What defines our college experience is a fundamental search for identity. As the acclaimed developmental psychologist Erik Erikson asserted, “In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.” Duke’s Arts of the Moving Image program — which offers courses in the theory and technology of motion picture — held the AMI Student Film Festival Nov. 14 in the Griffith Film Theater, showcasing the 12 best short films made by students over the last year. Through the AMI program, students are encouraged to foment a second sense of self: that of the artist and the filmmaker. They are forced to grapple with a fundamental question: for whom do I make my art, the audience or myself?

Art for the artist

The developmental grappling with artistic virtuosity is both a permutation and a reflection of students’ preoccupation with their inner, more fundamental identity. Such a phenomenon was evident for students like Sunny Zhang, Trinity ’17 (“Sans Sunny”), and senior Henrik Cox (“Untitled”), whose film projects primarily served as an amalgamation of the many bits of identity they accumulated during their years at Duke. 

What most defined Zhang’s film “Sans Sunny” was its honesty and openness. In the film, Zhang narrates her experience as she scrolls through over 15,000 personal photos and videos, selecting which ones to delete in order to more disk space available on her laptop. 

“The film involved me going through my life, which I think a lot of other people were also doing, especially being graduating seniors and questioning where you’re going in life and whether the path you’re taking is the right one,” Zhang said.

The clips and photographs she selected for the film are innermost and authentic, defined by a search for “what was realistic.” We see her when she is most proud, most ecstatic, but also when she is on the verge of tears. Her film’s essay format and its accompanying train-of-thought narrative served to enhance the intimacy of her work. It is as though we are sitting beside her, scrolling through her photo album and conversing with her.

Despite the intimacy of the film and the raw emotion it conveys to the audience, its candid nature was ultimately intended for Zhang herself. Her film serves as an exercise of exploration; she defined it as a “quiet, introspective piece” that speaks to a much larger maxim: in order to truly comprehend ourselves and find clarity in our identity, we must be honest with ourselves, for it is only through forthrightness that we find the strength for exploration. 

Zhang’s act of exploration — the undertaking of her film — ultimately provided her a sense of lucidity. What defined both the narrative of Zhang’s film and our conversation was the maturity characteristic of a recent college graduate; during her interview, she repeatedly emphasized the impracticality of predictability. 

“That’s the beauty of life, you can’t have everything planned out,” she commented. “Sometimes good things can turn into bad things and sometimes bad things can turn into good things, and overthinking these aspects of your life won’t benefit you.”

Like “Sans Sunny,” Cox’s piece was an act of self-exploration. His short film can be separated into two parts, with the first part expressing the velocity and vitality that characterizes life at Duke, and the second portraying Cox’s process of introspection that allows him to slow down the upbeat rhythm of his life. 

In our conversation regarding his untitled short film, Cox emphasized the personal, reflective nature of his work. In fact, it was not a film intended for viewing by a general audience; it was made exclusively for himself and his family. The short film incorporates elements from his childhood, including a Norwegian lullaby and photographs of Henrik as a child. He opted out of titling his work, finding it too difficult to put a name on — and thereby condense — his entire internal being into a neat little package. 

“Your life is on a timeline, you don’t close a chapter and start on a new one,” Cox said. “It all flows together because you have to reopen those memories … by including a title, I would be stamping something on a part of my life.”

Nevertheless, both Cox’s and Zhang’s works serve as a rest stop on the road of identity development. Cox is a senior and Zhang has recently graduated, and their films serve as the culmination and amalgamation of all the little bits of identity they have accumulated over the years. As they enter the job market and anticipate life after Duke, making a film focused on self-exploration allows them to prepare for the future by ascertaining who they are now. 

“I’m nearly a senior now,” Cox said. “The whole concept of the film was that now I need a moment to pause and think about what is in my rearview mirror.” 

Thus we find that Zhang and Cox’s films were art not only as a reflection of self, but also as an understanding of self.

Art for the audience

For students like junior Evan Morgan, film serves as a medium of intellectual and artistic challenge, both for themselves and for the viewer: how do I both question the world around me — via the intellectual provocation of the audience — and rework the threads I laid bare into a new, more profound rationale?   

Morgan’s film embraced this challenge in all its glory. His film consists of a set of clips from popular media overlapped and contrasted with scenes from classic films. He overlays the visual imagery with foreign dialogue and dissonant drone tones, and occasionally large block text will quickly fly by on the screen. 

What makes Morgan’s work so unique is its insistence that the audience be active in its examination and exploration of the film. The viewer does not play a passive role but an active one, exhorted to do so by the dissonance of the soundtrack and the overwhelming deluge of images that beg for logic and coherence. 

The contrast between popular media and classic film highlights the subjective nature of the camera and its ability to form context: it can be “thoughtful, moral and artistic” or ignorant, “from a dangerous place.” The comfort and openness with which we listen to the dialogue in English versus Spanish or German underscores how we are visually biased to images that are comfortable and familiar to us and that speak in our same visual “language.”

“The effect that I was hoping for was to make the viewer overwhelmed, to make them realize that we are living in a place where there are so many different images that are propagated through so many different mediums,” Morgan said. “We have a role in deciding which images we focus on … [in this work], you can choose to concentrate on different elements every time you watch the film and have a completely different experience.”

Morgan emphasized the cerebral nature of his piece: “I really like the ability to push what has traditionally been known as the language of cinema so that new things can be evoked in the audience,” he said. 

But perhaps this outward exploration in fact has its roots in identity; our interactions with the world around us are a derivative of our inner selves. As you watch Morgan’s film, you distinctly perceive a sense of “getting it”: his fundamental thought processes and his epistemology lay bare. 

“The process of [avant-garde film] is much more personal than traditional film,” he said. “The process of editing and the process of shooting … it’s more similar to sitting down and writing a poem or a novel … What it really comes down to is your own personal creative decisions.”

Art appears to have two distinct purposes that guide its production: It is made either for the artist or for the audience. But despite this dichotomy in the outward intent of art, its fundamental effect remains the same in that it reaffirms and elucidates identity. Clearly, art made for oneself should ultimately serve to benefit the self. However, even art intended for the audience fundamentally exists as a permutation of identity; art engages the artist’s intellectual capacity and thereby her internal self.