In between studying for finals, students were able to see the creative work of fellow students at the 65th Annual Student Film Festival, a biannual event hosted by Rho Eta Xi and sponsored by the UWM Film Department and Student Union.
I had the privilege to sit down with President Thomas Sorensen, Head of Communications Nicholas Tabat, and Organizer/Historian Megan Thomson of Rho Eta Xi to talk about the event.
How did this event start?
NT: The founder, a student named Rob Yol, showed a collection of student films to 18 other people on a projector. They all got the idea to show these films to the public.
What are the challenges of organizing and creating the event?
TS: One of the hardest things to do when setting up the event is finding the judges. It’s difficult to find working professionals who have the time and are willing to give up their Saturday to review the films.
NT: I worked on the advertisements and you have to make sure that you’re getting everything in on time while making sure that it look good enough. You have to work fast without getting caught up in the small details. Sometimes there will be typos so you have to have people look over the same thing more than once.
MT: Making everything come together and making sure that it happens was a great but rewarding challenge.
How are student films different from films that you would see at other film festivals?
TS: Many of the films that you see here are one to fifteen minutes long and cover a variety of subjects and genres. And all of them are completely student-made. With the Milwaukee Film Festival you see a lot of films from people in the local area but you don’t see films from current UWM students.
NT: Many of the movies may have a cool idea, but it’s just not executed spot on. A film may be technically good but has an unclear meaning or have a good story but rough editing. So it’s interesting to see students go through the learning process of creating a film and looking at ways on how they can improve in the future.
MT: It’s cool to see the first major project of students who are in the process of learning about filmmaking and what they come up with.
Describe the process of selecting films for the festival.
TS: We had an open time to accept submissions from students. The submissions are then pre-screened to the judges, who then discuss which would be best for the festival. The films that were rated highest by the judges are selected for screening during the festival and the top three highest rated receive awards. Then during the festival, the audience chooses the film to receive the people’s choice award.
What is the criteria that the judges use to rate a film?
TS: The judges rate a film by how well it scores in a variety of categories. One of the most important categories is the originality of a film. The judges see if a movie tells a compelling story without being too cliché and derivative.
NT: Other categories include the shots used, execution, direction, sound, editing, and the overall challenge of creating the film.
Were there any films that you wanted to show but couldn’t for whatever reason?
TS: All of the films that we see are really good but there are some films that don’t get shown because they are just one point off from being in the final standing or they’re too long to fit into the viewing period.
NT: There were many films that we liked but had rough editing. So they were promising but they didn’t look finished.
MT: I agree for the most part with the Judges.
What is the most important thing to take away from this event?
TS: There are a lot of awesome films and it’s great to see the promising talent of the students making them. You get to collaborate with people who love film just as much as you do and get your hard work shown to an audience. Even if you don’t get in, that doesn’t mean that you’re film is bad.
NT: The networking is an important part of the process of learning about creating and improving your films.
What is the magic of film?
TS: It’s how much work goes into a small section of film. There is a lot of stuff going on behind the camera and making everything look effortless to the viewer is very difficult to achieve.
NT: It’s seeing what the directors and writers envision and the way that the filmmakers portray that vision and the emotions of the audience as a result.
I also had a chance to look at each of the films shown at the event. Each film provided a unique experience and had something to offer.
Bike Trip (directed by Sam Kirchoff)
Bike Trip is an experimental take on riding a bike. On the blurb in the festival program, it says that the film is meant to capture the “biker’s high” experienced during a bike trip. But the footage in the film is so haphazard that I could not gather any meaning from it. A film can have multiple clips of unrelated footage but they can be organized into a overarching theme or storyline. But with this film, all I’m seeing is a series of random events.
