UPDATED: April 12, 2016, at 11:48 a.m.
It’s day four of the Harvard College Film Festival, and in a classroom tucked away in Boylston Hall, cinephiles eagerly line up for a chance to strap on a clunky headset to experience a simulated environment. This virtual reality is also used to create a version of David Karlak’s sci-fi opus “RISE,” where androids—beatific faces on bare metal bodies—can be seen from an up-close vantage point that only underscores their secure placement in the uncanny valley. This novel cinematic episode is one of many delights that festival-goers can enjoy, but these unique experiences represent only the tip of all that the Harvard College Film Festival has to offer lovers of film at Harvard and beyond.
The HCFF is a celebration of all things cinematic, featuring screenings of a wide variety of films—from student-submitted entries to the works of established independent filmmakers—in a wide swath of categories. Entries include documentaries, experimental films, traditional fiction, and even short films under five minutes in length. The event also features numerous conversations with directors, actors, producers, and other prominent industry figures. The HCFF has grown remarkably over its brief lifespan, and its explosive expansion underscores the organization’s potential to serve as a focal point and forum for discussion among film-makers and film aficionados alike.
The rise of the HCFF has been nothing short of meteoric. Established a mere three years ago, the festival has grown at a staggering rate. This year’s iteration, which ran from March 30 to April 3, received over three times as many submissions as were received in the previous years, and its events have grown a great deal in number and variety since its founding. This year, the festival featured an all-star judging panel that was composed largely of professors and included a former New York Film Festival director and a few award-winning filmmakers. “It’s definitely palpable that the festival is expanding,” said Auguste J. Roc ’17, co-director of the HCFF. “I think this is the first year that we’re becoming sort of a presence on campus.”
The festival’s origins are humble. Its original staff was a smal 10-man group, largely culled from the inactive Harvard University TV organization. “HUTV was supposed to be the entertainment club, and film fell under that category,” HCFF founder Nicole R. Delany ’14 said. “Many of the members of HUTV plus others helped to create the festival, so we already had the infrastructure from a practical standpoint.”
The HCFF’s growth is attributable in part to the momentum generated by its efforts in previous years. “It’s kind of a funny system: People generally respect a film festival more if it has more submissions,” said Isaac Siegemund-Broka ’17, co-directior of the HCFF. “And so being able to publicize the amount of submissions we had last year helped us get more this year.”
The prestige associated with Harvard’s brand also encourages participation. "I found [the festival] through Withoutabox.com and I saw Harvard and I was like let's go," said NYU math major Colm Dillane, whose Claymation film “Mercury Rising” won best super-short film at this year’s festival.
Indeed, from its inception, the film festival has remained aware of its connection to the University. “What makes the HCFF different is that we can play in the name of Harvard.” Delany said. “Everyone knows the name, and it's a great draw for people to submit if they can get [their film] at Harvard.”
The Harvard brand shapes the festival in subtle ways; its influence can be seen in the composition of the judges’ panel. “We were kind of like, ‘Let’s work on our strengths as a festival,’ and we wanted to have a very intentional panel of judges,” Roc said. “And so we thought, ‘Okay, we’re at Harvard, our strong suit is that we kind of have this academic angle,’ and so most of our judges are professors. But they all look at film through an academic lens as well as a professional lens. That’s something I think is really cool and that typifies the festival.”
It shouldn’t be assumed that Harvard entrants dominate the festival. According to the HCFF co-directors, a sizeable portion of this year’s submissions come from outside Harvard. In fact, the HCFF this year expanded its horizons to the international film scene, for the first time accepting submissions from countries outside the United States, including Nepal, Bulgaria, and Mexico, to name a few.
The established factors of momentum and a Harvard affiliation, however, cannot solely account for the rapid growth of the festival. The HCFF team’s efforts were instrumental in contributing to the festival’s vitality and in cementing the festival as a distinct institution with its own unique footprint. “From the second year to the third year, we spent a lot of time defining the identity of the festival and what we were trying to accomplish, the events we wanted to have, the conversations we wanted to foster,” Roc said.
This year’s push to solidify the festival’s presence can be seen in the great number of external connections the staff has made to help bolster and legitimize the festival. “One way in which we’ve expanded is in working with the Harvard Art Museums,” Roc said. “They’re really interested in making the Harvard Art Museums also a hub for film, and so they’ve been extremely supportive in housing the festival during a couple of our events…. It’s been a really great partnership.” The staff have also made contact with independent film distributors, including A24 and Broad Green, and the companies’ support has enabled the HCFF to show films from outside Harvard undergraduates.
To further broaden its audience, the HCFF has also dabbled in hosting non-festival events. On March 4, the organization, working with the Harvard College Women’s Center, hosted a panel discussing recent challenges and successes for women in the film industry. The event appealed to both for lovers of film and for those interested in larger issues of gender, fostering contact between the communities.
But perhaps the most tangible, quantifiable success of this year’s festival has been the sheer increase in the number of entries. This year’s staff went to great lengths to solicit submissions, often using nontraditional, more assertive methods; according to the co-directors, the HCFF contacted film schools, professors in film departments, and even student newspapers in an effort to reach prospective entrants. “I would say that this is kind of the first year we’re really going hard on the pubbing efforts,” said Lindsay Bu ’18, the HCFF marketing chair.
