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The success of July’s Boston Student Film Festival

The 2020 run of the Boston Student Film Festival was live-streamed the second weekend of July, and, to the collective relief of myself and the ten or so other viewers in virtual attendance, the show went off without a hitch. My half-semester experience with Zoom had trained me to expect disaster in all things livestream, but I was pleasantly surprised when the final day of the stream wrapped up without a single crash or stutter. The quality of the student films themselves were also a pleasant surprise, but that is not to say that their contents were always pleasant or surprising.

Started in 2019, the Boston Student Film Festival is laudable for being one of the few organizations in New England to actually showcase student works, and it is great to see that the coronavirus did not extinguish the idea before it could begin its second show. While not literally a Brandeis production, it is Brandeisians that form the backbone of the show. This year’s festival director was Benedikt Reynolds ’19, the two producers were Savannah Edmondson ’19 and The Brandeis Hoot’s very own Noah Harper ’19, and a key sponsor of the entire event was Mark Dellelo, founder of the Sound and Image Media Studios (SIMS) at Brandeis. This year’s show features 25 films from 15 colleges across the New England area with a combined viewing time of about three and a half hours.

Most indie films have a kind of sad, anxiety inducing angst about them, and student films amplify that effect greatly. This often results in frankly vague and uninteresting bouts of self exploration, but a few of these films were genuinely captivating. Tiffany Rekem’s “Bye bye” is the real winner of this category. It presents a seemingly biographical account of the director’s father’s struggle with mental illness through an arrangement of interviews, observational shots and vintage footage. Monologues from the aging father are interlaced with scenes of mundane life, including uncomfortably close shots of television watching, eating and some singing. Hitchcockian voyeurism is brought to an extreme as the viewer is made to listen as the father recounts his troubled childhood and past desire to kill himself. There are touching moments too, but I will not spoil them. Rekem’s project is one of the most intimate works of art I have ever been made to watch, and I am grateful for it.

Other standout films in my self-invented angst and anxiety category include Nicole Sellew’s “Isabel,” a series of monologues with a “Moonrise Kingdom” delivery and aesthetic, and Camila Vilaplana’s “Insomnia,” of which the name speaks for itself.

The animated works of the show are plentiful, and all of them are good. None of them commit particularly hard to providing a long cinematic experience, although some of them are shorter and sweeter than others, and the variety of animation styles ranging from claymation to computer generated make it difficult to pick a single favorite. I will admit that Austin Kimmell’s “Trapper Keeper” immediately tore a hole in my heart, if only for its painful representation of the exhaustion and routine of high school life. 

My personal favorite animated work, however, is Maddie Brewer’s “God of Chaos.” The short is a narratively complete cartoon that would not look out of place on Adult Swim. Its hand drawn style is distinct (if somewhat unsettling), and movement is fluid and constant. Despite lacking any dialogue whatsoever, the animation succeeds in presenting a clear antagonist, a fun pair of protagonists and a suspenseful conclusion to tie the wacky thing together.

Finally, we have the big hitters-–the longer films that try to capture a truly cinematic experience. I will preface by saying that all of them are impressive. Student films, by virtue of budget, talent and equipment constraints, will almost always appear slightly mediocre, but the ambition of these particular submissions is backed by raw talent. Case in point: Timothy Amatulli’s “The Quiet Pain” actually made me forget that I was watching a student film, and I was sad when it ended so soon. It tells the familiar story of a woman discovering that her husband is cheating on her. With few words, it captures the anxious tension of a father-mother feud with a daughter caught between. Bubbling throughout the film’s conclusion is the quiet sadness of a wife that must reconcile that she is not as young and desired as she may have once been. 

Monica Liao Queliz’s “WOKE,” is an all too relevant butt-clencher. The plot and dialogue is obvious but nonetheless gripping as an Afro-Latina college freshman attempts to interface with her school’s white-dominated diversity club. After a cringe inducing round of racially charged banter, the camera dramatically pulls back to a stage as the protagonist delivers a speech about belonging and identity. In this day and age, it is pretty much required viewing.

If even a single of these films catches your attention, I recommend giving the show a shot. Both days of screening can be found on the Boston Student Film Festival Facebook page as well as the official website of the same name. Streaming a film festival is never as interesting as physically being there, but it cannot be helped. Going to an in-person screening of a student festival would be a blast, however, and we can only pray that the Boston Student Film Festival will outlive the pandemic. We are only students for so long—we must appreciate the experience while our youth lasts.

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