Festive Affairs: The Princeton Student Film Festival 2016

This year’s Princeton Student Film Festival*, held in the public library’s community room, reached truly new levels of diversity. Docs, experimental shorts, and films in the middle ground shared the same screen, while viewers were treated to two nights of abounding creativity. Here we provide coverage of some of our favorite submissions.

*Currently in it’s 13th year, the Princeton Student Film Festival is a venue open to submissions from young filmmakers aged 14-25, curated by the Princeton Public Library.


Day 1:

One Step at a Time | Documentary | 4 minutes, 10 seconds  | Ian McQueen


The first doc scheduled for the night highlighted a recurring theme in this year’s festival. By documenting his grandparents belatedly-developed marathon running career, New Jersey high-schooler Ian McQueen paints a portrait of familial relationships, and the forces that help shape them. A self-contained interview with the two elder McQueens takes place in the family living room, and is the main feature of the 4 minutes of runtime. With the two seated closely but comfortably on the same armchair, under a warmly colored backdrop, the scene is visually framed as to generate a sense of cozy commemoration, instead of the traditional focus on investigation and analysis found in documentaries. The well-paced editing, interspersed with old photos and still life, places the center of attention onto the state of being of elderly relationships, rather than historical significance or biographical details. The film boasts an organic audio quality, which highlights moments of musing and bonding, and soft piano music creates a warm ambience throughout. McQueen’s quaint narrative illustrates the joy of persistence, and a life philosophy that celebrates simple and tacit pleasures.


Mannequin | Horror | 8 minutes, 51 seconds | Zach McCoy-Davies


Debatably the most polished-looking film of the night (a wide-aspect ratio and shot-type diversity does wonders), Mannequin is a by-the-numbers horror story, with cloth dummies assuming the position of terror in a high school theater backstage, featuring “Slenderman”-esque dynamics. Despite having inanimate antagonists, there is no lack of fear to be found, as the director skillfully manages changes of tone, and slow-paced build-ups in anxiety, and culminates in a climax more surreal than it is shocking. Credit also goes to the actress portraying the victim, whose unexaggerated reactions are perfect for the deserted setting of the film. Mannequin also just might have been the first film in the selection to use lighting to its advantage, with artificially vivid green lights creating a sense of disorientation and claustrophobia, and moonlight-blue stage lights shining eerily in the film’s most beautiful scene.


Immeasurable Nature | Abstract, Documentary, Environmental, Experimental | 4 minutes, 27 seconds | James Tralie


Princeton University student James Tralie’s submission was truly another creature. Filmed in France and Spain whilst on a research expedition, the abstract documentary is devoid of human speech, and almost devoid of people on screen. Instead, Tralie pieces together and overlays time-lapses, research footage, still shots of nature, and displays of computer screens, juxtaposing the vast and the miniscule, the natural and the technological. Although his work is meant to display the usage of various meteorological instruments, what’s really evoked is monumental awe at the timelessness and immensity of our habitat on earth, reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s new Voyage of Time. With its unbroken audiotape of waves, and a soundtrack similar to whalesong, Immeasurable Nature captures land, air, and water, and shows that our attempts to understand our world prove nothing more than a glimpse into eternity.


(If I care)  |  Animation, Experimental | 57 seconds | Devon Viola


If psychedelic rock, jazz, and blues were all rolled up into one hallucinogenic drug lasting a minute, it would be this animated short, the shortest submission to this year’s festival. In fact, a glance at the creator’s personal blog reveals that the genre is her specialty. In this animated short, the depiction of parallel lives suggests the futility and fragility of our daily routines, without dragging down the quick pace of the action. Viola’s use of color palettes is sublime, mixing saturated purples to set a mood of artificiality and detachment. The drawing style of thick lines and solid colors adds to the overbearing gloom. It’s not difficult to draw parallels between this creation and Disney’s famous 2001 arrangement of George Gershwin in Fantasia, not in the least because of its dreamlike quality.


Paul’s Ride | Documentary | 12 minutes, 26 seconds | Benjamin Davis


Not a breath could be heard in the room as, on-screen, Paul Davis paused during his recollection of the helicopter crash in which his Vietnam war comrades were killed. That sense of unshatterable silence of the present pervades Paul’s Ride, and is more powerful than any music (of which the film has nearly none) or words that could have been used in its place.While documenting the solace brought to Davis by riding motorcycles, the search tool of the film misses no details, from the honorable discharge diploma hanging on the veteran’s wall, to campaign pins protesting the war, to Davis wistfully staring at the motorcycles in his garage, as if he were the only one present. The rhythmic editing includes plenty of associative imagery and historical footage, all factors that add to the central idea that individuals are powerless to stop the tide of history, but are given the ability to cope. The film’s final shots fade into the traditional American promise of hope and freedom in mobility.