This proactive approach to finding films—of actively soliciting films through avenues that don’t cater exclusively to established filmmakers—underscores an integral part of the HCFF’s larger mission: to broadcast the stellar work of students who might otherwise lack a platform for their creations and thus to help them gain recognition for their innovations and efforts.
This inclusionary impulse is evident in the the very structure of the festival: It is, after all, only open to college undergraduates in order to prevent their entries from being crowded out by those of more established filmmakers. “We state very directly on our submission materials that we only accept undergraduate content—we still got grad students, professionals,” Siegemund-Broka said. “So there was definitely a process there of weeding out what was not within our scope.”
But it’s also visible in even the smallest details of the festival’s operation, such as the process by which filmmakers submit their films to the festival. Instead of relying solely, as the HCFF had done in previous years, on the platform Withoutabox, which is the industry-standard medium for entering films into festivals, this year’s staff employed the humble Google form as an alternate method of entry into the festival. “If you don’t already have a Withoutabox profile it can take a lot of time and energy to create one, so we use the Google form so people who might be new to student filmmaking can still participate,” Siegemund-Broka said.
This care and willingness to encourage new filmmakers extends to the festival’s selection process. The process of culling submissions is necessarily somewhat harsh, but the HCFF staff took pains to make sure that all eligible films were given a fair look. Due to the increased volume of entries to this year’s festival, the HCFF staff had to vet the submissions before passing them onto the judges. “We really wanted the judges to enjoy their experience, to feel that they were able to contribute to something cool but that it wasn’t an overwhelming burden on their time,” Siegemund-Broka said.
To select the winning films, the HCFF staff divided themselves into four groups, each of which was assigned a particular genre of film. Each group member gave the film a score from one to 10; the HCFF staff used an average of these scores was to determine which films made it to the judging panel. “We tried to be as inclusive as possible, to send as many of the best films as possible, over to our judges,” said Hugh A. Mayo ’18, the HCFF submissions chair.
Though the all-star judging panel may seem intimidating at first glance, it also ties into the HCFF’s goal of encouraging budding filmmakers. “We really wanted to make sure that the judges were a group of people that a student who wins an award can look at and say ‘Wow, these people like my film and that means something,’” Siegemund-Broka said.
Dillane’s experience confirms the validating effect that a renowned judging panel can have on submitters. “As a winner, I feel more confident now. I should do this more often,” Dillane said.
The mission of the HCFF, however, extends beyond the celebration and cultivation of undergraduate filmmakers; on a larger scale, the festival seeks to provide a student-driven hub for Harvard’s appreciators of film, content-creators or otherwise. “There’s not really a strong extracurricular film community,” Roc said. “There’s a definitely a strong film community on campus, I think, but it’s very centered around academics.” Although there are student organizations devoted to film, such as the Harvard College Society for the Cinematic Arts, many of these are relatively new, and haven’t yet established themselves as dominant forces on campus.
The HCFF’s ambition to appeal to film-lovers of all types can be seen in the sheer variety of its events, which include screenings of both submissions and external independent films, alongside a variety of conversations with directors, producers, and actors. There are industry panel geared towards more avid filmmakers, but there are also panels that appeal to a broader base of cinephiles. At the HCFF screening of his week-old proof of concept film “RISE,” Karlak discussed topics ranging from the potential role of robots in a futuristic society to the development of novel technologies such as virtual reality—a discussion enabled and rendered cohesive by its ties to the medium of film. “You have people coming together under a common interest; a lot of good can come from that,” Karlak said.
The non-festival events run by the organizers of HCFF, such as the previously mentioned Women in the Film Industry panel, are also effective methods for enlarging the scope of the film community at Harvard; they connect the HCFF to communities that might not have an overt interest in film. “I think those sort of events that we have are a good way to make people who might not be interested in Film with a capital F more likely to come to these events in the future,” Bu said.
However, the HCFF is still slightly wary of venturing too boldly away from what is ultimately the crux of its operation: the festival itself. “Something that was really important to us was reaching out to other communities and creating cross-sections of conversations with other communities on campus. I think with the second year we tried to do that too soon, without knowing who we were, and I think this year we spent a lot of time focusing on what we were doing,” Roc said. “But in the future, I’d be interested in seeing how [outreach events] develop.”
Still, given the festival’s prodigious pattern of growth, it’s easy to see the HCFF increasing its scope. The festival has made great strides in a mere three years and done much in the name of fostering a community of cinephiles both at Harvard and beyond. The progress made by the festival in so short a time indicates this young organization’s massive potential for expansion, both in terms of the organization’s role on campus and in the festival itself. “I wouldn’t say we’re there or where we want to be because [we all] have really big visions of what the festival could be in five years’ time,” Roc said.
Nevertheless, this farsighted perspective isn’t incompatible with a certain pride in the accomplishments of this year’s festival. “What started as a couple of hours in one room on campus has, over the last two years, been expanded into the event it is today: a five-day festival featuring seven hours of student films; four professionally produced films; four Q&A sessions with directors, actors, and producers; a virtual reality experience; and the panel discussion that you will see today,” Roc said in a speech in Menschel Hall after the screening of selected student films. Given the HCFF’s commitment to the the art of storytelling, it’s only fitting that the festival’s otherworldly rise seems itself drawn from the pages of a script.
—Staff writer Adriano O. Iqbal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Kamara A. Swaby can be reached at email@example.com.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: April 12, 2016
A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of Nicole R. Delany ’14. It is Delany, not Delaney.