The footage used in the film is very rough and low quality. I understand that the filmmakers may not have the budget for a good camera, but any inexpensive camera you can get today would be better than a 90s home video quality camera. You may argue that they are trying to create a nostalgic tone through the quality of the film, but you can do way more to set a tone without downgrading the clarity. In addition, there is also distorted harmonica music played throughout the film. It may have sounded fine on a computer, but it was absolutely earsplitting in the theater.
Into the Unknown (directed by Michael Neumann)
Into The Unknown is about three different characters and the problems they encounter. What are those problems you ask? Well, it’s up to the audience to decide. Many of the clips and the symbolism within are very ambiguous, allowing for very different viewpoints between viewers. For instance, a woman gets off her horse after noticing a seedy person and runs into a forest with dolls and oranges hung in the trees. Is she running away from her problems even though she knows she can’t? Is she part of an affair with another man? Or is it something different altogether?
The events in this film may seem random and disconnected at first. Unlike Bike Trip, not only does the footage look good, but it is united under one central meaning. This meaning is established in the very first shot. In the shot, the three characters are looking at an art piece. This establishes that every piece of art can have multiple interpretations. Overall, this was a brilliant, thought-provoking film that perfectly captures the ambiguous essence of artwork.
Water Off My Back (directed by Rashid Mumin)
The serene shot of the pond, romantic voice over, and the generic 70s love theme gave me the impression that Water Off My Back would be a cheesy love story about winning over a girl. But it turned out to be one of the most clever films that I ever seen.
You see, the footage in the film is of two ducks swimming around. And the voice over serves to add meaning to these clips and organize them into a cute story, similar to the show Too Cute on Animal Planet. For instance, there’s one clip where a duck swims over to the other duck but then the other duck swims away. The voice over says “I even got the nerve to kiss her, but she shot me down”. The footage is also sped up or slowed down to achieve appropriate effects.
One shot in the film at first seemed a bit too long. The shot was just the two ducks cleaning each other without any music and hardly any voice over. The absence of editing in this scene shows that Rashid Mumin was able to find meaning behind the shot, which is what makes this film so brilliant.
Overall, this film was a real joy to watch. Even though it didn’t break any new ground in terms of the story itself, it was still refreshing to see something clever yet straightforward after seeing the more experimental films before it.
Room 323 Diaries (directed by Jake Mizener)
Room 323 Diaries is the story of two men bored while in their hotel room, and that’s it. There isn’t much to say about this film other than that it was just a short, silly scene. What the film really boils down to is just two men dribbling dairy creamers down their mouths. I would’ve loved to see more story; maybe they could pull a prank or two on unsuspecting hotel guests. The film as it is right now may be appropriate as a viral video, but it’s just too short and thin to be taken seriously.
Steppin’ Into A New Me (directed by Kristyne Ward)
Steppin’ Into A New Me is about a man who overcame a drug addiction through dancing. The film consists of interviews of said gentleman and representations of the events he talks about. These representations are the highlight of the film, especially the beginning where the man talked about his mother’s parties. The lighting, acting and music effectively established the mood of the parties and led up to the point where the children would go to the table after the party and take the drugs together.
Unfortunately, the other representations are just stock establishment scenes of buildings and clips of people dancing in the later portions of the film. This is disappointing because some of the events the man talks about are a bit difficult to visualize. I found it hard to remain invested in the film towards the end. The story is really powerful and inspiring, but it is unfortunately marred by the uninteresting and generic presentation at the end.
The Umbrella Man (directed by Michael A. Kuznar)
“In order to accurately portray the tragic events that happened in Central Wisconsin in 2010 and out of respect for the victims, we didn’t leave out any gruesome details. Viewer discretion is advised”. This is the text that was shown in the beginning of The Umbrella Man, which set the mood for the film. The fearful feelings that I had persisted throughout the film’s retelling of the murder through its dark lighting, eerie music and frightening imagery. But what makes this film so good is that it creates the frightening mood without falling into common horror clichés. The fact that this is based off a true story intensifies everything.
