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Opening Night: 25 Years of Columbia’s Film Festival at Tully Hall

Opening Night: 25 Years of Columbia's Film Festival at Tully Hall

The 25th anniversary of presenting Columbia University student films kicked off last night at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.  Since I was part of the first event in 1987, the celebration filled me with nostalgia, pride, and optimism.  25 years ago, our inaugural night at Symphony Space on upper Broadway consisted of four shorts–including Tom Abrams’s “Shoeshine” (starring Jerry Stiller and his then unknown son Ben Stiller), which became one of the three 1987 Oscar nominees for Live-Action Short. The screening was followed by a panel discussion that I moderated with celebrity faculty and alumni including Milos Forman and Kathryn Bigelow. Over the next few years, the number of films directed by MFA students kept growing.

Watching the three montage sequences created by Kinetic Trailers–which deftly compressed dozens of shorts into a few minutes each–I was struck by how many recognizable actors had appeared in Columbia’s student films, especially the discovery of Claire Danes more than 20 years ago.  There were tantalizing glimpses of Cynthia Nixon, Keith Gordon, Doug McGrath, Aasif Mandvi, Janeane Garafolo, Melissa Leo, Bill Sage, Allison Janney, Mira Sorvino and Malcolm MacDowell, all of whom generously worked with our students.

Screenwriter Malia Scotch-Marmo received the Andrew Sarris Award, which is designated each year by the students to one of the alumni.  Sarris, although now frail, was in the audience, and it was touching to see our retired colleague and dean of American film criticism receiving the cheers of the crowd.

Film Program Chair Ira Deutchman economically introduced presenters for the five shorts that were shown in their entirety. Indie producer Ted Hope represented Greg Mottola, whose “Swingin’ in the Painter’s Room” (1989) was a tour-de-force ensemble piece set in a single room, all in one take.  Chevy Chase, who has worked on television with filmmaker Adam Davidson, introduced his Oscar-winning “Lunch Date” (1991). I was asked to present “One Day Crossing,” another Oscar nominee, directed by my former Teaching Assistant Joan Stein.  This Hungarian-language Holocaust drama of 2000 packed a huge emotional whallop with the almost 1000 viewers in Alice Tully Hall.  And Brian Koppelman (screenwriter of films including “Ocean’s Thirteen” and “Rounders”) introduced Jonathan van Tulleken’s taut horror film, “Off Season.”

If the first four shorts shown in 1987 were all in English, almost half of the recent films seem to be in foreign languages and subtitled. Introducing “Chicken Heads” by Palestinian director Bassam Jarbawi, filmmaker Michael Moore noted how internationally diverse Columbia’s student shorts have become.
Movies by white males no longer constitute the majority of Columbia student films.  And the work of our female graduates has earned acclaim, including Tanya Wexler, Patricia Riggen, Kimberly Peirce, Laryssa Kondracki, Katharina Otto-Bernstein and Courtney Hunt.  On Wednesday, my colleague Bette Gordon will moderate a Lincoln Center panel with alumnae Lisa Cholodenko, Nicole Holofcener, Shari Springer Berman and Cherien Dabis, titled “What Glass Ceiling? The Remarkable Success of Columbia’s Women Filmmakers.”

The one constant in our classes over the decades? To have a story worth telling, and to find the right cinematic language for it.  The Film Program of Columbia’s School of the Arts has evolved from a respected screenwriting conservatory and cinema studies program to a major filmmaking institution.  Feeling the power of the images projected on the enormous screen of Alice Tully Hall, I was reminded of Deutchman’s letter in the printed program.  He acknowledged the proliferation of movies being made–as well as the mistaken belief that anyone with a smartphone is a filmmaker–and concluded, “Having a camera does not make a filmmaker, just as having a word processor does not make a writer. Film is a complex and powerful art form that requires talent, devotion and plenty of practice.”

Annette Insdorf, author of “Philip Kaufman,” is Director of Undergraduate Film Studies at Columbia University, and former Chair of the Graduate Program.

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