Last weekend’s Oak Cliff Film Festival was a celebration of cinema’s past, present, and future. And the best way to spot what’s coming was at the Texas Student Short Films section of the programming.
Originally, the film festival accepted submissions from students across the nation. But the submissions from Texas came with such frequency and quality that the festival decided to limit to filmmakers in the Lone Star State, according to Parker May, the festival’s programming coordinator.
This year, students from Southern Methodist University, the University of North Texas, and University of Texas at Austin and Arlington, had films featured in the festival. They included:
- Our Stories – Alexa May’s documentary chronicled the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic through the eyes of three SMU students.
- Color of a Toy – A toy collector pushes for diversity in Mattel’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe toy line in this documentary, directed by Oscar Lopez.
- A Stranger by a Streetlamp – Director Jason Jezek crafted an unsettling tale of a boy bringing a humanoid owl to dinner with his disinterested parents.
- And You See Me – Centered around a community of mixed-ability improvisational dancers, this short from Emily Shapiro celebrated dance as an inclusive community-building exercise.
- The Voyager – Nick Rana directed an experimental space odyssey, carried along by its pulsating score and visual flair.
- El Fantasma – This short was a period dramatization of Lee Harvey Oswald’s 1963 trip to Mexico City to procure a visa to the Soviet Union, directed by Arturo R. Jiménez.
- Michelle – Director Kenya Gillespie’s short confronts Asian-American racism through the eyes of a shy young girl who idolizes Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan.
After the screening, several of the films’ cinematographers and directors participated in a Q&A. They spoke on the challenges of making their films, some of which were in production at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year’s Oak Cliff Film Festival was only available through streaming screenings, missing the opportunity to showcase the work on a big screen.
May spoke about the challenge of learning new visual effects techniques on Zoom to finish Our Stories. Shapiro had to adapt her camerawork to capture a community of mixed-ability improv dancers in And You See Me.
Gillespie and Jezek approached their films as an opportunity to experiment with tone and style. Michelle’s central set piece was a joyful dance routine, contrasted with the ugliness of racism. A Stranger by a Streetlamp used dark humor to complement its avant-garde style. Both directors also spoke about working with child actors and learning to adjust their approach to help younger performers succeed.
The pandemic significantly impacted the film industry and brought new challenges to production and distribution. At times, the future of cinema seems uncertain, especially because of the industry’s focus on existing franchises instead of original projects.
May believes the student shorts showcase will cultivate the next generation of filmmakers.
“We really like to bring [student filmmakers] in here. They get to meet and hang out with people who have made big, high-budget, feature-length films,” said May.
The content of this year’s films varied from straightforward documentaries to boundary-pushing arthouse films, but they all had one thing in common: talented young filmmakers making their vision a reality, and getting to share it with an audience.