Watching student films requires a different lens than your typical Hollywood fare. For some, it’s a bit like taking in a foreign film or a Western for the first time. You’ll sit down and notice that the film looks different (35mm costs roughly $50 per minute of footage to develop, digital is $5 per hour); there aren’t many puppy-eyed Matt Damons, and no pushed-up Scarletts; and they can’t open up with an “In the Hall of the Mountain King”-backed montage because it’s copyright infringement.
Hollywood standards (and our acclimation to them) may be superficial, but it’s what the system has run on for years: we like what we see, because we’ve seen it before. How many times do moviegoers shell out double digits of cash for movies they know they won’t like? How do we even know we won’t like the film?
This isn’t to say that every film at the Ivy Film Festival is an endurance test: plenty of them are beautifully shot, have catchy rhythms or indulge in blatant nudity. Most are the cream of the crop. Out of a selection of over 350 submitted films, 32 were chosen during a three-month screening period for what is now the largest student-run film festival in the world. These student films, which hail from Switzerland to Ohio, from UCLA to Poland, represent the beginnings and the future of film culture. The short-feature series comes from a time when going to the movies was more like heading to the local sports bar. Now, venues like YouTube and Vimeo are turning dorm rooms into editing suites and theatres for the short-format. Start getting used to it.
“Wedezkai I Panienki (Vodka and Women)”
dir. Xavier Tatarkiewicz
I’m beginning to think that films are always better in foreign languages, and shooting in black and white is equally high priority. But the all-Polish “Vodka and Women” is far from gimmick; it’s mostly a morally ambiguous Euro-comedy (think In Bruges, but in a cooler language). Stefan is an accountant already turning 33, worrying he won’t make it further than Jesus did. Meanwhile Magda, an elderly call-woman from the fifth floor, is the only one willing to give Stefan the tough-love talk: Stefan is a beta-male who provides the cash, while his girlfriend’s slick yoga instructor is currently taking up the alpha role. Stefan wants sexual retribution, and Magda is willing to watch from the sidelines with a joint in hand.
Bourgeois Factor: 4/5
dir. Ruowen Yan
City College of NY
No dialogue troubles Ruowen Yan’s meditative love story, in which a dapper city boy pursues a coy village girl in rural China. Leaving his washed-out, almost black-and-white city behind, the suitor crosses a rope bridge into a vivid country town where Yan’s visual poetry takes wing. Green foliage and red lanterns punctuate the film’s painterly composition, wherein banners abound. A smoldering mist softens the leaves and rocks and casts a glow over the sweating faces of the would-be lovers, one of whom is played by Yan herself. Only the pleas of the suitor’s violin or the dragging of a sack of rice speaks for how these silent, unnamed characters feel for each other. But the high courtyard walls of her house are more than a mere metaphor for her reticence.
Better To Have Loved and Lost Factor: 4/5
“Nobody Not Knows”
dir. Severin Kyhn
Lucerne University, Switzerland
Flowering meadows slope into snow-capped Alps in the Swiss village where Ali jogs. But what looks like a mountainside chalet is actually a refugee resettlement house, where he and Rashid have spent five years in legal limbo. They cannot work, cannot go to school and the locals avoid them. “I prefer prison,” Rashid says after he is arrested for leaving town (the immigration office in Basel). He is safe inside, but Ali is on the edge: “What I am guilty of is punishable by stoning,” he confesses, and his five-year refugee status is about to expire. Severin Kyhn’s documentary will madden you with the suspense that weighs on Ali and Rashid.
Gay Oppression Factor: 5/5
dir. Lev Polyakov
School of Visual Arts, New York
Once upon a time, in a comically derelict stereotype of a Soviet city, there ruled a brainy dictator whose logo was a peace sign, but who tortured dissidents in the dungeon of his concrete castle. Such Grimm humor pervades the dialogueless “Only Love,” a slapstick tale of a one-man insurrection lead by a portly middle-aged revolutionary in an unflattering tank top. The dictator’s guards slaughter and slice up with relish as the hero attempts several assassinations, which are consistently foiled. At last, the firebrand dies, only to be resurrected as a Herculean, lightning-flinging angel. Somewhere between Kill Bill and The Animaniacs, “Only Love” finishes with an ambivalent resolution to a 20th-century fairy tale, in which authoritarianism slides into celebrity, and even political prisoners live happily ever after.
