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AFI Thesis Showcase 2014 exhibits the extraordinary talent of storytellers

AFI Conservatory Thesis Showcase 2014
American Film Institute

Each year the American Film Institute, which is one of the best-known and most prestigious film schools in the Los Angeles area, showcases 5 films from the graduating class. This year’s showcase took place at the Director’s Guild of America on Sunset Blvd.

The five films that were chosen for this year’s showcase were (in alphabetical order) “Karaganda” a period piece set in a 1950s Soviet gulag (an infamous system of labor camps maintained in the former Soviet Union from 1930 to 1955 with conditions so harsh that the death toll was quite high). Ni-Ni is a film set in the border town of Ciudad Juarez (which is more like South El Paso Texas for those familiar with the area) that explores a classic struggle between good and evil. “Veladora” is additional dark versus light yin yang storyline that deals with the conflict involved when a young Hispanic man who is seeking a new family in the paradigm of a gang after his mother is deported struggles with weighing his need for a surrogate family with his connection to his actual family, his younger brother. “Way in Rye” is another period piece set in the former Soviet Union that tells the story of a farmer and his wife who are charged with protecting a crate of mysterious contents while longing for news of their son who is fighting on the front lines. Finally, what seemed to be an audience favorite based on the applause, “Young Americans” a charming story with an interesting twist at the end about a small town couple who collaborate to allegedly rob a bank.

Each of these films will be reviewed separately. The objective of this piece though is to reach out to an audience of young people who are considering a career in the film industry. Speaking from experience, one really needs to be involved in making a film in order to truly appreciate the amount of dedication and hard work goes into each and every one of these short films. In Hollywood, one often hears the word “backstory.” An excellent example of a backstory would be what George Lucas did when he made the Star Wars prequels. The original Star Wars was episode IV. George Lucas told the back-story or the story behind Star Wars IV when he made Star Wars, I, II and II. To really get at the heart of this event’s back-story, this writer sought out and found one of the directors of the 5 films that were showcased and now we have an exclusive Examiner.com interview with “Way of Rye” Director, Goran Stankovic.

Examiner: Before I ask the questions, I’ll explain the motivation behind them. My main audience (and this comes from Google Analytics & other sources) is industry professionals. A majority of my readers are already working in the entertainment industry. The other portion of the audience are people who dream of working in the industry (which would explain my first question). This piece is really targeting the second group…young people—and others (one does not have to be young in order to dream of being involved in the movies) who dream of being in show business. My objective is to educate that second group about two things. 1. The competitive nature of show biz and 2. The amount of work that goes into this culminating thesis project and what it’s like to be an independent filmmaker.

My first question has to do with the past. What does it take to get into AFI?

Goran: As far as the first question goes, it is kind of hard for me to give that answer, since I am not in the AFI committee that decides on which applicants to accept and which not. The thing that was up to me, was to apply with my best works at the moment and write a sincere narrative statement about why I need to make movies. The rest is up to the people at AFI to recognize your potential and talent. Being a part of the AFI for two years I can say that besides people with talent for filmmaking, they cherish people that are willing to tap into their own personal life in order to generate true and genuine stories.

The thesis film process lasts about a year. In this period we develop the script with mentors, discuss the vision of our film in class, cast the film, shoot and then edit for another 2 months. After that we make a plan for distribution of the film, that strategy is different for every film, depending on the topic. The best thing about the process is that you work closely with the same people for a long period of time and really get to know them. You make life long connections and collaborators with whom you develop a strong understanding and share a vision.

Examiner: The second question has to do with the fact that I have been watching some of the films that were thesis projects but were not showcased and they’re all quite good. They had good story, good production values, and convincing actors. It brings to mind the question, what is the selection process? Why are some films chosen over others?

Goran: Every year AFI reaches out to film industry professionals and forms a jury that then watches all the 28 thesis films we made that year. The criteria cannot be anything else but the film’s impact and sensibility of the particular jury, because all of the 28 films have their qualities, their production value is extremely high. It comes down to what kind of stories speaks to the particular jury that AFI forms that year. This year we were lucky that our film WAY IN RYE was chosen to screen at the DGA, and this opportunity is huge for us.

It is a shame that the art form of a short film usually comes down to showcasing the talent and ability of the filmmakers behind it to tell a bigger story, it is rarely being truly appreciated for what it is. Especially in Hollywood, it’s usually asking can these people make me money with their talent and less what were they really trying to do and what questions were they raising with this short film.

In terms of production, WAY IN RYE was very challenging to pull off, since it’s a period piece set in WWII Russia. First California does not look anything like Russia, second everything that is in the film has to be period and authentic. So we first started looking for a location that can portray this part of the world, and once we found it we decided to build our protagonists house there. We shot most of the film in Idyllwild, two and a half hours away from Los Angeles. We had to put up and accommodate the entire cast and crew, which for a student production is a huge expense.

Examiner: My third and final question is this: Once the films are showcased, where do they go from there? Obviously promotion is a major undertaking. The studios have the resources to promote new films but what about the independent filmmaker? How do you get your work noticed? What challenges do independent filmmakers face when it comes to promoting and distributing their work?

Goran: WAY IN RYE has just started its festival life and we hope that it goes out and communicates to as many people as it can. We also realized we have to be proactive about our distribution, we cannot just rely on festivals and if they will select us or not, if we fit into their program or not. We are reaching out to museums, organizing our own screenings anywhere we think the film will have an audience due to it’s subject matter. There’s always an alternative route, you just have to think a little outside the box.

Examiner: One of the goals that the Examiner.com attempts to achieve is to get the insider’s point of view so I certainly do appreciate this interview and your insights. Best wishes for success at the film festivals and elsewhere.