My only problem while watching was there was a scene where the killer is dragging the body out of the car and the victim kind of looks like she’s helping him get her out. This would be forgivable except that some people in the audience laughed at this, which immediately killed the mood.
My attention was immediately caught by the ending where a slender man holding a black umbrella appears as the victim comes back to life. There’s so much going on in this scene that leaves it up to interpretation. Does the enigmatic figure kill the murderer? Does the resurrected victim kill the murderer? Is everything merely symbolic? We may never know the true answer. We only know the fact that there was a black umbrella left at the scene.
We may love to see happy-go-lucky films with a warm and fuzzy plot and characters. But I think many will admit that when things get dark, especially if the things that happen in the plot are morally wrong, a film can get very interesting.
Illuminate (directed by Jake Wollner)
Illuminate is another experimental piece in which a man comes to grips with the woman that he cheated on. From the beginning we see him chasing the woman he deceived. What follows is a trip down a rabbit hole into an Alice In Wonderland journey complete with colorful characters and enchanted desserts intertwined with scenes of the guy fighting with his girlfriend.
The scenes in the wonderland are the highlights of the film. They take on a nightmarish tone in order to portray the concepts of deception and temptation. For instance, the guy wolfs down a chocolate cake while clips of animals consuming their prey plays in the background. The creepy tone of the music and images juxtaposed with the fantasy setting and symbolism turns everything on its head to accurately portray the film’s meaning.
This film won both the people’s choice award and first place at the festival, and rightfully so. The films use of exceptional cinematography and provoking symbolism creates a unique experience that’s unforgettable.
P-Day (directed by Spencer Ortega)
The eerie music and lighting immediately gave P-Day a dark and sinister tone. But then you realize that it’s just about the troubles of living at UW-Milwaukee’s dorms. The pairing of the tone with the ordinary setting is very entertaining. Also, the pie scene at the end was absolutely hilarious.This movie is just pure fun. It may not be as clever as Water Off My Back or as thought provoking as Into The Unknown, but it’s just fun for the sake of being fun.
The Wonderfuls (directed by Vincent Maslowski)
The Wonderfuls opens with a shot of a tiny shack and is followed by two men wearing bags for faces fighting over a box with a tiny person living in it and the film ends with stop motion puppets grunting over the predicament of the characters. As you can imagine, this film is quite out there. What makes this film different from the other films shown at the festival are the visuals. Everything looks absolutely gorgeous and looks like a Tim Burton film.
Despite the fantastic scenery and costuming, everything from the visuals to the writing can make everything so convoluted that you can’t find a clear meaning to the film unless you have the blurb handy. But it’s just so wonderfully weird that it becomes and unforgettable experience that I never found myself bored with.
‘Tis The Season (directed by Kirsten Stuck)
‘Tis The Season is an animation with Christmas cards. The way the film works is that an element from one card would go off into another and cause mischief, such as a chimney taking off like a rocket in one card and then hitting Santa’s sleigh in another. This creates many other humorous situations, and the Monty Python style of the animation makes it even funnier.
The Corn Man (directed by Harper Robison)
The Corn Man is the story of our hero, the corn man, who leaves his home in the mountains and takes a journey into something bigger. The camera shots were really well done, especially the segments with the motorcycle driving on the bridge. The quality of the footage is also clear and consistent throughout. Unfortunately, that’s where the good parts end.
The film doesn’t explain any sort of meaning or story behind it. We never find out who this man is, why he leaves his home, why he travels around Milwaukee and why he steals a dog. We never relate to the character in any sort of way because of this. Relating to a character allows us to find meaning and significance in the events he comes across. I felt like I was trying to find meaning in something that has no meaning. I mean no disrespect to Harper Robison because this is a great exercise in filmmaking but everything is just too disconnected for the audience to remain invested.
Overall, I had a wonderful time at the Student Film Festival. Seeing the hard work and potential of the filmmakers was a thought-provoking and enriching experience. I can’t wait for next semester.