The best of Notre Dame’s 2023 Student Film Festival

Christina Sayut | The Observer

Notre Dame’s Film, Television and Theatre students put Sundance to shame with the 34th annual Notre Dame Student Film Fest last weekend. With a diverse group of work — ranging from documentaries to dramatic shorts — this showcase demonstrates the creativity and wit of the Notre Dame student body. Working within the constraints of the semester, FTT majors rose above expectations and blew away the audience with “Lily.” All the films this year were fantastic — we just don’t have space to review them all. Kudos to the budding filmmakers at Notre Dame! 

Image sources: courtesy of Ted Mandell and the FTT program

Sew Loved (Abby Urban, Liz Maroshick)

In this heartwarming documentary about a local non-profit, “Sew Loved” shines a light on how sewing and quilting have uplifted marginalized and underserved women in South Bend. Sew Loved was founded in 2012, and has lifted women out of poverty (via industrial sewing classes) ever since. A woman has been going to Sew Loved for about ten years. Through the charity’s generous supply of sewing machines and fabrics, she has been able to create quilts for her family to remember her by. – Claire Lyons, Associate Scene Editor

Image sources: courtesy of Ted Mandell and the FTT program

Waiting For Buffalo (Grace Beutter, Aidan O’Malley)

Editor’s Note: Aidan O’Malley serves as the Managing Editor of The Observer.

“Waiting For Buffalo” is an extremely affecting glimpse into life on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The film follows two Oglala Sioux men who are transporting buffalo into a pen on the reservation, with historical clips and information slides providing a greater context on the destruction of buffalo and the condition of the Sioux people. The two, we learn, are inextricably bound. The buffalo were intentionally eliminated as they were a crucial food source for Native Americans. The buffalo themselves are shown as both powerful and peaceful, racing by the camera as ferocious beasts and loitering in the pen as simple animals. It is hard to ignore tragedy when we see them, and the same is true of the Sioux people. The moment when the two men discuss selling buffalo calves to supplement the tribe’s income is devastating. As they stand alone in desolation, beside a skeletal pen, the suffering is impossible to evade. It’s unspeakable. “Waiting For Buffalo” is an exceptional confrontation with one of this country’s greatest ongoing tragedies. – Ayden Kowalski, Scene Writer

Image sources: courtesy of Ted Mandell and the FTT program

Butterfly (Ryan Lin, Sen Li)

In “Butterfly,” a girl considers her life through choice and chance. After receiving a job offer from one of the best consulting firms in the country, she must decide to either accept or decline the offer. Accepting the offer means a prestigious job and a life with her boyfriend. However, it also means she must move away from her aging grandmother. This choice is examined through the flip of a coin, yet the result is never revealed and is ultimately negligible. After a montage reflecting on the outcomes of either decision, she meets herself on the edge of a lake. No matter what decision the protagonist makes, notes her double, she has a strong sense of duty to her family and will end up returning to aid her grandmother. “Butterfly” pinpoints the experience of making tough life decisions. It highlights how the forces around us push us to choose and how our values affect our reality. – Anna Falk, Scene Writer

Image sources: courtesy of Ted Mandell and the FTT program

To Dust Ye Shall Return (Hank McNeil, Ryan Vigilante, JP Spoonmore)

Editor’s Note: Ryan Vigilante serves as the Photo Editor of The Observer and JP Spoonmore serves as the Video Unit Leader.

Friends make us better. They challenge us to run faster, focus on homework and clean our rooms. In the case of “To Dust Ye Shall Return,” a friend is a great influence. The only caveat is… you have to drink your friend’s ashes (like a protein shake).

