For the last three years, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or BAMPFA, Student Committee has organized its Student Film Festival to showcase student-made works from Berkeley and the broader Bay Area. This year is the festival’s second iteration as a virtual event, allowing these movies to be shared with a wider audience than previously possible. Each film runs under 15 minutes, and all of them are available to stream at no cost to the viewer.
The “student” criterion in this selection becomes clear when one recognizes the various historical movements that inspired the films from this collection, from silent cinema to cinema-verité to more contemporary avant-garde forms. Amid the weeds of a pandemic and limited resources, it’s exciting to watch the fruits of a young, creative mind continue to flower — here are some of the most memorable works.
Filmmakers Imran Sekalala and Judah Ray Marsden transform the natural world in their standout short “The Lung.” The camera captures lilting clouds and splattering drops of water as if they were impressionist paintings, employing machine-learning tools that soften reality into art. Brilliantly, the footage looks painted, as if the scenes unfolding were a work of otherworldly animation. The title of the film comes from its soundtrack, as the mesmerizing images are paired with the song “the lung,” sung by mwami — a clever match since the images themselves look as if they’re breathing. The world we know becomes hypnotic and defamiliarized, allowing Sekalala and Marsden to reveal the true beauty it beholds.
Everybody in the Bay Area remembers the fateful day the sky turned red. Wildfires ravaging the broader West Coast blanketed the Bay Area in a dense smoke that cast unsettling, sepia overtones on the formerly cloudless, blue sky. In his film “9/9/2020, Oakland,” Gavin Richard shares his experience on that unreal, apocalyptic day. The short film opens with handheld footage as Richard takes the viewers on a drive in his car, winding through neighborhood streets and soaring on empty freeway lanes. The sky serves as the focus of our attention — that being said, the viewers may also wonder whether he’s driving and filming at the same time.
In the latter half of the film, the handheld shots are replaced by drone shots that capture the event’s magnitude from an aerial perspective with piercing clarity. In these moments, the film powerfully juxtaposes the performance of routine and the day’s reality. Uneasiness settles in as we watch the stoplight change, the bus run on its route, our driver turn on the air conditioning — all beneath an apocalyptic reddened sky. The drone shots are particularly resonant in remembering a historic, haunting day in the Bay.
‘Beyond the Storm’
Duy Le’s documentary “Beyond the Storm” is another remarkable standout in the collection. Cinematographers Le and Anh Nguyen venture to Central Vietnam during the storm season to portray the experiences of Tuan, a former bricklayer and rice grower, and his neighbors. In 2020, the rate of typhoons and floods in central Vietnam reached an all-time high, and the film speaks with Tuan’s neighbors, a few of the people most vulnerable to the reality of that statistic. With beautiful cinematography, “Beyond the Storm” hopes to give a sensitive, humanistic look at the dangers of climate change.
That initiative admittedly flickers due in part to the film’s brevity, which troubles the movie’s treatment of one of Tuan’s neighbors, an older woman whose name we never learn. She spends much of the film in tears, sharing the devastation brought on by living in poverty, compounded by the storms. Since the film only lasts five minutes, the camera’s unrelenting attention to this woman’s vulnerability sometimes veers more intrusive than empathetic.
Shot in black-and-white, Allison Lopez’s film “Big House” mystifies, splinters and unravels the concept of home. The soundscape for this strange, intriguing tale is eerie. When the shrill strings diminuendo, an ominous piano motif persists alongside a fuzzy rustling noise that heightens the house’s uncanniness. The camera navigates hallways in reverse; soap dirties clean hands; cut out pictures of strangers plaster the walls — the titular big house isn’t an airy mansion of cool indifference; it feels fragmented, claustrophobic and airtight. Lopez showcases immersive world building in a vulnerable, poetic meditation on childhood and growing up.