NYC Film Festivals

In With the New at NYU

A scene from Rigodon, one of the feature selections at this year's First Run Film Festival at NYU(Photo: Sari Dalena and Keith Sicat)

By John Lichman

There's a minor paradox within the student film festival. You could find the next Spike Lee or -- God forbid -- Brett Ratner, viewing a variety of flicks that could be great or prove that watching Poor Little Rich Girl and Taxi Driver too many times does not a filmmaker create.

But at the 65th annual First Run Film Festival, presented by the Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film and Television at NYU (and opening Wednesday), the films tend to lean a bit more into the realm of quality, from sci-fi shorts and ninja stories to critical looks at race relations. The selection runs a gamut of undergraduate and grad films ranging between narratives, documentaries and animation produced during the filmmakers' time in the program. The work is evaluated by a trio of juries: a three-judge Undergraduate Intermediate panel looks at submissions from junior level courses; Graduate and Undergraduate Industry each have six-judge panels. The selections are then sent toward the respective faculty panels to announce the final top three winners during the two-hour Wasserman Awards program held on April 16, featuring special guest presenter/Tisch alumni Jerry O'Connell.

The change-up this year comes from the new Graduate Feature category, allowing two 80-minute features, Manish Acharya's Loins of Punjab Presents and Sari Dalena's Rigodon to screen as part of the competition. Rigodon, which screened as a part of the 2006 New York Asian Film Festival and earlier this year at MoMA's Asian Cinevisions, began when Dalena came to the graduate program in 2003. She and her husband/co-director Keith Sicat have been waiting for the program to finally acknowledge features, noting that students should be allowed to make features while they have the opportunity and the facilities behind a program like Tisch. "When I came to NYU, I made a decision," she said. "I'm not getting out [of here] without making a feature film."

After only his first short, The Driver, Acharya found himself drafting feature-based work more than the required shorts that would've been shown in competition. "Both are wonderful forms of expression and need to exist," said Acharya in an email to The Reeler from India. "I just happen to be someone who loves making features, and I think I am better at that than at making short films." Loins of Punjab Presents, centered around a Desi version of American Idol in New Jersey, was selected for the 2006 London Film Festival but was not completed in time to screen.

"In the last few years the department has re-embraced feature filmmaking," said Professor John Tintori, chair of the graduate program. In the past, both sections of the department frowned on feature filmmaking, Tintori cites Mora Stephens' Conventioneers, which was shot around the 2004 Republican Convention and eventually won the John Cassavetes Award (for features budgeted below $500,000) at the 2006 Independent Spirit Awards. Tintori added that features will not be in consideration for the Wasserman Awards because of their length but will run with the finalists in the Awards program later in the spring at a Los Angeles screening to follow New York. The undergraduate program does not allow a feature in the actual competition, but will screen it if submitted.

"Some of the strongest films did not make the cut [for the Wasserman Awards] because they were simply too long," said undergraduate film chair Lamar Sanders. "The judges this year felt that they really couldn't go with their best instincts cause the films were simply too long and threw off other interesting films, or inclusion of other interesting films."

Of course, there are other shorts like Dan Eckman's Checkout, about a ninja stuck working in a convenience store, and John Kelly's Badass, Documentary "follow[ing] one man's search for identity as he's transformed from detached suburban adolescent to aspiring hot rod junkie." Then, as Tintori told the Reeler, graduate filmmakers like Alexander Ku (Triple 8 Palace) and Joanna Jurewicz (Goyta) have already been selected for this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and many others, such as Greg Mitnick’s Lawrence will screen during Tribeca. There’s even a music video for Irish band The Walls by Noah Lagin. In the end, First Run provides a great insight into the future of the medium, as producers, agents and even The Reeler wait to see what emerges during the next week of screenings whether they be short or feature, winner or loser. Just as long as they’re not the next Brett Ratner.

For screenings, dates and and program information, visit the First Run Festival Web site.

Posted at April 10, 2007 5:18 AM

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