After a friend tragically dies in a drunk driving accident, the protagonist fulfills his friend’s last wish: to be cannibalized. In a creative twist on the rising cannibalism horror genre, “To Dust” subverts cannibalism superpower lore into a comedic story about friendship and the power of a good protein shake. – Claire Lyons, Associate Scene Editor

Image sources: courtesy of Ted Mandell and the FTT program

Silent Steel (Michael Simon)

“Silent Steel” is a quiet examination of an artist at work, allowing us to meet metal sculpture artist Ivan Iler in his studio. This short documentary combines verite elements with footage of his previous and upcoming projects. The audience first meets Iler in his workshop, creating a human face out of metal, occasionally mumbling to himself and making jokes as the sound of cogs plays in the background. Through things said and unspoken, we cannot help but connect with his clear care and passion for his craft. There is a sadness to the film, as these sculptures aren’t widely known, but there is great beauty in his process which is captured with striking visuals. In the end, we get to see his published work, as he demonstrates an interactive sculpture of an elephant set in a town intersection. “Silent Steel” is a rare opportunity to encounter an artist in their natural habitat, and it is magical to watch. – Ayden Kowalski, Scene Writer

Image sources: courtesy of Ted Mandell and the FTT program


Lily (Suneina Badoni, Chloe Stafford)

Imagine having 50 seizures a day. This was life for Lily Boylan who was diagnosed with epilepsy as just an infant. Her parents have tried everything: anti-epileptic drugs, CBD, special diets and a vagus nerve stimulator. Currently, she has two seizure-alert dogs and is in non-traditional surf and horse therapies. Nothing worked until Lily tried medicinal mushrooms. At the time of the documentary, Lily was 20 weeks seizure-free. “Lily” documents the young girl’s perseverance over adversity and the undying love of her parents. The film also advocates for medicinal mushrooms to be passed by the FDA. – Claire Lyons, Associate Scene Editor

Image sources: courtesy of Ted Mandell and the FTT program

Tension (Tianji Lukins, Isa R. Maiz, Suneina Badoni)

“Tension” starts with a typical disagreement between two roommates, but the conflict is quickly escalated through the use of voodoo. The doll is used as a torture mechanism, nearly choking and drowning one of the roommates. The voodoo doll raises the stakes of the conflict and raises the question of how far things will go before a resolution. It’s a power struggle taken to the next level. – Rose Androwich, Scene Writer 


‘The Metamorphosis of Birds’ is a visual Masterpiece

Catarina Vasconcelos’s “The Metamorphosis of Birds” tells a beautiful story of her family life. Vasconcelos’ visual storytelling further showcases her talent. Caterina wrote, directed and appeared in this documentary. Within the images in the movie, the importance of visuals becomes clear.

The concept of being aesthetically overwhelmed provides a sharp contrast to the low production quality of many other films. At the end of the film, I realized that every frame was extremely intentional. Through Vasconcelos’s meticulous visual organization, she attempts to illustrate important themes about what mattered most to each member of the family.

The narrative begins with Caterina’s grandparents, Henrique and Beatriz. Henrique is now in residential care and feels as though he has lost control of his body. The idea of the body is a recurring theme throughout the film. The deterioration of the body is further enhanced through the dynamic visuals.

The imagery of landscapes of the garden, sea and the mountains are magnificent. The feeling these images invoked was a moment where you find yourself taken aback by its sheer beauty. The garden imagery was best highlighted within the scene where the plants are shown to be overtaking the house. Even after loss and grief, the garden continues to grow.

The garden is shown to be one of many things that Beatriz (Ana Margarida Vasconcelos) took care of throughout the film. Beatriz’s love story with Henrique is told beautifully.

Beatriz and Henrique write each other letters, but, in the end he requests the letters be burned. He is unable to do this due to his sickness, so it is left to his family. They grapple with the feelings of not wanting to burn the letters but wanting to honor Henrique’s wish.

This film highlights the many responsibilities these women have. Commentaries on societal expectations are explored in a variety of different ways. The idea of womanhood is even shown within a shot of a wall socket that is attached to the walls without being able to move. Without the sockets, there would be no light.

This view is contrasted with what men who are portrayed plugs. They can move around as they wish and plug into whichever socket they like. They are not aware of the differences between men and women. Women are expected to cook, have children and take care of the family. The portrayal of gender provided similarities and differences to American societal expectations.

