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The University of North Carolina School of the Arts hosted a virtual screening of several short films, created by third- and fourth-year students. Some horror, comedy, animation, and experimental, these shorts ran the gamut of creative cinematic possibilities.
The two programs were divided up by year: ten films from third-year students and sixteen from the fourth-years. Each program came with an introduction from Deborah LaVine, dean of filmmaking at UNCSA. She called attention to how these students used an incredibly diverse set of cinematic paintbrushes to create their films — no two were very similar, a remarkable feat for so many films coming out of one institution. LaVine also identified the spirit of collaboration under which the films were produced. Film, the great interdisciplinary art, is often regarded as an artistic mosaic, a singular product created by the combination of many different art practices: writing, performance, art design, photography, costumes, hair and makeup, and the list goes on. The spirit of collaboration ran thick through the UNCSA shorts, made even more remarkable since they were produced under strict COVID restrictions, as LaVine pointed out.
The third-year program was wonderfully mixed with absurd comedy and moving dramas. "Bruno!" (directed by Frieda Prosono) is a darkly comedic short about a man with a hair-trigger temper watching his friend's dog. The man learns what matters most when confronted with the violent possibility of losing it all. "Box" (directed by Georgia Lawrence) was a similarly heart-warming comedy about a man, recently fired from his job as a cardboard-box manufacturer, who learns that there's more to life than cardboard. The filmic world didn't quite measure up to its absurd premise, but the tender payoff made it worthwhile. "Curriculum" (directed by John Caudill) is about three failing high schoolers who stage a heist to steal the teacher's gradebook to alter their marks. Filmed in black-and-white, with the exception of a single hilariously gross object in their teacher's desk drawer, the comedy of errors plays like a classic heist movie infused with Wes Anderson Rushmore energy.
Among the most creative of the third-year programs were the films "In Blue" (directed by Kasey Lewis), and "Homer: Great Teller of Tales" (directed by Amelia Cameron). The first, a cute, animated film about a gecko who escapes from his enclosure only to be chased by a hungry snake, is an impressive animated short. While some of the draft lines are visible beneath the moving images, it makes you appreciate how much work goes into animating a film, frame-by-frame. What a camera can capture 24 times a second (the average frame rate for movies), must be meticulously animated when there is no camera involved. "Homer," an original musical short, is a comedic reimagining of how one of humanity's oldest stories came to be. It features amazing music from Wilfred Moeschter, Geet Chaundhari, Korlyn Bailey, and Katerina Papadopoulou. The set design feels overtly theatrical with singing muses reminiscent of Disney's Hercules. While the production feels student-driven at times, it's clear the Cameron has a unique vision, and I would love to see what she does in the future with bigger budgets and more resources.
Of the four dramatic films in the third-year program, "Sunset" (directed by Cameron Parker) and "Maggie Is Late" (directed by Clara Hirata) stood out the most. "Sunset" tells the story of a young musician coming to terms with the death of his brother, who most stridently collaborated with and supported him. Told with creative mystique and striking visual imagery, the film captures the young man's angst and melancholy, the feeling of being trapped in a life he laments. He's filled with a strong need to overcome his troubles but is not sure he has the tools or the strength to do so. "Maggie is Late" tells the story of a young woman who suspects she's pregnant but faces a lack of support from her boyfriend and family. The film balances wit and weight poignantly; for instance, as she musters the courage to talk to her boyfriend, he freaks out and has a panic attack. He tells her to think about what she's doing to him. His selfish attitude is undercut by his ensuing nausea, he gags into a flower vase, but cannot actually vomit. The subtle comedy paints the boyfriend as a humiliated man-child to match his insensitive behavior, but it never distracts from Maggie's personal trauma. It's a humorous little recompense but in is no way reductive of her struggles.
While the third-year shorts were impressive, the fourth-year shorts were mesmerizing. These films, produced by graduating seniors, showed just how much difference a single year can make in one's creative and professional development. Several of these shorts could easily be expanded into compelling feature films, and many of them felt like mainstream, big-budget productions.
The most impressive film was "Suga Brown" (directed by Clarke Phillips), an apocalyptic vision of America's future — incredibly timely considering the recent discussions surrounding Roe v. Wade and America's ongoing struggles for racial equality. Expectant mother Eden Brown (played by Bailey James) does not have money to pay for individual care for her upcoming birth. Home births have been outlawed, and the mysterious company Evolve will perform the procedure for free, as long as they can make certain genetic changes to the child, such as lowering its melanin levels and narrowing its facial features — Black phenotypes will make the child more likely to be arrested, the agent from Evolve tells Eden. The film follows her as she embarks on a journey to have her child the way it was meant to be born under the thumb of Orwellian government sanctions. Of all the films in either program, this one strikes me as having the most promise, not just because of its political relevancy and biting social criticism, but because of Phillips' focus and empathy for her protagonist. It moves the viewer from the very beginning.
Several other films touched on prevalent social issues. "Sammy, without Strings" (directed by Ralph Parker III) is a hypnotizing and haunting tale of a Black marionette puppet forced to perform in front of crowds without hope for his own enduring happiness. Reminiscent of the themes in Spike Lee's Bamboozled, this film also has a Lynchian eeriness to it, with imagery that sticks to your mind like tar. "Stomping Grounds" (directed by Sylvia Massey) is the tale of a drag performer whose mother stumbles upon her show one night, forcing a confrontation and coming-out. The film is told with love, promoting the importance of self-acceptance and community, while also depicting a heightened queer euphoria that would make John Waters proud.
Among the most stylized of the fourth-year films was "Sluck Pond" (directed by Spencer Witmer). A massive epic — if you can call a short film epic — about Braun, a warrior who seeks to overthrow the corrupt, tyrannical monarch, with the help of a peasant with whom Braun has fallen in love. If it sounds complicated for a short film, it is, but that's a rare strength. Witmer's visuals are so stunning and bizarre, I can safely say I've seen nothing like it. It had the looniness of Terry Gilliam with the audacity and originality of the up-and-coming Daniels directing duo. But even this approximation sells the film short. It's adventurous, tense, funny, and absurdly original.
The program concluded with a six-part miniseries, Masterpiece (created by Sarah Deitrich), about a collegiate violinist who, under immense pressure to perform and compose a masterpiece, finds inspiration in acts of violence. While many film schools around the country are striving to maintain the distinction between "cinema" and "television," it's commendable that UNCSA is educating their students in the industrial practices of both markets, preparing their students for all kinds of jobs in entertainment media. Masterpiece demonstrated the students' abilities to conform to the distinct requirements of producing a television show: it had various directors (Jim Boemio and Brady Walker), a writers' room, and a serial episodic arc.
These are not all the films that were part of the programs, and were there enough time, I could write about each one at much greater length. But one thing is for sure, UNCSA is going to be a major contributor to the entertainment and artistic professionals of the future. If these students are any indication of where our media-scape is headed, then I am onboard.