Film School Confidential: Student Films Still Rock
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts hosted the first Film School Confidential — a festival of films made by local high-school and college students — in October 2001, and the series is still going strong. The most recent Film School Confidential, a one-night showing on April 15, offered a wide variety of student-produced documentaries, narrative shorts, abstract experiments and animated films.
Many of the films, both documentary and fiction, dealt with the U.S.-Mexico border and Latino/a culture. Pintando la Comunidad, a production of the Teen Producers Project of the Media Arts Center/San Diego, profiled Latino muralist Victor Ochoa. Though Ochoa was a pioneering historical figure in the Latino art movement in San Diego — he was one of the first painters to do murals at Chicano Park and the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park — this film, unlike most of the movies and news stories made about Ochoa, didn’t dwell on his past and instead focused on what he’s doing now.
Perspective was a short but moving account of a personal journey by filmmaker Kurt Jackson of California State University-San Marcos, in which his trip with members of a church group to build a house for a family in Tijuana gave him a sense of perspective about his own life and its material blessings.
An Interview with Elijio, also from California State University-San Marcos, was a 13-minute film in which opening and closing sequences depicting life in Mexico framed an interview with Elijio Gonzalez, in which he explained why he crossed the border and settled in the U.S. Shot and edited by Jesús Yanez and co-produced by him and Amparo Gonzalez, the film was beset by a major technical glitch: the musical score in the framing scenes sounded fine but the interview was virtually inaudible.
For the first half of the fllm the audience sat in rapt silence, straining to hear Elijio’s words, until the showing’s organizers made the mistake of stopping the film and announcing that they were going to run it again once they fixed the problem. They never did — most likely it was the fault of a poor transfer from the mini-DVD original to the presentation DVD all the films were put on for the showing — and the interruption gave audience members social permission to talk through the film, making Elijio’s comments even harder to hear. (The organizers promised to re-screen the film at a subsequent showing of student films Sunday, April 29 at 3 p.m., also at the Museum of Photographic Arts.)
Algesia, an ambitious 14-minute production which closed the program, was shot in Tijuana — though the locations (a suburban home, a supermarket, a laundromat) didn’t seem all that different from those on this side of the border except that the price signs in the market were in Spanish. Though directed and written by Cathy Alberich, this film was photographed and edited by Aaron Soto and was strikingly similar in style to some of Soto’s own films shown at previous editions of Film School Confidential, longer on atmospherics than plot coherence and with shocking scenes of both sex and violence, including a climax that used gore to unsettle the audience instead of just gross it out.
Whereas previous Film School Confidential showings had included movies made on a wide variety of media, all but two of the films shown this year were shot on digital video. The lone holdout for actual photographic film (Super 16 mm format) was Deacon’s Mondays from San Diego State University (SDSU), written, directed and edited by Lowell Frank, Destin Daniel and Daniel Cretton. The 19-minute drama tells the story of Deacon (Dominic Bogart), who runs a lawn mower on campus and meets an older woman (Jane Evans) who tries to bring him out of his alienation. Though the plot is pretty standard-issue stuff for a student film, it’s told in a very charming, almost magical-realist way, and Bogart proved to be a quite personable actor, reasonably good-looking without being so handsome as to make the story unbelievable.
The other film shot on a format other than digital video was Phone_Graph, a five-minute montage by C. W. Mossbinder of SDSU, made entirely with a cell phone camera. Instead of trying to work around the low resolution of cell-phone video, Mossbinder — who created his own soundtrack score as well — made it the subject of his film, and while it occasionally seemed like Cellphoneqatsi it offered an attractive display of abstraction and an inventive new use for an increasingly ubiquitous technology. (Cell phone video has already changed world history; the Iraqi government banned cameras from Saddam Hussein’s execution because they didn’t want a video record to exist — but cell phone images of the hanging got out and were broadcast around the world.)
Mossbinder had another film in the program as well: The Percussion of Strings, a seven-minute documentary about pianist and composer Laura Karpman. Karpman specializes in “prepared piano” — a piano whose sound has been altered by inserting nails or screws between the strings, topping them with bits of paper or adding other foreign objects. Karpman, like most other musicians who do this, also reaches inside the piano and strums the strings directly as well as playing normally by striking the keys. The film was especially powerful in its juxtaposition of the sounds of Karpman’s music with the sights and sounds of the beach she lives by, which inspires her.
Other films on the program focused on grimmer aspects of modern life. Beautiful Dogs, by Gary Bulkin from SDSU, was a documentary on an upscale pet-grooming service and the truly ghastly things the groomers are hired to do to people’s dogs in the name of fashion and style. Backlash, a six-minute narrative film by Torin Ladewig of Point Loma High School, like many other films in the program combines grimness and charm in its tale of a girl who gets back at the boy who’s just dumped her and the other girl he’s dumped her for; instead of just telling the events out of sequence, Ladewig also includes scenes that literally run backward — the table the heroine has tipped over magically rights itself and the mirror she broke comes back together — to make her point about the futility of revenge.
The Crayola Monologues, by Nathan Gibbs from Rensslaer Polytechnic Institute, is a screamingly funny satire on racism in which a host of talking crayons lament the color distinctions between them and the prejudices they face. Gibbs’ script includes some real-life changes the Crayola company made in the names of its crayons, including Flesh and Indian Red, to avoid accusations of racism, and a wide variety of actors (Stephan Moore, Laura Garrison, Ben Cushing, Jesse Stiles, Jonathan Lee Marcus, Rich Pell, Myriam Hammani, Amy Curley, Seth Cluett and Seana Blondolillo) supply the voiceovers that bring Gibbs’ crayons to life.
Other fllms on the program included Case Study 511 by Christopher Schnese, Eric Darwin and Josh Westbrook of California State University-San Marcos; Final Sigh by Fernando Ramos of SDSU; Shattered by Tyler Knell of Point Loma High School; and Basic Self-Portrait by Paulina Bahena of the Escuela Superior de Artes Visuales in Mexico. Film School Confidential has been curated since its inception by Beth Accomando through the sponsorship of the Media Arts Center San Diego, and this year a portion of the ticket price was donated to the Greg Muskewitz Scholarship Fund, formed in memory of a local film critic who died of cancer at 23. For more information, visit www.mediaartscenter.org