Beatriz is a cultivator of life through both her children and her garden. Beatriz and Henrique’s story is a prominent part of the documentary. Henrique’s story invokes the imagery of the ocean, but the imagery of the ocean is not limited to his story. The closing shot shows Caterina and Henrique pushing a boat out into the sea with a tree inside.


‘Luckiest Girl Alive’: Netflix’s mysterious triumph

Editor’s note: This article contains discussions of gun violence and sexual assault.

This article also includes spoilers for “Luckiest Girl Alive”

“Luckiest Girl Alive” was released on Netflix on Oct. 7, 2022. The mystery/drama follows a New York journalist who has never publicly spoken out about the school shooting that happened at her high school. The narrative switches between the present and her experience in high school. The flashbacks help viewers understand her negative experience while connecting it to her present life.

Ani (Mila Kunis) is a successful journalist aspiring to work for the “New York Times Magazine.” Ani is living the perfect life, or
so it seems. Ani evolves throughout the movie when she is forced to confront the past. The facade of her dark past is seen through imagined scenes that show Ani’s disturbed state of mind. These recurring scenes make the accusation of Ani’s involvement in the school shooting seem plausible. Contrary to what I thought by the end of the movie, Ani was more than a hidden woman with disturbing thoughts.

She is fleshed out through the flashbacks, which show the suffering she faced at an early age. The broach of the suffering that was faced is what makes this film a triumph. It captures the mystery of the story.
The way the mystery unfolds entices viewers to see how it unravels. A true crime documentary is investigating the school shooting. The filmmaker is persistent on Ani being in the film considering her
former classmate Dean’s (Alex Barone) accusations that Ani helped the perpetrator in the shooting. Dean is now a gun-control advocate and is being interviewed in the documentary. Ani decides to do the documentary but requests that she is not obligated to see Dean. Ani endured traumatic experiences being a scholarship student at a private school.

She attends a party where she is sexually assaulted by three of her classmates. The heartbreak over her experience is worsened when she goes to the eventual school shooter, Arthur (Thomas Barbusca), and tells him about the assault. The two disagree over her decision not to do anything. Ani, considering her trauma, even apologizes to Liam (Isaac Kragten), one of the boys who assaulted her. Ani is unable to do anything because of her relationship with her mom (Connie Britton). The relationship between them is estranged in the present. The two have a conversation where the mom defends her actions and says that she put Ani in the position to meet a rich fiancé like Luke (Finn Witrock).

Ani’s relationship with Luke throughout the movie shows her
aspiration for perfection. The two eat together at a restaurant where Ani barely touches her food. Once Luke disappears, she eats the two slices of pizza, not wanting Luke to see her being a ‘pig.’ She fakes a spill to justify the pizza being gone and he tells her how proud she is that she ate carbs. Ani’s dreams of someday working for The New York Times Magazine are diminished by Luke, who thinks she
should get a Master of Fine Arts to author a book. He wants them to move to England, but Ani wants to stay in New York. This disagreement is less severe compared to others.

Ani quits the documentary after encountering Dean and decides to write an article exposing what happened to her. When Luke
finds out, he asks questions about her motive and draws attention to Dean’s suffering of being paralyzed.

Ani decides to stay in New York and not marry Luke. Ani does feel bad for hurting him. However, the relationship that is emphasized is Ani’s friendship with Nell (Justine Lupe). The scenes in this movie combined produce more than an intriguing mystery movie.

“Luckiest Girl Alive” shows the long-term impact of traumatic experiences. Ani’s character arc is fleshed out and the characters are what make us remember the movie.

Title: “Luckiest Girl Alive”

Starring: Mila Kunis, Chiara Aurelia, Finn Witrock

Director: Mike Barker

If you like: “Silenced”

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

Contact Rose Androwich at


‘Utica: The Last Refuge’: A stunning commentary

Last Wednesday, Saint Mary’s College hosted a showing of the documentary “Utica: The Last Refuge.” The film showcased the many aspects of what it means to come to America, including the struggles and the hardships migrants face. The documentary looks back on the experiences of what it was like to be an immigrant three generations prior to now.

