On any given day, the McKellar Theatre at Western’s UCC has films available for students to watch. Some of them are Hollywood blockbusters and recent hits while others are cult favourites, but all have these things in common: professional production companies, well-known actors, and Hollywood dollars. On February 4th, 2017, the McKellar theatre featured films of a slightly different nature. These movies were all shot by students and filmed on humble smartphones.
This is the first time ever the Smartphone Film Festival is screening on Western’s campus, and it’s the student extension of the more widely known smartphone festival that began in Toronto. It gives young filmmakers a chance to have their work make the leap from smartphone to the big screen; it’s an incredible experience for enterprising artists. There were films entered from all across Canada, and the screening on Western’s campus featured just the top 10, of which one would be declared the winner by a panel of industry professionals.
Throughout the screening it was evident that this was a community event; filmmakers, event staff, and audience members mingled freely, and it was clear that there were many friends in the room supporting each other. Even the judges fit right in to this atmosphere of comradery, comprised as they were of three filmmakers, two of whom were recent graduates not much older than the contestants themselves. While announcing the top three winners of the 10 films, the panelists were unable to hold back both praise and constructive criticism for the films, recognizing that for many filmmakers present, this was just the first step to a promising journey ahead.
Events like these demonstrate a willingness of Western’s part to empower a new generation of filmmakers, who can be given the ability to bring their ideas to life with a technology that’s easy to operate and easy to find. The film festival was partnered with several organizations on campus, with grant money coming from the USC, and assistance coming from the fledgling Movie and Video Productions club (MVP). The Film Festival is also looking to partner with the Forest City Film Festival in coming years, in the hopes that providing access to this Southern Ontario-wide festival might provide a way for Western participants to gain a foothold in the larger industry.
The winning film, simply entitled ‘U’, was a project that had been conceived late one night by second-year student Allison Pao, one of the three girls who produced the film. “It came to me at literally 3am”, she admitted. In typical student fashion, the rest of the project came together rapidly in the week before the deadline, with back-to-back nights of filming and a late night crunch of editing as the due date approached. Asha Bicarie was still smiling when asked how it felt to win. “Amazing,” she said. “My heart’s beating so fast right now”.
The genuine surprise of Bicarie, Pao, and their partner Avery Emms over their win spoke volumes to the importance of an event like the Smartphone Film Festival. The girls are all friends in their second year at Western, and hail from different faculties; FIMS, Political Science, and BMOS. They aren’t sure if filmmaking right now is a future career path or just a successful hobby, but it’s probably fair to guess that their first place finish boosted their confidence.
The ten final films were sent in from all across Canada, and reflected the theme, ‘misinformation and technology’; a topical subject if ever there was one. Even though contestants weren’t all in FIMS, there was a definite feeling of Black Mirror in the content of many films. The winner ‘U’ featured a commentary on predatory social media behaviour told through the format of a music video. Runner-up film “Slide” told a complex narrative of the making of a meme and the people who get caught behind the pictures, and third-place finisher ‘Unnatural Selection’ had a sci-fi thriller plot that could easily be expanded into a full-length feature. Just as varying as the content was the length of each film, some of which lasted nearly half an hour, while others didn’t even hit a full minute. The diversity of the pieces really demonstrated the art implicit in their creation; with such a casual format to fill, there were no black and white moulds to fall into.
Alternative media projects like these allow aspiring filmmakers to test out their ideas without worrying over a big budget, and it will be interesting to see how festivals like this evolve in the coming years as they continue to grow. Will this remain a way for students and hobbyists to share and create their ideas? Or, like other outlets that once were considered alternative such as YouTube, could the medium become more privatized and privileged as the pool of competition widens? After all, while the method of filming must be with a smartphone, there aren’t limitations on editing software, hiring actors, or expensive locations, all of which could potentially elevate the playing field and make it harder for students to stand out.
For now though, as a fellow undergraduate student, it is undeniably satisfying to see the projects of young filmmakers brought to life. In an industry that is infamous for its difficulty to break into, watching students get their first crack at bringing their art to life is an experience that is undoubtedly worth supporting.
Western Smartphone Film Festival Lineup
1st Place: U
2nd Place: SLIDE
3rd Place: Unnatural Selection
Finalists (in no particular order):
Misled. Mistaken. Misinformed
Friend Zone: ESC
Audience Choice Award: Unnatural Selection