Post-screening, it was revealed by the film’s creator, Davis’s nephew, that Davis, a private person who never formed a family, had been reluctant to get involved, and nearly declined to be interviewed on the day of filming. It clearly takes courage to ask family members about their past, held back by fears of what will be found out. Although other films in the selection support the idea, this film alone is enough to show that exploring one’s history via film can be incredibly therapeutic.


Day 2:

Fault Lines | Animation, Experimental | 3 minutes, 12 seconds | Mandy Wong


With Fault Lines, RISD BFA film/animation degree student Mandy Wong broke down spatial boundaries to deliver shifts in perspective, that brought the festival to new levels of – sophistication. The film’s style gradually progresses from realism to experimentalism, until houses and city streets are deconstructed to their bare linear constituents, which are embellished with computer generated lines and planes. The focus jumps between and pans through a variety of morphing canvases, each with its own dimension and shaken up reality. Scraps of traffic intersections, art galleries, subway stations, industrial sectors, and glass-paned shopping districts are assembled in collages, alongside the reverberating chopped-up noises of each. Incredible to look at, Fault Lines leaves one with much anticipation for Wong’s future handiwork.


PUNKED! | Comedy | 10 minutes, 30 seconds | Adam McGill


The plot of PUNKED! follows the basic following pattern: exposition > conflict > close-up of sad face > conflict > close-up of sad reflective face > conflict > resolution. In addition, little to no camera motion, awkward-at-times shot framing, out-of-sync audio, and an overall tone of unpolishedness, make parts seem like they’re taken from an archetypal sitcom.

Then why have I watched this one like a thousand times on Vimeo already?  

Maybe it’s because the richness of image provided by the use of 16mm film. Or the alluring chiaroscuro in the rock-out scenes. But more importantly, it’s the fact that imperfection can be an appealing quality, that is difficult to deliberately achieve. All of the above factors, plus premature cutting and exaggerated line delivery, are purposefully fine-tuned to create a calculated effect. Besides being a device for portraying the theme of punk rock, the cinematography sets up nervous tension that is released in hilarious bouts of absurdist humor. In addition, by using focused and familiar storytelling, PUNKED! pokes fun at the banalities in everyday life and conversation, and makes the theme of sanctimony more relatable. Of course, not all scenes in the film are designed with that intention, and those that aren’t are engineered with exquisite bizzarity. Overall, I would call this film a flawless execution of imperfection, and highly recommend showing it to your friends when their finicky attitude starts to bother you.


HALO | Documentary, Experimental | 9 minutes, 48 seconds | Amit Kumar


After watching this ten minute cut of footage filmed in the misty mountains of Tibet, you’re left with a single conviction. Out of fear for the destruction of the way of life just witnessed, that conviction is “This must never be taken away”. But at the same time, Kumar’s drawn-out shots make it difficult to conceive how the subjects depicted can possibly ever cease to exist. He makes no attempt to establish a narrative, but only to capture the essence of timelessness that permeates the village, a timelessness reinforced by the uninterrupted chiming of bells. Animals share the same state as the humans, and the equal focus on inanimate object and living beings emphasizes how they are at one. Every ounce of natural lighting is utilized to transport the viewer to that hilltop of zen, and to portray what must be the closest to Nirvana once can reach without achieving it. At the end of the screening, the last of the night, a silence captured the room, which could only have been described as the highest possible degree of praise and respect.



Adam McGill:


In an amazing stroke of serendipity, we encountered PUNKED! director and Wesleyan University film graduate Adam McGill after a late-night screening of Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Naturally, we stopped him to ask some questions!

151MM: What prompted you to choose 16mm film? What advantages/disadvantages did you encounter while using the format?

AM: Using 16mm helped me capture a specific aesthetic I wanted in my film. I essentially wanted the movie at times to have a very punk zine DIY sort of feeling. Using black and white film and the sort of grain quality you get when using film definitely got me closer to what I was going for in that regard. Using film was also for me about having a short filming process that pushed me to learn. Having to use a light meter, edit by hand, and work with a lab pushed me to learn more about lighting, editing and managing a complex workflow. So in short, the advantages are a beautiful and unique image quality, and an incredible amount of learning when working on 16. The disadvantages were mainly the price and the extra time it takes to work on the format.

151MM: Have you submitted or are you planning to submit PUNKED! to any other film festivals?

AM: PUNKED! is slated to play at the Golden Door International Film Festival this weekend (9/23) in Jersey City, Beyond that, money willing, I’ll likely submit to a few more festivals throughout the year.

151MM: Do you have any advice for students aspiring to major in film?

AM: My advice to prospective film majors is as follows:

Number one: watch a lot of movies. Seems (like) common sense but really study and try and figure out what’s happening in your favorite movies. By figuring out how a director edits, shoots or lights to communicate you’ll end up with more tools and ideas about how to build the worlds of your own work..

Number two: Find your people. And what I mean by that is find good people you trust and respect and can create with and go out and make something. I can’t stress enough how important trust and respect is on a film set. Technical experience is good to have too. But there are times (it’s usually always in my experience) when character trumps technical ability.