The film opens with an introduction of the Azein family who hope to resettle in Utica, New York after leaving Sudan. From the beginning, the viewers learn of the struggles of what it is like to “become American” as the family arrives to Syracuse International Airport.

The documentary not only shows the kindness and compassion of those who are willing to provide for refugees, but also demonstrates the family’s struggle with the overwhelming decision of whether they should distance themselves from their culture or assimilate to their new society. 

The film clearly visualizes the sociological cycle of immigrants and how it varies each generation. It was evident that the five Azein children would be raised as Americans.

It is not solely the children who begin the process of integration. Mohammed Azein began school in 2019 while also working to support his family. His journey of finding work and enrolling in school was done with the help of the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees (MVRCR). 

The documentary highlights the struggles that the MVRCR faced as policy changes occurred at the state and national level in the United States. Despite, the restricted number of refugees allowed into the country, ‘Utica: The Last Refuge’ pushes back and argues for the rights of immigrants.

In the final scenes of “Utica: The Last Refuge” the audience witnesses the emotional presentation of citizenship certificates. This documentary calls viewers to action. The town of Utica is also a major player in this film. Their economic structure somewhat relies on refugees. Scenes of protests shortly after the 2016 election demonstrate the power of advocacy as well as the role politics plays within topics of immigration in small towns and cities across the country.

Title: “Utica: The Last Refuge”

Director: Loch Phillipps

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5


‘The Tsugua Diaries’: A pandemic-era masterpiece

 Admittedly, I found myself a watcher of pandemic escapism shows and movies, the most prominent example being “Emily in Paris.” Watching “The Tsuagua Diaries” illustrated just how a director can draw inspiration from something so unprecedented — the pandemic — and use it to create a masterpiece.

The movie beautifully explores Portuguese culture. The cinematography gives us a peek into the luscious landscape of the Portuguese countryside, from gorgeous garden scenery to consistent shots of over-ripe fruit. The soundscape was rich with 70s hits and the vibrant and musical Portuguese tongue. I found myself peeking into a culture that I hadn’t seen before for an hour and 42 minutes. Watching films outside of one’s culture allows us to see past the stereotypes that have been given to them.

The film simultaneously provides insight into Portuguese culture and rejects the format of standard American box-office movies. Our films follow a predictable formula, created by executives who cater to our interests. As a result, American cinematography is less than stellar in most cases. The quality of the film suffers.

“The Tsugua Diaries” showed that there are still movie-makers that focus on capturing a story rather than curating it to a mass market. This film is a breath of fresh air in contrast to what we are seeing in the mass market. They created a universe of a movie inside a movie that showed the reality of endemic era filming. The premise was Carloto (Carloto Cotta) decides to go surfing and unintentionally puts the production at risk.

It leads to the decision to construct a house for butterflies. The construction of the butterfly house is how the tensions between characters to come through. The behavior of Carloto is criticized throughout the movie arguably because of the choice he made.

One of the highlights of this on-screen dynamic is surprisingly humorous. Carloto is the flirting in the garden when his co-worker rudely interrupts him and calls him out for wearing socks. The two debate over the clear value of the socks with Carloto writing them off as not a big deal. This is hardly one of the first moments to come to mind when I think about humorous moments. The masterful use of little quips that almost fly over your head is something exceptionally well-done in this movie.

The last scene also provides an exceptional flashback to when they arrived on set and the discussion of the COVID protocols. The supervisor is wearing an N-95 mask and face shield but is wearing an outfit that looks like a garbage collector uniform. He gets into a heated argument over organizing breakfast for the crew. Someone failed to request the milk he wanted for breakfast. He questions everyone else and says that no one answered the email required for the order. It is revealed that everyone else responded except him. This scene deals with the realities of pandemic-era struggles but does so in a light-hearted way.

