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Duke MFA students and profs featured in New York Film Festival

17 days. Three Duke students. Two exceptional faculty members. One big city.

And so the story goes for yet another year of Duke’s creative presence at the 50th annual New York Film Festival (NYFF). The festival—which opened on September 28 and will run through October 14—features dozens of films in a variety of thematic categories.

This year, three of Duke’s MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts candidates were featured in the festival’s section “Views from the Avant-Garde,” alongside Duke film masters David Gatten and Shambhavi Kaul. Gatten, a lecturing fellow and artist in residence in the Program in Arts of the Moving Image, remarked, “everyone got a sense that something very special is happening down at Duke University in [the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts].”

Erin Espelie was one of the three students to have a film selected for the festival. In her film, titled Beyond Expression Bright, Espelie “used material gathered last Spring semester when [she] was teaching a course through the Nicholas School [of the Environment].” The interaction of cinema and science is the main focus in this ten-minute work, and Espelie examines the shared elements of physics and art.

“Thinking about photons being emitted from the sun and the way light travels got me thinking about the way that sunlight works with cinema and science,” she said.

In order to explore this relationship, Espelie created a “moving-image, time-based piece” through which she looked at sunlight and the sun’s emitted particles “through the lens of a camera.” To effectively convey such an interaction, Espelie had to work closely with researchers and scientists, such as Duke physicist Kate Scholberg, who examines neutrinos—particles “tiny even by subatomic standards.” Espelie also wanted to delve into “how the art world can bump up against narrative.”

Two other MFA students premiered their films at the NYFF this past weekend. Talena Sanders’s four-minute Tokens and Penalties was screened in the “Circles of Confusion” program on October 5. Marika Borgeson’s film Impressions was also part of the “Views from the Avante-Garde” festival section.

Gatten and Kaul are long-term participants in the NYFF. This year, Gatten debuted his 175-minute film Extravagant Shadows, which he has been working on and off since 1998, to a sold-out theater. The work is a three-hour documentation of Gatten painting pigments on a window while literary quotes appear onscreen. David Gatten is no rookie to the festival—as an internationally renowned filmmaker, he has been a participant in the NYFF for years.

“As usual it is a great chance not only to share one’s work at the highest-visibility festival in the country, but also to see what everyone’s doing and where the field is going,” he said.

Shambhavi Kaul, a visiting and adjunct instructor in the AMI program, returned for her third year at the festival to debut 21 Chitrakoot, a new ten-minute film. For this admittedly “more experimental” work, Kaul used existing material from an Indian TV series from the 1980’s.

“I wanted to really concentrate on the back drop and not really the people,” she said.

She wanted to focus on “the way we understand India and the things we project on India.” Kaul seeks to convey our “nostalgia” in creating a place, and in employing found materials, she explores “a certain way to construct a place” in film.

As up-and-coming filmmakers are working in Duke’s well-equipped facilities with world-class artists like Kaul and Gatten, they are crafting an artistic identity and sharing it. Everyone involved stressed the mutual benefits of a student/teacher relationship.

As Kaul said, “It’s always wonderful to have an opportunity to work on something you’re interested in with students. It’s a horizontal process—you end up learning so much because you’re teaching something that you are interested in.”


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