The best of the Notre Dame Student Film Festival

From January 24-26, hundreds of Notre Dame students, faculty and staff — as well as locals from the South Bend community — trekked to the Browning Cinema for the 31st annual Notre Dame Student Film Festival.

Ranging from introspective documentaries to original narratives, the 12 student films chosen for the program were curated from production courses (both introductory and advanced) in the Department of Film, Television and Theatre. Final class projects became official competition; to be selected from roughly 75 short films to screen for the public was an honor in itself.

But there could only be one Audience Choice Award winner, and this year the prize went to “Don’t Be Afraid to F*** Up.” Directed by Gretchen Hopkirk, this documentary reflects on both its creator and her University by way of the Humor Artists, ND’s improv comedy troupe. Weaving together directorial confessions in front of the Golden Dome with footage of (and interviews with) various Humor Artists, Hopkirk challenges the perfectionism typical of Notre Dame students, as well as the constant pressure to achieve. The title itself is a nod to one of improv’s basic truths: mistakes are inevitable, so what do you do with them?

But that wasn’t the festival’s only film. Here are some of my other favorites:

“Sea Dogs”

This film, helmed by Ted Nagy and Ryan O’Callaghan, tells a simple story of brotherly love on a much grander scale, cross-cutting between a young boy’s search for backyard buried treasure and the epic seaside fantasy he imagines in his head. The film makes great use of music and location, contrasting its swashbuckling adventure with the mundane reality of suburban life. A metaphor for sibling rivalry and the love that overcomes, “Sea Dogs” is a refreshing piece of fiction filmmaking at a festival better known for its documentary output.

“Tape Wizard”

My favorite film of the fest, directed by Kilian Vidourak, is so good that you wouldn’t think a student had made it. It’s a documentary about Randall Taylor, a Portland musician who goes by the name of Amulets. His genre of choice is “tape-looping,” a process by which old cassettes are recycled and recontextualized with guitar loops and sampling. Basically, he turns ambient noise into art. Finely edited and thoughtfully observed, “Tape Wizard” is a fascinating film about the artistic process and why artists put themselves through it. Taylor’s closing comments — and the live performance they precede — make for an affecting answer to that question.

“Regular Poor Asian”

Similar to “Tape Wizard,” “Regular Poor Asian” finds a Notre Dame student interviewing an artist in a city far from South Bend. But instead of Portland, it’s New York; instead of Amulets, it’s comedian Michael Nguyen; and instead of taking a back seat to his subject, director Kenny Xu hones in on himself. Nguyen is the host of a podcast called “Asian, Not Asian”, where “two Asian comedians not from Asia talk about American issues no Americans care about.” Nguyen speaks to his unique experience as an Asian-American artist; he suggests that our culture (and his parents) would prefer he be a doctor or engineer. Meanwhile, Xu reflects on his dream to be a cinematographer. The result is a funny and illuminating documentary with the style of a video essay and the spirit of a vlog. It made me smile and it made me think.

And there you have it! The best of the ND Student Film Festival.

An omission is not a criticism; there were a number of films that I enjoyed but just didn’t have the space to write about. Hopefully, this will inspire you to check out the festival (next year) for yourself.

And to ND’s budding filmmakers: keep at it. Your hard work is paying off.

This article was originally published on February 5, 2020 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.

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