Fifteen young college-level filmmakers from around the world gathered on Saturday, June 7, 2014 for the 41st Student Academy Awards ceremony, held at the Directors Guild of America Theater in Hollywood. The Academy event is always a highlight for the year, and as Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs warmly summed it up when welcoming the audience, "We can't wait to see what your futures hold."
The evening kicked off with a lively look back at some notable past winners including John Lasseter, Spike Lee, Robert Zemeckis, and Lauren Lazin, who explained how the award was the start of a rich and rewarding career. Isaacs took to the stage after an introduction by Gregg Helvey, Chairman of the Student Academy Awards Committee, and gave a brief history of how far the ceremony has come since its inception in 1972.
Over 500 entries compete in the five categories, with up to three awards presented in each. The Documentary category, the evening’s first, was presented by actor Adrian Grenier, star of TV’s Entourage and a documentary filmmaker himself. “When done right,” he said of documentaries, “they have a lasting dramatic impact leaving the audience better informed and moved… and the fact that you are sitting here tonight is a testament that you did in fact do it right.”
The Gold Medal was awarded to Helen Hood Scheer of Stanford University in California for “The Apothecary,” a portrait of a beloved pharmacist in a struggling mining town finding his role in an endangered community. While accepting, the smiling Scheer noted that the protagonist of her film couldn’t come to the ceremony since he was starring in the town play the same night, but his other family members were in the audience to share the moment.
J. Christian Jensen, also from Stanford University, received the Silver Medal for “White Earth,” a look at the promised land of life in North Dakota’s oil fields and the more sobering reality faced by its new citizens. “I’m so thankful to be a storyteller,” he said, but “I think an even greater role than storyteller in society though is the role of teacher and so I first need to thank the many teachers that have helped me get to this point.”
The Bronze Medal went to Zijian Mu from New York University for “One Child,” whose title refers to the Chinese policy limiting the number of allowed children per couple and its implications following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He was thrilled with experiencing an incredible week with his peers and remarked how much the film had taught him about life, love, and the grieving process.
The Animation category was presented by the lively trio of Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck and Peter Del Vecho, the Frozen directing/producing team recently seen winning an Oscar for Animated Feature Film. “I can promise you that you will never stop learning,” Lee told the winners as the constant advances of technology continue to advance animation to dazzling new heights.
The Gold Medal was seized by the riotous video game comedy “Owned” and its creators, Daniel Clark and Wesley Tippetts from Brigham Young University in Utah, in which a turbo-powered champion meets his match in a pint-sized foe in diapers. The winners noted they would be remiss to not thank a chief inspiration in the film, Jennifer Lawrence, and closed with a hilarious, well-timed quote from Miss Congeniality: “We are all winners, and we really do want world peace.”
A kinetic martial arts battle between a monkey and a swallow resulted in a Silver Medal for “Higher Sky” by Teng Cheng, a University of Southern California student who felt it was a “huge honor” to be there and thanked those who encouraged him to go further.
The overwhelmingly emotional family ties of Hayley Foster from California’s Loyola Marymount University led to a tearful acceptance speech for the Bronze Medal for “Yamashita.” Her film explored the cultural confusion felt by a young Japanese-American girl when her family is placed into a World War II internment camp, and the film’s win turned out to be a poignant highlight of the evening.
The Frozen team also presented the two winners in the Alternative category, in which films expand the aesthetic and technical limits of non-narrative cinema.
“This is kinda crazy,” said Drew Brown of Florida’s Art Institute of Jacksonville while accepting the Gold Medal for “Person.” The impressionistic look at gender identity and personal expression was a striking achievement, and Brown felt that meeting the other winners was an invaluable experience with all of them hopefully meeting again “down the line.”
A vibrating string turned into a audio/visual extravaganza and led to a Silver Medal for “Oscillate,” created by Daniel Sierra from New York’s School of Visual Arts. Along with congratulating the other “amazing” winners he’d met over the week, he offered thanks to all of his friends and family who helped “whenever I’m stressed out.”
“None of these films look like student films. They are the real thing.” That was the sentiment shared by Demian Bichir, Oscar-nominated star of A Better Place and TV’s The Bridge, who presented the winners in the Foreign category. 32 countries vied for medals this year, a reflection of the continuing growth of cinematic talent around the globe.
Lennart Ruff from the University of Television and Film in Munich, Germany won the Gold Medal for “Nocebo,” an inventive thriller in which a paranoid schizophrenic’s quest to save his beloved calls into question the nature of reality itself. Among the many people he thanked was his screenwriter, Maggie, who was also his wife back home with their son in Munch.
Tel Aviv University in Israel was honored for the first time when Hadas Ayalon won the Silver Medal for “Paris on the Water,” a bittersweet look at how some life-changing developments affect a pair of colorful, elderly married actors (played by a couple of “superstars” in Israel).
Another school honored for the first time was the Northern Film School in the United Kingdom with the sardonic black comedy “Border Patrol,” whose Bronze Medal was won by Peter Baumann. The film’s disturbingly hilarious scenario involved German border police eager to watch a soccer game while brutal circumstances repeatedly thwart their plans, and Baumann thanked the Academy for “acknowledging comedy as an art form.”
The final presentations of the evening for the Narrative category were presented by actor Nate Parker, most recently seen in such films as Non-Stop and Red Tails. “I see the next stage, the next generation that is afforded the responsibility of pushing us and this business just a little bit further,” he said about being asked to present. “I said ‘of course,’” he remembered about accepting. “I’m an actor; I wanna meet them first!”
Keola Racela from Columbia University in New York won the Gold Medal for “Above the Sea,” a stylish drama in which a young girl’s death in 1930s Shanghai spurs a prostitute to seek revenge. Racela drew one of the evening’s biggest laughs explaining how he kept procrastinating the writing of his speech, “even when we were having a beer a little while ago!”
The Silver Medal went to the same state as New York University’s Yulin Liu won for “Door God.” “The power of the cinema” was a powerful way for her to bring to life the characters she envisioned for the story of a young girl’s longing for the mother who abandoned her family.
Finally the Bronze Medal went to Camille Stochitch from the American Film Institute in California for “Interstate.” She noted that she was honored to be there at the ceremony with Bichir, the person she wanted to cast first in her film about the danger that erupts when a driving instructor agrees to help an undocumented immigrant get her papers. Parker returned one last time to the microphone to thank everyone for an incredible evening and brought the opening message full circle by concluding, “I can’t wait to see what you do next.”