given the chance.

It is small wonder that it was yet another award winning film from Notre Dame alumni due to the content alone. Indeed, it was an Official Selection of the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, an Audience Choice Award Winner of the 2001 Long Beach International Film Festival and was selected for the 2002 Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival.

For those who attended, there was an extra treat that was not placed in the agenda. After “Trip to Tehuacan,” Executive Producer Mike Nead (Class of 1991) gave the festival watchers an added treat in the form of the first-time viewing for a yet-unreleased film. Produced by Indiewood Pictures titled “Fall Into Me,” moviegoers should look for this quirky romantic-comedy after it hits distributionin the hopefully near future.

The last film students and alumni saw was “Intelligent Life,” an animated short created by Jeff Spoonhower (Class of 1999). The film revolves around a group of diminutive aliens and their experiments in the realm of human humor. A hilarious film that spoofs everything from music videos to barbershop quartets, the film did not fail to evoke laughter from the audience.

“‘Intelligent Life’ makes me laugh every time I watch it,” Mandell said. “It’s brilliant.”

Once again, there is little surprise that this animated short was also critically received. It has been screened in over 50 locations around the world, including the Cincinnati, the Tambay and the Vancouver Island film fests.

Spoonhower and Nead were both available and talked about their respective films. Spoonhower in particular gave some amusing and interesting bits of trivia, namely that he did all the voices in the barbershop quartet himself, and that the hecklers heard in the animated short were voiced by some of his fellow college students.

Nead was also interesting in discussing the trailer for his film “Fall Into Me.” He told the audience of some of the difficulties that come with producing movies, namely finding distribution, among others. Unfortunately, not all of the alumni were present to talk about their respective films.

“I had hoped that both Jeremy Rall (“Keys of Life”) and Justin Mitchell (“This Old Town”) would be able to talk about their films as well. But like a few alums who had planned for weeks on being at ND, their production schedules prevented them from attending” Mandell said, “Still, we had wonderful turnout for a truly incredible weekend of events.”

The films shown last week were good benchmarks to aim towards for the graduating film majors. While certainly not standard in the way benchmarks usually are, they are films fitting for a University such as Notre Dame.