Not as hot as Cannes, but it can launch careers

Columbia U's film festival showcases student directors and screenwriters

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Stray dogs. Teenage love. Sudden death. Store mannequins who unravel a murder mystery.

These were among the topics treated in the short films at the Columbia University Film Festival 2002 held in New York last week.

The films are the creations of some of the 350 students earning a master of fine arts degree in film.

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Although somewhat overshadowed by the famed film school some 100 blocks south at New York University, Columbia's film program has seen its graduates earn major credits in recent years, with such mainstream successes as "Boys Don't Cry," "Kate & Leopold," "Girl Interrupted," and "The Business of Strangers."

The Columbia master's in film is not a program for casual enthusiasts. Students specializing in directing must create two short films. Students focusing on screenwriting, on the other hand, are expected to turn out written products. It usually takes three to five years to complete the degree.

Unlike some film programs that force people to specialize from the start, Columbia requires all students to take the same core classes for a year. The second year involves classes more specific to their interests, and the remaining years are dedicated to creative work.

Pressures and rewards

For each new crop of almost-graduates, viewing their films in the annual film festival can seem both a rewarding and a painful experience.

"The first time was the worst," says Ellen Verhoeff, a student from the Netherlands whose film "Abbie Down East" was screened three times at the festival. "The next two times, I felt better."

For many of the students, it's not just a matter of having one's peers view one's work. There is also the pressure of knowing that professionals and critics from the film world attend the festival.

If a film catches the right eye, it can mean the launching of a student's moviemaking career.

Ms. Verhoeff says she has already had a few calls from film distributors and others who saw "Abbie Down East" – a story about three young girls and their mother trapped in a remote lighthouse during a storm – and expressed interest in the piece.

That interest may not go anywhere, cautions Verhoeff, but she admits it's gratifying to hear praise for the film, which required her to raise $28,000 and took almost two years to complete.

Despite the challenges of gathering thousands of dollars to fund their projects, many of the directing students agree that the whole process is a powerful learning experience.

For some it fulfilled a lifelong dream. "I loved film since I was a kid," says Carolina Freitas da Cunha, a student from Brazil, whose movie, set in Las Vegas, tells a dark tale of the sudden and meaningless death of a young mother. "This is what I want to do."

More competitions to come

"I want to direct," Catherine Tingey states simply. Her film is about a fickle teen with an aching heart who believes fiercely in a pair of "love cubes" (dice that give advice).

Ms. Tingey raised $40,000 and spent a year and a half making her film. Now, she's landed a chance to compete in the Chrysler Million Dollar Film Festival competition at Cannes this year.

Tingey says she discovered her fondness for the art form while earning an undergraduate degree in photography from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

A summer course required her to shoot some film with a 16-millimeter camera. "Seeing the footage I shot somehow just got me going," she says.

• E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com

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