The highlight of the film was the fact that the characters went by their real names. The fact that the actors weren’t playing characters heightens the sense of realism and connection between the audience and the actors. The behind-the-scenes moments also added a layer of authenticity.

The spirit of Maureen Fazendeiro, writer of “The Tsugua Diaries,” was clearly shown in the film. We saw the inner workings of film production rather than the unreal depictions that are the norm in modern cinema. “The Tsugua Diaries” instills a feeling of love and admiration for the films that lean into real culture.       

Title: “The Tsugua Diaries”

Starring: Crista Alfaiate, Carloto Cotta, Joao Nunes Monteiro  

Directors: Maureen Fazendeiro, Miguel Gomes 

If you like: “La Strada”

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5

Contact Rose at


‘We have but this one short life’: ‘Fire of Love’ sizzles at DPAC

When the unnatural destruction of France during World War II subsided, Katia and Maurice Krafft stepped out of the flames. Although they would not meet for another two decades, the couple experienced a mutual childhood ignition — the love of volcanoes sparked that within them. 

Brilliantly juxtaposing the unnatural flames of human war with grandiose lava flows and bubbling cauldrons of hot mud, “Fire of Love,” National Geographic’s most complete exploration of the human condition, intersperses gorgeous graphic explanations of geological phenomena with films made by the Kraffts during their adventures. My mouth gaped in awe for 90 minutes straight. The film’s stars are also its creators: Maurice and Katia were world-renowned volcanologists and humble yet incredible filmmakers. 

Often stepping too close to the lava and constantly dreaming about riding his canoe down a lava flow, Maurice, alongside his film camera, is the visionary, capturing dreams for the world to see. Between the more serious topics covered in Sara Dosa’s documentary, Maurice’s “dad jokes” add a comedic lightness that made the viewing experience less overwhelmingly intense and much more fun. 

Katia, less than half Maurice’s size, is the true genius, capturing precise stills of the red, yellow and gray mountains that draw the couple ever closer. Although Maurice jokes that the couple often “erupts” at each other, their love is evident. 

Even as they both note that television appearances, books and films are nothing but the easiest way to pay the bills when they would rather be near the fire, the Kraffts’ filmmaking truly blurs the line between art and science. Utilizing a Wes Anderson-esque God’s Eye perspective, Maurice and Katia zoom out to show geologic scale and zoom in to show their volcanologist instruments at work. 

The documentary, however, does not delve too deeply into the science. As a history major, I was satisfied with the narrator’s calm explanation of plate tectonics and the beautiful visuals that went along with it. But “Fire of Love” is a romance through and through. Simultaneously, it captures Maurice and Katia’s love for each other and their mutual love for the Earth. Possibly disappointing the scientists, though, volcanology methods remain a mystery to me even after two watches.

And when the Kraffts are not there to capture an eruption, director Sara Dosa does an even better job of demonstrating volcanic scale. Katia and Maurice are stuck in France when Mt. St. Helens erupts in 1980, so they could provide no footage, but Dosa compiles a beautiful and horrifying collage: a journalist abandons their camera in a nearby village as ash hurls towards it; a hiker 50 kilometers away photographs an ash cloud that obscures their entire field of vision; and a villager hundreds of kilometers further witnesses the mushroom cloud that ensues mere minutes after eruption. 

Witnessing those images in turn, I couldn’t help but gape. In all honesty, the images are beautiful, but I felt almost guilty experiencing awe at such a destructive event. Dosa soon brought me back to reality. For how awe-inspiring the documentary is, it is not naively romantic.

Katia and Maurice are not religious, nor are they fond of humanity as a natural force. If it were possible to eat rocks, they may never come down from the volcano back into society. 

“We have but this one short life before we return to the ground,” they say. But Katia and Maurice are not nihilistic nor egoistic. When Nevado del Ruiz erupts in Columbia and kills 25,000 people, they spring into action, creating films and action plans to inspire evacuation efforts in other volcano zones. This time, governments listen to the volcanologists, saving thousands of future lives. 

