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ISSUE 121 VOL 12 PUBLISHED 2/29/2008

New festival sparks student film legacy

By Matt Everhart
Staff Writer

Friday, February 29, 2008

A crowd of people stand, waiting outside the theatre as talented directors, actors, and producers file past, smiling and nodding. Dapper young men in suits and dazzling women in dresses file into the rows of the theatre, full to the brim with excited film fans and movie lovers. The host appears on stage, making wise cracks and eloquently introducing the night's events in a respectful yet casual manner. The lights dim as film clips begin to show.

No, this wasn't the 80th Academy Awards, which aired last weekend; it was the scene for the St. Olaf College First Annual Interim Film Festival. Last Wednesday, Viking Theatre was filled beyond capacity with excited students -- fans and filmmakers alike -- who were excited to see the results of the First Annual Student Filmmaking Contest. Eleven student films were created over the January Interim by student filmmakers eager to express their creativity; all were hopeful to win the first "Palm d'Ole," a play on the Cannes Film Festival's Palm d'Or.

The film contest is the brainchild of English professor Diana Postlethwaite, the current Boldt Chair in the Humanities. The idea of holding a film contest over the course of Interim was introduced to Postlethwaite by Stephanie Tanner '10. Interim, they figured, would be the perfect time to create a short film, as students typically have more free time during interim. Postlethwaite also decided on some basic rules for the contest to provide a challenge and even grounds for students.

The movies could be no longer than 10 minutes, had to stick to one genre, and had to be finished by the end of January. Additionally, students had to pick three required elements out of six options, including a line of dialogue ("have you no decency?"), the name Farkel (which was suggested to Postlethwaite by her daughter, a Carleton student), a Dutch shot (a tilted camera angle used to portray tension), a scene in the Caf, the use of a snowball, or the sound of running footsteps.

Student enthusiasm for creating film has been growing over the years at St. Olaf due in part to classes like Video Art Production and easily accessible video editing software like Final Cut Pro and iMovie. Tools like these allow students to finish editing films in a fraction of the time it would take with physical reels. "It [Final Cut Pro] an unbelievable program," Sean Casey '08 said. The "Struggle, Defeat or Rebirth" co-creator learned how to use the software last semester.

Armed with these modern tools, the rules for the contest, and a passion for filmmaking, students went about filming over January, with a startling variety of results. Alec Johnson '10 and Sam Mariotti '09, two of the creators of "Jacky Style," had previously made a film for the Apple Insomnia film contest, which challenged filmmakers to create a movie in just 24 hours. "We like to work with some pressure," said Mariotti, and added that their group waited until halfway through January to start filming.

Saman Bemel-Benrud '09, an art major who worked on "Tungsten," said it was a collaborative effort of shared ideas among a group of friends who constantly were throwing around creative ideas for art projects. "Everyone did everything," he said. "It was a great opportunity to actually execute some of these ideas." Apparently his group also enjoyed working under pressure; they waited until the last three days of the contest to make it.

Casey used the library as his filming location, deciding it was the ideal, isolated setting for a romantic comedy. "I was drawing on my love for Kevin Smith," he said, and his film undoubtedly had elements reminiscent of Smith's debut feature, "Clerks."

Music played an important role for these films, particularly because students weren't allowed to use any licensed music. Enter the illustrious St. Olaf music connection: some student films featured music created by students or relatives. Bemel-Bunrud said that the rap song heard during the opening and closing scenes of "Tungsten" was written and performed by his little brother, while Johnson composed original music with the help of his organ-major friend Chris Ganza using Apple's GarageBand application.

Finding actors was another challenge for filmmakers. "A lot of them came from Scared Scriptless," said Mariotti, referring to St. Olaf's improv comedy group. Casey said he had some more specific people in mind. "I immediately through of Ashley Allen ['08]," he said, referring to a student he knew from last semester's Acting for Non-Majors class. For the male lead, he said he wanted to find someone who could portray the "loveable slacker," and his sophomore-year roommate David Henke '08 came to mind.

Film at St. Olaf has a relatively short history, but not for lack of trying. Bill Sonnega, director of the media studies program, has been pushing for a film studies program since the 90s. With the success of the recent film contest and the overwhelming student response to the film festival last week however, a film studies concentration could finally be on its way. "I'm confident that this is only the tip of the iceberg," said Postlethwaite. If it comes to fruition, the new film studies program would feature both film study -- techniques, history, philosophy -- and film production. When told of the possibility of a film studies concentration, Mariotti lit up. "I want to go to film school after this, so it would be great for me to have that in my bachelor degree," she said.

As the lights came up in Viking Theatre after the final student film was shown, the excitement for this new creative avenue was palpable. Students stood at both exits trying to peer in to watch, and more lined the floors, surely violating fire codes in the name of moviedom. Can we expect more movie magic from St. Olaf students? Yes, and sooner than you think. The films shown last Wednesday are being re-shown Sunday, March 2 at 3 p.m. And with the help of funding from Patricia and O.C. Boldt, Postlethwaite said another film contest and film festival would happen next January, potentially in a bigger venue.

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