The Berkeley Video and Film Festival program’s weekend of 67 student films opened Friday in a night of excellent curatorial choices, pristine film innovation and a tragically empty theater. The five-and-a-half hour program opened with three films submitted by students from unspecified schools and the remaining twelve films were created by students of the University of Southern California Film School. While a five-and-a-half hour marathon can be exhausting to sit through, the vast variation in cinematic quality, narrative innovation and subject matter within this program was enough to retain acute interest throughout the night.
The small East Bay Media Center welcomed the crowd of about 10 audience members to get comfortable with homemade enchiladas, cold lemonade and a warm, intimate theater before the program began. The first and third films, “Iris” and “Cuvee,” displayed strong cinematic qualities in writing, direction and lighting, but the high level of mastery over these points made the films’ weaker details increasingly prominent. For example, while “Iris,” a film about the risks of counterfeited identity in an enticing future world, had a captivating storyline and well-crafted lighting, the nonprofessional acting and editing were made exceedingly apparent.
However, the second film, Zachary Scott’s “We Need to Talk,” embraced the materials at its disposal to create a consistently successful product. A story of a man who unknowingly marries a professional assassin, “We Need to Talk” integrates intentionally campy effects — freeze-frames on individuals providing their descriptions as assassins — with strong acting talent, smooth editing and a succinct storyline that moved visually: The protagonist stumbles through his house, accidentally killing a number of assassins. The film was independently funded, and Scott used his low budget to his advantage. After the screening of his film, Scott received the Reality Films Award for his excellence in capturing a range of horror genres from zombie to teen scream to B-horror.
After the presentation of Scott’s award, the night’s curator, Mel Vapour, introduced the projects from the University of Southern California students with great admiration and excitement. With a wide variety of films, from documentaries about family myths and black culture in Los Angeles to narratives ranging from horror stories to historical epics to musicals to teen dramas, the USC selection was riveting. As Vapour explained, he selected USC films specifically because he considers their program to be the world’s center for professional film training; Friday’s films held up to this standard. The lighting, staging, framing and overall aesthetic of each film were pristine, the storylines were fascinating and the the acting and editing in each film were executed at a professional Hollywood level.
While the success of these USC films attest to the dedication, skill and talent of each filmmaker as well as to the quality of the school and training they receive, it is important to note that the the substantial amount of funding allotted to these films provided access to resources — on-location shooting, professional editing and shooting equipment, etc.— that contributed to their polished Hollywood quality.
While each USC film glowed with professionalism, one in particular that stood out was Gil Marsden’s “Bluebird Street,” about a community of women who are taught to live “perfect” ’50s housewife-style lives — but devoid of men. What was so impressive about this film was its modern use of the musical genre, which is generally absent from today’s screens except in recycled Broadway productions. Its songs complement the quaint tone of the film’s environment and introduce the story’s turn from peaceful to horrific as a man is abducted for trying to court one of the women. While each film at this festival was beautifully executed, this revitalization of a medium unseen on American screens today — the movie-musical — was especially compelling.
The student films screened through the Berkeley Video and Film Festival were professionally constructed and well selected. It was a night of incredible filmmaking, and it is a great shame that, by the end of the evening, I shared the theater with only four audience members, three of whom were affiliated with the media center.