Of course, Katia and Maurice know that their short life will come to an end, and it soon does. In the 1991 Japanese Mt. Unzen eruption, the lovers return to the ground next to each other, buried under a flow of lava, forever enshrined in the flames that created them. However cliché it may seem, I stepped out of DPAC feeling more grounded, more willing to search.

Title: “Fire of Love”

Starring: Maurice and Katia Krafft

Director: Sara Dosa

If you like: “The Alpinist,” “Free Solo,” “Moonrise Kingdom”

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5

Mark Valenzuela

Contact Mark at


‘Guess why I smile a lot. Uh, cause it’s worth it.’

Propelled seemingly by some mechanism inside its rubber body, a tennis ball rolls, turns and erratically bounces down the stairs, eventually coming to rest near the couch. 

The ball is a little tattered, as if it has been rolled down these stairs many times before and the viewer is simply looking in on a daily habit, a moment of ordinary life. 

But then, a disembodied voice calls out over the silence and jars us to a different place entirely. The voice belongs to Dean Fleischer-Camp, director both actual and fictional, and the ball to Marcello “Marcel,” an animate shell that wears, yes, tiny tan and pink sneakers.

Fleischer-Camp’s unorthodox stop motion mockumentary, released this year by independent film juggernaut A24, is a favorite of audiences and critics alike for its wholesome simplicity and unique take on life, community and the meaning of family. 

The first thing that struck me about “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” was its ability to subvert the ordinary and familiar into a world equally imposing and magical. Fleischer-Camp’s perspective offers the human world: Airbnbs, YouTube, even a glimpse of Los Angeles’s Elysian Park. But telling the story only through a 5’10 lens would ignore the other world entirely, the universe existing only between sock drawer and apricot tree, colander and hot dog bun. Through the eyes of little Marcel, a slice of bread becomes a place to sleep, a stand mixer part of an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine and a shaggy dog a dangerous predator indeed. This construction builds Marcel’s more real-life issues — namely his lost family and aging grandmother — into monoliths of themselves, large for a human but insurmountable for an animate shell clad in tiny pink sneakers. 

I did feel some dissonance around halfway through “Marcel.” After all, it is a film about a shell with one googly eye and a high-pitched voice (done by the illustrious Jenny Slate, by the way). Marcel’s YouTube fame is punctuated by slightly obnoxious current trends — TikTok dances and the like — and around the point during which he scrolls through comment sections, I began to wonder what the creators of the movie were thinking, spending years and dollars on a film that seemed largely pointless. I shuffled that thought away and re-immersed myself in the film, searching for some point of relevance that would make the watch worthwhile.

Not long later, I found it. Marcel’s grandmother Connie, voiced by another icon, Isabella Rosselini, reads Philip Larkin’s poem “The Trees” in the background of Marcel’s interview with 60 Minutes host Lesley Stahl: “The trees are coming into leaf/ Like something almost being said;/ The recent buds relax and spread,/ Their greenness is a kind of grief./ Is it that they are born again…/ Yet still the unresting castles thresh/ In fullgrown thickness every May./ Last year is dead, they seem to say,/ Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.”

All of a sudden, I understood. It was all relevant: sock drawer, apricot tree, colander, hot dog bun, bread slice, stand mixer, shaggy dog and tiny tan and pink sneakers. See, “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, in the same vein as “Paddington 2from 2017 and even St. Exupéry’s novella “The Little Prince,” is a study in how we can wrestle with grown-up concepts in a landscape of childlike wonder and beauty. What’s compelling about “Marcel” is how it is both silly and incredible. A film about an animate shell becomes a testament to the act of storytelling itself, drawing us into this delightful little world and then flinging us back out again like tattered tennis balls on suburban staircases, ready, like Marcel himself, to begin afresh, afresh, afresh. 

Title: “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Starring: Jenny Slate, Dean Fleischer-Camp, Isabella Rosselini

Director(s): Dean Fleischer-Camp

If you like: “Paddington 2,” “Gnomeo and Juliet,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5