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In review: The 2017 Notre Dame Student Film Festival

and | Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Lindsey Meyers

This past weekend, the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center hosted the 28th annual Notre Dame Student Film Festival, showcasing the works of some of Notre Dame’s most promising undergraduate film makers. Scene writers Charlie Kenney and Owen Lane attended this year’s festival and had a discussion about the lineup.

Owen Lane: My favorite film was “Prayer Associate.” I found every aspect of that film to be extraordinarily polished. The film told the story of Woody, a bureaucrat from heaven’s department of Prayer Relations, who is charged with approving or denying prayers from Earth. Creators Ryan Taylor and Ben Vasquez both did an excellent job of depicting a concept of almost childlike innocence with emotional maturity and depth. I think the reason “Prayer Associate” appealed to me was my appreciation of detail. The film’s score was a beautiful, simple motif that pervaded each scene, and it was a clever choice to use varying instrumentation. I particularly liked the elevator-music version that played as Woody rode an elevator to Earth. Despite the film’s lack of dialogue, the silent acting was superb. I also had great respect for the writer’s decision to veer away from the predictable “happily ever after” ending.

Charlie Kenney: “Nothing to be Done” was definitely one of my favorite films featured. I was really drawn to it because of how real the film-makers — Colton Williamson, Moira Hamilton and Cody Mason — were able to make the film. It doesn’t really have a singular or concrete plot, but instead it’s an intersection of several plots. This makes perfect sense because the film is about a student at Notre Dame, and we all know our lives are not merely one plot, but a myriad of things coming together and somehow not imploding. The main character deals with his parents’ divorce, falling in love with his best friend, questioning his major and getting a casual hookup pregnant. All real issues, all issues that students deal with, but all issues that aren’t easy to talk about.

The beauty in the film though, in my opinion, was in their ability to capture the feeling of what college is truly like, an area where almost all other collegiate films fall flat. “Nothing to be Done” shows what parties with a real, close group of friends look like. It shows how college romance is oftentimes more devastating than it is romantic and it shows how pay and passion are constantly butting heads when students are choosing what to study. The film isn’t an “Animal House” or an “American Pie” that depicts college as a perfect four years of life during which real decisions aren’t made. It shows what really goes on behind all the smoke and mirrors, which I found impressive.

O.L.: I thought the documentaries were all very well-made and extremely informative. Every documentary told extremely intriguing stories and I was delighted by their diversity in scope. While “Filtrado” and “Peace At The Pipeline” offered glimpses into the pressing issues of clean water in Guatemala and the Dakota Access Pipeline, respectively, “Old Friends” and “Improv on the Rez” depicted far more personal, quirky stories. Visually stunning, sweeping shots of North Dakota and Guatemala were strengths in “Pipeline” and “Filtrado.” But as a dog owner, I found “Old Friends” particularly heartwarming. “Old Friends” was a poignant display of the efforts a few kind souls take to help some under-appreciated, vulnerable members of society.

No documentary at the festival was able to carefully balance true events and life’s poetic beauty quite like “Debajo de los Arboles (Beneath the Trees).” It is not surprising to me that “Debajo” won the audience choice award at the end of the festival. Crystal Avila’s story about her grandfather had humor, historical intrigue and political relevance. It was so satisfying to watch a film that was a very personal story about Avila’s grandfather and his struggles with his memory, while also having such a large scale. The juxtaposition of Avila’s journey to the place in Arizona where her Mexican immigrant grandfather first arrived in America with her tender interviews of her hilarious grandparents made the film worthy of this weekend’s award.

C.K.: I completely agree with you on the documentaries. “Peace at the Pipeline”, “Filtrado” and the other documentaries were all about important issues that people definitely need to be informed about, but “Debajo” engaged the task of informing people in a completely different — and in my opinion more effective — way. “Debajo” not only informs on the ever-pressing issue of immigration and immigration reform, but it does so in a personal way that pulls at the heartstrings of the audience. It takes away the numbers and facts that so often dominate the conversation on immigration, and instead focuses on one real person and his real story. This method does more than a panoramic shot of North Dakota or a ceramic pot how-to. The film makes its subject imminent rather than a distant matter that will never affect anyone in the audience. The old man in the documentary is a real person, and many people can probably relate him to a goofy grandfather back at home.

O.L.: I must say that I found the array of short animations to be a very interesting addition to the festival. I particularly enjoyed Anna Poltrack’s “Schattenvolk,” which is German for “shadow people.” The wry depiction of a teenage girl’s reluctant yet dedicated shadow was a clever meditation on emotion and inner fortitude. The cute cartoon was accompanied perfectly by a sweet, unceasing ukulele score. “Horse Play” was a strange, daring work. I give great credit to Tanner Cipriano simply for making the cartoon. It was unsettling, yet also surprisingly funny, and the audience seemed to love it.

C.K.: I completely agree with you regarding the animations. They added a different element and a different pace to the festival with their average length of two minutes and their lack of dialogue. My personal favorite was the evocative “Horse Play,” which delivered crude humor through the simple plot of a little boy trying to get onto a horse. “Schattenvolk” and “Who’s Hoo” were equally interesting, and both played with unusual concepts such as the role of personal shadows and the formation of relationships, which I thought was really beneficial to the array of films.

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About Charlie Kenney

Charlie writes about things with words.

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