NYU Student Filmmakers Shine at the 39th Annual Student Academy Awards

by Jeremy Grossman


Four film students from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts have received the prestigious distinction of being named finalists for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences 39th Annual Student Academy Awards.

On April 26, 2012, Matthew Christensen, Emily Harrold, Umar Riaz, and Keiko Wright were announced as regional finalists, with films displaying a wide range of creativity, voice, and passion. Regardless of the outcome, when the national finalists are announced on June 9, the students can take pride in knowing that they have accomplished a most coveted feat of being nominated for one of the world’s most esteemed student film awards. But perhaps even more assuring is the confidence that they are being honored by the same organization that is responsible for the Academy Awards.

For Bloomfield, Michigan native Matthew Christensen, whose entry “Cowboy, Clone, Dust” is a finalist in the Animated Films category, the entire process—from creating the film to getting it nominated in the awards—was a rush of challenging emotions.

“Cowboy,” which Christensen described as a “surreal film about a guy who’s accidentally captured by a cowboy and speaks to dust,” was made out of his own feelings of anxiety and confusion, though making the film itself certainly was not a relaxing experience.

“I almost broke down in class one day,” said Christensen. “For me, how I work with animation, I shut down my brain, and I only focus on making it. Puppet building, set building, props. And so it’s just a lot of building, and you spend all the rest of your time animating it. It’s a pretty straightforward process, it’s just kind of time-consuming.”

Christensen was lucky enough to have friends who helped with production, including his brother who composed the music. “Cowboy” was shot entirely in Christensen’s bedroom, and was made with stop-motion animation, which Christensen acknowledged was the most expensive form of animation.

Even now that production is over and Christensen’s film has been nominated, he admitted that he is still unable to relax.

“My heart was racing when they were announcing [the finalists],” said Christensen. “And I guess it feels good, but I try not to trust good feelings. I’m definitely psyched, but I’m cautious in my happiness.”

And yet, Christensen’s efforts would definitely make his heroes proud, which include noted animators Ralph Bakshi, Nick Park, Bruce Bickford, and Don Hertzfeldt.

Emily Harrold’s entry, “Reporting on The Times: The New York Times and The Holocaust,” which is a finalist in the Documentary Films category, was provoked by Harrold’s own passion and curiosity of history. Harrold, who comes from Orangeburg, South Carolina, made a film based on The New York Times’ shockingly refrained coverage of the Holocaust from 1935 to 1945, with only six related articles published prominently on the front page during the time period.

Harrold noted that her film was aided by the book, “Buried by the Times” by Laurel Leff, wherein Leff spent five years going through The New York Times page by page, tracing every Holocaust-related story.

“I got in touch with her, and she was really excited about [my film],” said Harrold. “The fact that this book exists made it possible to make this film.”

Harrold is fascinated by historical perspective, having majored in history at NYU in addition to film. Harrold was particularly astonished by the way The New York Times gave the Holocaust such little attention, despite being a Jewish-run newspaper, and was (and still is) one of the major ways Americans receive information.

“The Jewish person and the Jewish identity is so different from how it was in the 1930s,” explained Harrold. “In many ways, most American Jews did not want to be Jewish. If many people had known they were Jewish, they wouldn’t have been able to get a job.”

Harrold had been working on the film with the goal of having it finished in time for the Student Academy Awards’ April 2 deadline, and managed to complete it by that very morning.

“The email got sent out at 10 PM, and I immediately called people,” said Harrold, upon finding out that her entry was chosen as a finalist. “I woke up my parents and told them. We were all very, very excited. I probably got to sleep around three in the morning.”

Umar Riaz’s entry “Last Remarks,” which is a finalist in the Alternative Films category, was a very personal film for Riaz, despite being a loose adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Tell Tale Heart.” Riaz comes from Lahore, Pakistan, and “Remarks” is a response to his dissatisfaction with an Islamic ideology of violence that has spread throughout his country in the last ten years.

“It threatens our culture, our history, our way of life,” said Riaz. “It’s under the umbrella of Islam, but it doesn’t actually go with the teachings of Islam.”

Poe’s themes of guilt and denial are prevalent in Riaz’s story, which takes place in 1947, when Pakistan was being created out of India. Riaz himself starred in the film, and gathered a group of New York actors to play the cast of British characters. When choosing actors, Riaz explained that he wanted people “who could make [him] feel something very visceral when performing with them.”

Although Riaz was hesitant to give away too many of his film’s secrets, he revealed that “Remarks” was shot in two different continents, and that it was almost not submitted to the Student Academy Awards at all. His submission DVD was due at a particularly stressful time during the semester, and he would not have been able to send it had a friend not offered to send it in for him.

“Remarks” was made out of Riaz’s love for the medium of film, as well as his country of Pakistan, where “the film industry collapsed a while ago.”

“It’s a huge honor for the [Student Academy Awards] to recognize a Pakistani film that was made internationally,” said Riaz.

Keiko Wright’s entry, “Hiro: A Story of Japanese Internment,” is a finalist in the Documentary Films category. Wright, who grew up in Las Vegas, was inspired to make “Hiro” after discovering a photo in an old family album of her grandfather as an internee of the Heart Mountain, Wyoming prison camp during World War II.

In Wright’s own words, “Hiro” tells “a story of the political hysteria, racism, and scars that internment evoked during the World War II era—feelings that still echo to this day.”

“The greatest challenge in making the film was getting my grandfather to open up about his experiences,” said Wright. “He’s not very talkative to begin with and I knew getting him to talk about his feelings would be extremely difficult.”

Making “Hiro” was emotionally challenging for both Wright and her grandfather, who traveled back to the actual internment camp during the making of the film. Wright kept her crew small due to her budget, but also due to the incredibly personal subject matter. Her crew consisted of friends and classmates who had been familiar with the project months before filming, and helped form and shape the film throughout its production.

“I hope it starts a dialogue,” said Wright, about what she wants audiences to take away from her film. “Ideally, I hope it gets them thinking on a more personal level about how United States policies truly affect marginalized groups. We can pretend that all those rights afforded to us as citizens are actually granted to everyone but they’re not.”

No matter the outcome on June 9, Christensen, Harrold, Riaz and Wright have made films that are reflective of their hard work and tenacity, and have displayed all the best qualities of the NYU community.

Jeremy Grossman is entertainment editor. Email him at jgrossman@nyunews.com.

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