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Sundance of South Bend

Meghan Thomassen | Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thank your lucky stars syllabus week coincides with the Notre Dame Student Film Festival, because this is a year you don’t want to miss. From campus romance to post-apocalyptic drama to psychological thriller, the students of the introductory, intermediate and advanced film courses have outdone themselves — again.

With the mileage some of these aspiring directors and producers have experienced as a result of their classwork, the festival has become the launching point for both influential and unique filmmakers.

Last year’s festival extended far beyond Notre Dame’s campus; Erin Zacek and Dan Moore’s documentary, “The Elect,” was selected by the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival, as well as the international Angelus Student Film Festival in Hollywood.

“Picking Up America,” by Marie Wicht and Michael Burke, appeared in 10 national film festivals in 2011, won the Social Change Award at the Ivy Film Festival and was featured on both ABC and NBC national news broadcasts.

This is no glorified class project; the Notre Dame Student Film Festival is the Sundance of South Bend.  


“Look Away,” filmed by junior Luis Ibarra and senior Brendan Fitzpatrick, has all the ingredients of a good love story: obsession, insanity and a final plot twist.

“You’ll know it when you see it; it’s the one with the ominous music,” Ibarra said.

When asked about the plot of the film, Ibarra said cryptically, “It’s … complicated.”

In the film, a man becomes obsessed with a girl dressed in red. As she appears over and over again, his preoccupation escalates into a psychological breakdown.

“But there’s a little twist at the end,” Ibarra said. “It’s definitely unexpected.”

For Ibarra and Fitzpatrick, adding the final touches, including the soundtrack, made the final product something they couldn’t have envisioned at the beginning of their assignment.

“We fiddled with the story a lot, and added some deep bass too,” Ibarra said.

He describes the festival as a professional presentation.

“It’s more Vimeo than Youtube. For the people in the FTT program, they’ll see their skills will mature in this class. You can see progress happening. It’s not just a collection of clips, but a movie,” Ibarra said.

Ibarra is unsure about his career in film post-graduation, but is happy with his final product.

“This film could be a thought experiment, or you can just get lost in the sound and see what happens. It’s what you want it to be,” he said.


Intermediate film student Megan Kozak’s film, “King of the Park,” directed with partner Marty Flavin, follows the comedic tale of a juggler’s fall from the spotlight.

“We wanted to show how he responds when he is tested with a change in his life, how he got over it,” Kozak said.

The weeks spent developing the concept for “King of the Park” included hammering out the plot.

“We had some slow weeks where we were just turning in story boards or scripts, but when you actually have to shoot, you’re talking about locations, costumes and actors, which took us about 15 to 20 hours a week,” Kozak said.

They were challenged by their professors to think outside the Notre Dame bubble, literally and figuratively.

“We wanted to appeal to the college student in general,” Kozak said. “We shot at Howard Park in South Bend every weekend for a month.”

Kozak and Flavin, whose film is also silent, used physical comedy to communicate the emotional journey of the downtrodden juggler.

The pair wanted to make sure each part of the film worked together so the entire audience, including faculty and South Bend residents, could enjoy and relate to it.

“It was fun to work with everyone, to be on set with 25 extras running back and forth,” Kozak said.

She also participated in the summer externship program in Los Angeles last summer, and aims to move to there after graduation to find a position in either production or direction.


“Cassette,” directed by intermediate film students Kurt Zhuang and Rob Schaus, examines the silent journey of one man in a post-apocalyptic world.

Zhuang and Schaus took a simple approach on their project to deliver a worthwhile payoff for their audience.

“We went through multiples stages and drafts,” Zhaung said. “First it had zombies, then monsters, but it’s a skeletal framework. It makes the character more believable, since one of our constrictions was to have no dialogue.”

Zombies and monsters are familiar subject material for Zhuang.

The first R-rated film his father took him to? Dawn of the Dead.

“It scared me so badly, I slept at the foot of my mom’s bed for a week. Something making you feel like that, something about adventure and the movies made me want to get into it,” Zhuang said.

Zhuang found his spot behind the camera when his friends started making skating films with a camcorder.

“I stopped skating altogether because all I wanted to do was film,” Zhuang said.

Zhuang and Schaus worked about two weeks on their production.

“I’ve been rifling through it so long, I hate it, but I feel that way about a lot of my projects,” Zhuang said. “[My classmates] say they like it, but I haven’t heard any truly anonymous comments. I want to go to the festival and have someone who doesn’t know me or know it’s my film tell me what they think.”

Zhuang doesn’t plan on submitting “Cassette” to any festivals outside Notre Dame, but he does see a few opportunities on the horizon.

“Over break I shot a music video for BMajor, who mixed beats for artists like Drake, T Pain, Chris Brown. He said he could get me a job mixing for Pepsi or Coca Cola,” Zhuang said.

However, Zhuang may go the old-fashioned route—Los Angeles.

“I might just want to move out to LA and make my own way. Ideally I’d be both director and producer, because if you handle the money, you also handle the vision,” Zhuang said.


Collin Erker, an intermediate film student, found inspiration for his film, “Soles,” in the Warner Bros. 2011 film, “Crazy, Stupid Love.”

In their film, he and his partner, Nicole Timmerman, tell a love story using only parts of the body. Their assignment, after all, was to produce a silent film.

“The first shot is just underneath a table with two pairs of feet, and you still get to know the personality of the characters,” Erker said. 

In their production, Erker and Timmerman decided to reveal the characters slowly, from the feet, to the hands, to the face, to create a sense of mystery.

It’s no secret, however, how demanding making a film can be.

“There was one 10-hour day of shooting where we didn’t realize the gauge on our camera was broken, and we had to film three hours again,” Erker said.

Despite the time needed to scout locations, audition actors and edit the material, Erker and Timmerman were able to shoot an emergency scene in South Bend Hospital, as well as a scene at LaSalle Grill.

“It’s terrifying, but the film program makes you feel like you can do the things you want to do, especially with the externship program,” Erker said.

After switching from engineering to psychology, Erker has finally settled on premed and film as his majors of choice. Instrumental to this was his participation in the summer externship program provided by the FTT program in Los Angeles last summer.

“The program is getting stronger; we have more diverse classes, better professors,” Erker said.

One new class, “The Producer,” is taught by an independent film producer. This application of education has previously been lacking from the program, but Erker sees Notre Dame closing in on well-known programs at schools like NYU, USC and UCLA.

“I’m probably going to forgo medical school and move out to LA,” Erker said.

Ted Mandell, professor of the introductory and documentary courses, said the festival is a launching pad for aspiring film students.

“We choose the most accomplished pieces from this past full year of classwork,” Mandell said. “It’s subjective, though, so we’re putting additional films on iTunes U.”

Mandell believes each year, the students try to “one-up” the festival films they saw the previous year.

“I’m proud of their work. They take their subjects seriously and make powerful films. This is not just for the Notre Dame campus, but global,” Mandell said.

Mandell added he usually challenges his students to get the audience emotionally involved in the film.

“Whether it be on an intellectual level or just getting them to laugh, you need to get the audience attached to your story in some way,” Mandell said.

This year’s festival also stands out by its level of professionalism and creativity.

“The audience will be shocked at the level of filmmaking,” Mandell says. “These films are entertaining, accomplished, thought-provoking. They’ll be shocked, stunned.”

The 23rd Annual Notre Dame Student Film Festival will take place each night from Jan. 19th through the 21st at 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center’s Browning Cinema.

Tickets for students are $3, $5 for faculty and $6 for general admission.