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Cannes: Young Filmmakers Make Bold Moves in the Cinefondation Competition, Silverstein’s ‘Skunk’ Wins First Place

Cannes: Young Filmmakers Make Bold Moves in the Cinefondation Competition, Silverstein's 'Skunk' Wins First Place

Some of the easier seats to find at Cannes are in the
Cinéfondation, which is a shame not only for the young filmmakers who need and
deserve as wide an audience as possible, but also because some of the
liveliest, most interesting and entertaining filmmaking of the festival can be
found here. Really. Now in its 17th year, the Cinéfondation selects shorts from
film schools around the world.

On day one Wednesday, they included an accomplished family
drama from Korea, a wonderfully inventive comedy from Italy, a beautifully
painted life-sized animation from Britain, a charming coming-of-age story from
France, a wonderfully realized drama from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Asia
(which includes a searing performance by the Japanese actress Kaori Momoi), and
a sharp, edgy take on outlier youth in rural Texas by UT graduate student Annie
Silverstein. On Thursday, Silverstein was awarded the Cinefondation’s first prize. (The list of winners is here.)

Prior to film school, Silverstein was a social worker in
Washington State working with Native American teens, a project that included
the making of a 70-minute documentary. At some point, Silverstein told me on
the American Pavilion’s deck, she realized that it was either social work or
filmmaking, and when UT Austin gave her a scholarship, that was that. She
nevertheless wanted to stay close to the social work, to set a film in such a
community and have it function as “the fabric of the film. I wanted to use all
of those experiences I had witnessed — and some of my own.”

A great looking 16 minutes on a girl, her dog and a boy,
“Skunk” is not so much a coming-of-age story as a brief but potent slice of a
teenage girl’s life. Yes, the film does revolve around her first sexual
experience (more or less), but it is far more about what happens afterward, and
how she deals with it. “When women don’t have a way to defend themselves,” says
Silverstein, “sometimes they have to do something really crazy.”

That something is the film’s denouement and it wouldn’t do
to describe here, save to say that it involves shame, but it’s something crazy
enough to have Silverstein’s professors advise against it. She was right to
stick to her guns, as it’s the difference between an accomplished piece of
filmmaking and one that also has something bold to say.

The girl Leila, played with rigorous nonchalance by
Jenivieve Nugent, is described by Silverstein as an “outsider, inhibited yet
brassy; she has an inner strength but hasn’t found a way to express herself
fully.” Nugent possesses a presence surprising for her 14 years, enough to hold
her own ground against Marco, played with an uncomfortable level of
believability by the 17-year-old Houston rapper, Kiowa Tucker. Their make-out
session is notable for two things: its very realistic combination of sensuality
and awkwardness as well as for the fact that it was Nugent’s very first such
experience — all recorded on video, for everyone to watch, even an audience in
Cannes.

That audience included the renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas
Kiarostami, head of the Cinéfondation jury, and this, says Silverstein, was one
of the more amazing aspects of her festival experience. In the future, she
hopes to make a feature length version of “Skunk,” set in the “same world with
the same themes of power dynamics and sexuality,” delving more into the
intersection of those dynamics and social media in a rural environment.

Silverstein, who took part in the Berlinale Talent Campus in
February, also wants to finish her documentary about the iconic Brazilian
street artist Jorge Selaron, whose death last year will make completing it a
challenge, to say the least. But then shooting “Skunk” was not easy either, she
says, what with working with kids and dogs on a 10-day shoot, losing locations
along the way and the “endless scrambling.” 

No doubt child’s play compared with the real thing — social
work — especially, of course, when you wind up in Cannes hanging out with the
world’s best young filmmakers, and a few older ones, too. She’ll be back: Along with $15,000, the first place award guarantees that Silverstein’s first feature will be presented at Cannes.

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