The hustle and bustle of a film set has a palpable energy and atmosphere that often goes unnoticed by film fanatics. The chaotic yet meticulous nature found on film sets blends all of these elements of lighting, cameras, makeup, and sound to create a unique visual story. Some of the people who are extremely familiar with this energy are the Master’s of Fine Arts film program students and alumni from the School of the Arts. As the noise died down over the past year as a result of the pandemic, the Columbia University Film Festival was canceled, a festival that annually showcased all of these students’ thesis work. Now, CUFF is back in full swing, ready to put the “action” in “lights, camera, action”.
In previous years, the festival took place at venues such as the Walter Reed Theatre, Lincoln Center, Riverside Church, and several other high-profile New York locations. However, this year CUFF moved to an all-virtual space, with a brand new website to highlight the festival’s upcoming events, films, and scripts. The new virtual world of CUFF even includes an interactive map of Columbia’s campus. In order for viewers to access the films featured on the festival’s website, they can create an account and buy a pass on the platform Elevent, register for an account on Filmocracy.com, and join the CUFF Filmocracy homepage to take advantage of all the festival has to offer.
The virtual realm for CUFF also provides unique benefits for the coordinators, filmmakers, screenwriters, and others involved with the festival.
“[CUFF] is almost twice as long this year as it was in 2019,” Soheil Rezayazdi, one of the co-coordinators of CUFF and the manager of events for the School of the Arts’ film program, said. “And also this year, of course, people can attend from all over for the first time. … There’s thousands of alumni of [the film program] all over the world, and lots of people interested in this program. … For the first time, anywhere in the world, they’ll be able to see the thesis films that come out of the program very easily all on one website.”
In relation to these interactive and accessible features of the virtual festival, one of the biggest challenges the coordinators faced was finding a way to create more platforms and social spaces for film students and alumni to discuss their films. As a response to this challenge, they developed student-driven Q&A’s for each film program area to allow filmmakers the chance to develop this necessary skill, encouraging a more hands-on approach for students in this virtual setting.
“One of the things that best prepares students for the film industry is being able to talk about their films,” Alece Oxendine, director of industry and festival outreach at the School of the Arts and co-coordinator of CUFF, said. “We have current students who are going to be interviewing the filmmakers, … so it’s really exciting. They’re leading the conversations, they watch the films, they’re communicating with the filmmakers, they develop the questions—so it should be really exciting conversation between Columbia students.”
In addition to these Q&A sessions, CUFF will feature unique panels and themed social events to foster an even more creative and dynamic environment. According to the schedule on the festival website, some of the planned events include the “Screenwriting Night After Party,” which will celebrate the screenwriter participants; “WarnerMedia Access: Opening Doors for Emerging Filmmakers” will host industry experts in WarnerMedia to discuss breaking into the industry through diversity and inclusion; and “Trivia Night” will be hosted by CUFF student fellows and staff.
Along with these fun and exclusive events, films, scripts, and past alumni will receive awards for their remarkability. For instance, Cherien Dabis, SoA ’04, will receive the prestigious Andrew Sarris Award for her outstanding directorial and production achievements in film while working on hit shows like Showtime’s “The L Word,” Fox’s “EMPIRE,” and Netflix’s “Ozark.” Who this notable award would be given to was voted on by this year’s CUFF student fellows as a nod to the influence she has had on film students at Columbia and across the country.
According to Oxendine, the most coveted awards for CUFF filmmakers and screenwriters include Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Producer, each of which comes with a monetary prize to help students and recent alumni jumpstart their careers. However, the filmmakers at CUFF do not necessarily need to receive an award from the festival to highlight their legitimacy as some of the best emerging filmmakers in the industry.
“A number of these films have already played at some of the biggest film festivals in the world,” Rezayazdi said. “Two of these films played at the Venice Film Festival, one of them won the top shorts award of the Venice Film Festival. One of them was … selected in the shorts program for the Cannes Film Festival. So this is also just a great opportunity to see internationally celebrated short films.”
One of the featured films at CUFF this year is “Jensen,” directed and written by Chloe Sarbib, SoA ’20. The short film, which artfully reconciles music and cinema in this story of a musician trying to fill the shoes of the performer before her, is ultimately a proof of concept that Sarbib hopes to develop into a feature someday. It is also an example of Sarbib’s thorough work as a graduate film student in the School of the Arts and how the film program has helped her refine her voice as an artist.
“I feel like you go to grad school because you want to spend time intensely focused on putting yourself in a boot camp slash laboratory where you’re just writing all the time, making films all the time,” Sarbib said. “And I do think looking back on the work I was doing before Columbia, and then a film like this, and the work that I’ve done sort of later in the program, I definitely just have a better grasp of … what cinema can do, what the camera can do, what movies can do that other art forms can’t do.”
Shae Xu, SoA ’22, wrote, directed, and edited the short film “Duet,” which explores how a young Chinese woman reconnects with a former piano partner, who ended up choosing a different career path. Similar to Sarbib, Xu feels passionate about her time at Columbia as a graduate film student.
“I didn’t have a film background [before entering the School of Fine Arts film program],” Xu said. “In terms of finding my voice, I think it’s very important for me especially as a Chinese national. … I did unconsciously self-censor myself when I was applying [for the program] because back then I was living in Shanghai, I was living in China, even though I do consider myself to be one of the more liberal and the more expressive and the more outspoken [people] compared to [my] community at large.”
In speaking about being an international student, Xu also expressed frustrations about the pandemic forcing her to abruptly wrap up her film compounded by the disappointment that her crew and classmates would not see her work in the desired manner for a year. As a diverse group, students and alumni of the film program have been dispersed all over the world due to the COVID-19 lockdowns, which has made the resurgence of the film festival more important than ever.
According to Rezayazdi, CUFF usually takes place around the time of Columbia’s Commencement. Because there is such a palpable emotional air that comes with the festival, the primary goal of the coordinators was to capture a similar unique energy in the virtual setting.
“It’s [the students’] last hurrah before a lot of them enter the industry,” Rezayazdi said. “So our hope is that [the festival] provides that note of closure for these students. And that’s really been our goal throughout—to be able to showcase their work and to provide an experience that is an emotionally satisfying end to their time at Columbia.”
Despite CUFF not being held for over a year and the forced virtual setting, it is clear that many in the School of the Arts’ film program are excited about its resurgence. The films and scripts presented promise liveliness and profundity according to CUFF’s trailer, and students and alumni from all over the world finally have a chance to reconnect through film, their beloved medium of art.
“Seeing these empty hallways, empty theaters [in the CUFF trailer, made me think that] we used to have classes in these theaters, in those classrooms,” Xu said. “But at least CUFF is visually there … [and] it means a lot to me.”