Duke Independent Film Festival showcases student talent across campus

<p>DIFF, an annual film festival for all students, was hosted for the third time last weekend.</p>

DIFF, an annual film festival for all students, was hosted for the third time last weekend.

Andrew Method, Pratt ’16, has been passionate about film for as long as he can remember. Reared in Park City, Utah—the city where Sundance Film Festival takes place annually—Method was raised in an environment that adored and celebrated film. His surroundings indelibly rubbed off on him. Method began to attend Sundance regularly in high school, and because Park City has become something of a “film town,” his high school even hosted its own film festival that exhibited student talent.

“I always really enjoyed that, because it was cool to go and see films that my fellow classmates had made,” Method said. “That was always a really fun night.”

It makes sense, then, that Method decided to try his hand at film studies when he came to Duke. He was a Pratt student, but his love of film wasn’t quite ready to be pushed to the wayside. Method took a film class the spring of his sophomore year and made a film as his final project—an endeavor that was rewarded the following fall semester when it earned a place in the Arts of the Moving Image departmental film festival. The festival showcases films made by students in AMI classes during the previous semester, and the films are nominated for a place in the festival by AMI faculty.

While he was happy to be included, something about the festival’s niche pull bothered Method.

“You could only get in that if you were in an AMI class the semester before,” Method explained. “But what if you made something for fun, for a different class or over the summer? What could you do? I felt like there was a need for a campus-wide film festival that would accept submissions from any Duke student.”

Method, placing the onus on himself to create such a space for film on campus, affectionately recalled what he told a peer before he began the arduous task of organizing an entire film festival on his own: “Well, I don’t think it’ll be that much work.”

Much to his dismay, Method would prove himself wrong—as it turns out, putting together such a large event on one’s own is a difficult undertaking. Thanks to long nights spent viewing and programming and curating, Duke Independent Film Festival’s first screening took place in 2015 and featured 16 films (from a submission pool of 38 films) over the course of a single night. As Method entered his senior year in 2016 and looked to cultivate an executive board that was as equally devoted to the festival as he was, he knew exactly who to entrust with the future of DIFF: sophomore Sofiya Volobuyeva.

Volobuyeva, who joined DIFF’s exec board during the fall of her first year, eagerly accepted her position as president for the 2016-17 school year. However, she would first have to face the same difficulties that Method did in organizing a successful independent film festival on campus—and, like her predecessor who had just graduated, almost completely on her own.

“I was basically left without an exec board, because the members we did have were no longer interested in being a part of it,” Volobuyeva recalls. “So in the fall, while I was preparing logistical work with Duke and contacting vendors, I was also looking for an exec board.”

Still, like Method, Volobuyeva managed to make it work—even if that meant a grueling, tiresome day spent watching each submission carefully before deciding on DIFF’s 2017 lineup.

“We lock ourselves in a room from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and we view each submission,” Volobuyeva said. “We have a sheet, and while we’re watching, we take notes, we rate films and we select films that we think should be eligible for an award.”

DIFF accepts submissions from both undergraduates and graduates at Duke, regardless of their respective major or school. It’s perhaps one of the more far-reaching art events on campus—there’s no requisite class or threshold of talent to abide by; instead, an interest in filmmaking and the time commitment required to make a film are the only skills necessary for a student looking to earn a spot at DIFF. A submission doesn’t even have to contain Hollywood-level production quality, for that matter—good storytelling, at its core, will shine through whatever medium is available.

“We’re a film festival, so we do care about production quality,” Volobuyeva said. “But at the same time, we understand that production isn’t everything and not everyone has access to good production. So we look for good stories, things that we think are important to show, and we look for things that are relevant to our audience.”

Duke isn’t a school for filmmakers by any means—a quick glance at Trinity’s list of sprawling majors will reveal that fact with its glaring lack of a comprehensive film studies major—but there’s a thriving, vibrant filmmaking community discernable on campus. It tends to be tucked away in AMI, Visual and Media Studies, the Center for Documentary Studies and the MFA program for Experimental and Documentary Arts, but it’s there. When noticed by Method, the film community’s often invisible status within Duke became a problem that he felt could be rectified through an event like DIFF.

“With those film classes I took, I began to discover the often overlooked and unknown film community at Duke,” Method acknowledged. “I had no idea there were so many people who do make films on campus and are so talented.”

Nevertheless, there’s something intrinsically beautiful about the universality of film that DIFF tries to incorporate into its appeal to students. Film is perhaps the highest, most all-encompassing form of art that exists—the way in which moving image is woven together with sound through editing and given permanence via celluloid (and, more recently, digital means) is unparalleled in music, dance and visual art. It’s entrancing, it’s enthralling and it’s powerful. Further, film is a form of art that anyone can partake in—really, all it takes is a smartphone—to tell any story that they feel needs to be told.

“I think it’s harmful to ‘otherize’ filmmaking and make it this separate realm,” Volobuyeva mentioned. “Because we pull from so many different types of people on campus, it shows that art and whatever you’re into are not separate. People love film, it has mass appeal. And if you know how to do it well, you can get people to consume any kind of content. It doesn’t have to be solely for artistic purposes.”

DIFF 2017, which occurred last Friday and Saturday, was a remarkable success for Method and Volobuyeva. Twenty-one short films were screened over the span of two nights to sizeable audiences, and the festival’s submission pool continues to grow steadily. Volobuyeva presented five awards to participating filmmakers: Best Cinematography, Best Filmmaker, Best Editing, Best Picture and Audience Choice. And while DIFF hasn’t quite joined the ranks of its peer institutions' student-run film festivals, it’s well on its way—in a few years’ time, with continued enthusiasm, exposure and participation, a spot on DIFF’s lineup may become a coveted opportunity.

Method surmised DIFF’s purpose in the enduring struggle to give filmmaking its due visibility on campus: “I think it’s important to foster a film community on campus—to have an environment where people can share their stories through that medium. It’s important that DIFF is something Duke students can take ownership over and feel proud of the work their fellow students have made.”


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