Tassled Iron Curtain Factor: 5/5
“Return of the Elephant”
dir. Max Grey
Sexual slavery, pedophilia, the awkward small talk before a sordid hookup: all are themes you’ll read into “Return of the Elephant” upon second viewing. But since it’ll only screen once, chances are you’ll just see two ‘cousins’ reminiscing about their late fathers over reheated pizza. Adapted from the graphic novel by Paul Hornschemeier, this film by Max Grey B’11 uses a handheld camera and bright, unnerving lighting to evoke pornography even before the sale of illicit videotapes (or maybe people) ever enters the frame. Make sure to wash your hands afterward. And remember to moisturize.
Moral Ambiguity Factor: 6/5
“No Wind, No Waves”
dir. Julian Higgins
With nothing but a strip of old photobooth pictures and a faulty address to guide him, Chen (Peter Yip) stumbles through an unfamiliar East Coast landscape in search of Justin, a young man who appears to be his son. I say “appears” because the relationship is never stated–at least not explicitly, and not in the language viewers expect. Setting foot in America for the first time, Chen speaks little English and struggles to be heard. As a result, the film’s key passages unfold in un-subtitled Mandarin and Cantonese, affording Chen brief moments of clarity that we can sense, if not completely comprehend. Stunning camerawork and nuanced acting make “No Wind, No Waves” a memorable effort, but the exclusion of subtitles is the film’s masterstroke. After watching Chen strain to interpret English (“I don’t understand you” is a common refrain), we find ourselves in a similar bind: squinting bemusedly in the dark, fumbling for visual cues in the face of a language we cannot decipher.
Lost in Translation Factor: 3/5
“Le Paradis de L’Imbecile”
dir. Patrick Griffin
Savannah College of Art and Design
Not a film about film, but a film about people who love film. And maybe people who love film too much. In the midst of a breakup, Joe can’t help but turn every passing moment into its genre-correlate: “You don’t listen to me” becomes a film noir t√™te-√†-t√™te; “I want you back” translates into a song and dance number; the French-title shows up at the film’s existential New-Wavy closure. And then, of course, underneath the fantasies are the hard-talk romantic dramas. Their job is to remind us that love hurts.
Meta Factor: 5/5
“This is Umberto”
dir. Anna Krutzik
University of Wisconsin
Although six-inch action figures tend to thrive in stop-motion, Umberto takes his close-up in real time. In 29 parts, Krutzik’s “epically short film” unpacks the psychological hang-ups of Umberto, a plastic doll (blonde hair, blue eyes; pink button-down tucked into belted jeans), via computer-modulated voiceover. The camera plays with zoom and framing, but Umberto mostly chills in static poses. Interspersed are title cards ranging from the instructive (“Part one: in which we wash our hands and befriend Umberto.”) to the imperative (“Please close your eyes and listen.”). Also discussed: Umberto’s views on stem-cell research, animosity toward the mammals, his fear of change above all else.
“Kablam!” Factor: 4.2/5
dir. Jonathan Taee
University of Virginia
Questions about the film’s namesake–Merleau Ponty, a 20th-century phenomenologist concerned with the “corporeity” of consciousness–give a heady bent to the bizarre aesthetic trance of this film. A glowing male nude in chiaroscuro floats slowly upward into black, only to be followed by more nudes–male and female–in a graceful descent toward nothing. Warm close-ups of skin, hair and twitching muscles grow diffuse in a red gleam, recalling the dappled light and flickering grain of Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Movement. Technical questions will surely arise (how did he do this? Trampolines?), but soon take backseat to the arresting visuals. Ending with a freeze-frame, the film burns, eroding from the inside out.
Haptic Factor: 5/5
Student Films will be screening in MacMillan, room 117, on Friday April 24 at 9:45-11:45 PM; and on Saturday April 25, 10:00 AM-2:00 PM & 5:30-7:30 PM. For details, see ivyfilmfestival.com.