Number three: Go for it. Go to film school or start working on sets, or start making movies with your friends, or go out and watch something. The film industry is exciting and scary. But if you truly love it there is no substitute.

151MM: What are your plans for the future?

AM: Currently I’m working as an intern at Sony Pictures Classics, which is an independent film distributor. I’ve also been continuing to find some PA and G/E work on small sets and music videos on the weekends. Once my internship is done, I’m not sure what I’ll be doing next. But the current plan is to stay in the film world. Whether that means continuing to work on sets or finding work in distribution, or making something of my own is still up in the air. So we’ll see what happens!


Susan Conlon:


After the screenings, we met up with the event’s main organizer, to learn about what goes into planning the festival. Here’s what she had to say:

151MM: What goes into planning the festival?

SC: The film festival takes place in the third week of July, and [after that] we pretty much immediately begin accepting entries for the next year. The deadline is June 1st, and that gives people quite a lot of time. Most of the films come in within in the last week or two, or even on the last day. […]There’s not a whole lot of student festivals out there, so one that’s been around for this long, and has the name Princeton attached to it—I guess that helps. The other thing is that we don’t have an entry fee. […]The application process is pretty basic. We tell them the requirements: can’t be longer than 20 minutes, age range is 14-25. That captures high school and college students, and we do get thesis films, and we’re also focused all the way through in the sense that we want these films to be vibrant and fun and interesting, and so as we’re selecting films we ask in the application if [the filmmakers] would be likely to come if they’re selected. That does give us an idea of who’s likely to come, because we do like to have the filmmakers here, and having that time for Q&A is good for them. Plus the audience gets to learn, and gets deeper insight.

151MM: What is the selection process for the festival?

SC: We have a group of people here, some of them are library staff, some of them are volunteers from the community, one person is an animation teacher, we have a film scholar, so we have people who are from different interests. When we’re looking at films we’re looking for what’ll be a good fit for the event. I think the key thing, no matter what the genre, is the story. Does the director have something to say? Do they know what they want to say? What are they telling us? So the story is probably the key thing. Without that it’s unlikely that we’re going to find the film intriguing. The pacing is also really important. And, you know, the quality of the actors, and [other] quality issues, like good lighting. Bad sound can bring a film down faster than anything. There’s a sense of it authentically being the perspective of a person this age. Sometimes we get films that are very polished, and the director had access to casting all adults, and the sensibility is the concerns of adults. That’s just somehow far less interesting than a film about a young person, and about their challenges. For the audience, it’s a really unique way to experience what people your age are thinking about.

151MM: What would you say is the biggest difference between PSFF and other film festivals?

SC: Having been to a few other similar events, the biggest thing that sets us apart is the amount of time that we spend with the students in the selection process. We have a lot of communication, we want them to come, we like to invite families. I think we create an environment with the chance for Q&A. I’ve been to other events like this where there’s no Q&A. They just show the film, there’s no human factor. You don’t get to hear people talking about their film. That’s a wasted opportunity. I’ve had a lot of parents who’ve come, who’ve said their son/daughter have had their films in other things, but that this was the best one. They like the sense of community, they like that we don’t charge them. There’s a really good atmosphere and energy in the room. And I give a lot of credit to the attendees, because they make a point to ask questions, and they ask good questions too. You really feel like the people who watch those films really value what these students do. They give them real encouragement.

151MM: What do you have to say to prospective entrants from PHS?

SC: We want to see more films from PHS, because we know they can do it. We have a long history of PHS filmmakers in the festival right from the beginning. We had a couple of students who helped found this event. Some of the best comedies that we’ve ever had came from PHS students, and we haven’t seen that many lately, but we’d love to see them come back in a big way in 2017.


Adam Olkin:


And finally, a few words from the president of PHS’ very own filmmaking club, which is receiving a reboot in the 2016-17 school year.

151MM: Give us a little history of the club!

AO: [It was] founded 2 years ago by a group of sophomores who needed to do an English project, and then it became an actual club. However the club did very little, with [only] one notable project in the summer of ’15, “Ruined”. The reason is because the leaders wanted a professional quality, and they didn’t feel like students could achieve that.

151MM: What do we have planned for this year? Any projects in particular?

AO: Currently Filmmaking Club is working on a project called “Shadow”, but as of right now there are no other specific projects that we have planned. We’re hoping to make a large variety and quantity of videos, and also host movie nights!

151MM: What is the goal for the year?

AO: The goal for this year is to produce professional looking videos, not by [utilizing] pre-existing talent, but by teaching members how to make [them] professional.

151MM: How do you plan on getting more students at PHS involved in film-related activities?

AO: Make films advertising film-related activities! Filmmaking, as a whole, offers such a broad spectrum of jobs and ideas, and so I think that the way to get more students involved is to express the idea that there is really something for everyone.


Film stills courtesy of the Princeton Public Library Student Film Festival