Film Festivals are outstanding opportunities for filmmakers around the world to share their work and network. Getting your film into a festival is an honour and winning an award and being recognized for your work is the height of prestige for anyone in the industry.
However, what many overlook when it comes to festivals is actually judging them. Being a panelist on a festival is an ideal opportunity to meet other professionals in the industry and learn what they are doing, and maybe you will be inspired by what you see.
That being said, how does one become a panelist at a film festival? I sat down with Xiao Sun, an industry Chinese Canadian actress hailing from Montreal, who has starred in films alongside Charlize Theron, Jennifer Lawrence, and Seth Rogan, to name a few. Xiao was recently a jury member at the Toronto Korean Film Festival, which ran from July 11-15 in Toronto. Here are her tips at not only becoming a panelist, but also on what to do while judging the films.
Tips on getting into festivals
Stay in the know
Get to know as many film festivals as possible and stay updated on entertainment news. Toronto, for example has this great website to always be up-to-date on festivals in the area
Once you find out when and where the festivals are, attend them yourself and submit your work to them. Get to know their programmers when they have mixers. For my local Toronto people, TIFF is an amazing place to be. Start to prepare early, get an early bird priced badge, go to as many network events as you can find, and get your account on Cinando – you’ll see which company and which person is coming to a festival and their contact information. Get access on IMDB pro, educate yourself with top production companies, agencies and filmmakers in the industry and keep updated on their recent work.
Get info about the festivals from your friends whose work has entered/won awards at the festivals before, get involved with your local Industry community, get connected on festivals’ Facebook group. Also, remember to consult your local ACTRA representative for on-camera and behind-the-scenes workshops.
Tips on Judging at festivals
Watch every film thoroughly as if you know nothing about it. I prefer not to read the synopsis, or the director/actors work before watching, so I don’t prejudge the work.
Take a breather and get some fresh air between watching each film, even if they’re short films, as you would cleanse your palette before tasting a new dish.
Follow your heart
Let the film touch you, don’t use it to judge or to pick on their imperfections, and see which story/performance tugs at your heartstrings.
Many people don’t realize they have a dream until they have already achieved it. This is just what happened for Albee Zhang. The Shanghai native always knew she wanted to make films, but it wasn’t until she realized she had made a career both in China and the United States that this was always what she wanted. She shows the world her culture through her work, and allows audiences to see both where she comes from and where she is now, as an internationally successful film and television producer.
This is exactly what Zhang achieved with the film Bride: Shanghai, I Love You. As a producer on the film, Zhang was essential to its success. She provided creative ideas for story meetings, prepared pitch materials, created and managed the production budget, scouted locations, recruited the crew, oversaw the art department and post-production teams to ensure deadlines, and cast the film. Without her, the film could not have been made.
“The cast she put together, the people that she put together for this project, it was really quite amazing. Albee is the master of multitasking, but never skips out on the small things. She has more drive and passion than anyone I have ever met. She is definitely a go-getter,” said the director of the film, Lian Xin.
Bride: Shanghai, I Love You is a film made for the 15th Shanghai International Film Festival, hosted by SIFF and the Information Office of Shanghai Municipality, as part of city promotional videos during the festival. It’s a story about a young photographer who meets his long-lost ex-girlfriend on her wedding day. Originally, he accused the fast pacing city life of changing them and made them break-up, but he finally realizes without all the tough times in his life, he wouldn’t be who he is right now. He moves on with relief and looks forward to the future with deep love in this city, Shanghai.
“It’s such a compelling life changing story. Any dream seeker in the big cities would find similarities to the character. The release date was in a summer, same as the graduation season in the story, which made the whole story resonate with more people. I love the idea that we started from an ordinary person’s point of view to reveal the beauty of this city,” said Zhang. “It’s a light-hearted and inspirational story to motivate the young professions to following up their dreams. We had a very young team making this film. Although they may lack of professional experience, they brought so much energy and joy to the crew. They gave us lots of ideas of how to capture a city wanderer’s life. And in return, we were trying to give these young professionals an opportunity to work on this film. All they needed was an equal chance, just like everyone else.”
Zhang wanted to share her love for her city through the film, and that is exactly what she did. She worked on the project from start to finish, from the development stage, casting, accountings, getting equipment deal and transportation, to its premiere at the festival. She was working at MT media at the time, and the director, Lian Xin, reached out to her to be a part of the film, knowing he needed the best to make the film a success.
“Lian Xin is a very hands-on director. He likes taking different jobs at the same time while making his films. He directed, wrote, filmed, and even gave lighting directions on our film set. In the editing stage, he would prefer to have a director’s cut. By looking at his works, you would know what’s a ‘Lian’s style’ movie. He was calm and quiet person off-set, but as long as the camera was rolling, he would rule the set. We had worked on few other projects before, so I knew from my heart that he had the capability to do multiple jobs on set. If it was another director, I wouldn’t let him do that. But it’s all about trust and mutual understanding. When he was in charge, I had nothing to worry about,” said Zhang.
The film was a non-profit project, and therefore had a very small crew. This required Zhang to wear many hats at the same time to ensure the production went smoothly. As a producer, she is known for her commitment to her work and to each project she works on, which is why they have gone on to see such success. Her more recent work on the film Caged has gone on to be an Official Selection at many festivals, and win several awards. She knows what it takes to achieve greatness, as that is what she continuously does. Having Bride: Shanghai, I Love You, premiere at a prestigious film festival such as The Shanghai International Film Festival was nothing out of the ordinary for this producer.
“It was a great honor to be part of the film festival program. Producing my own hometown promotion video for SIFF made me think about what my home town means to me. I was born and raised in Shanghai, and lived there for the majority of my life, but I never thought about what impression does this city leave the world, until I started brainstorming ideas for this project. It’s a place you will easily lose yourself in a materialistic life, but after all the struggles, you will eventually be deeply in love the city with and understand how inclusive this city can be,” said Zhang. “Since I am purely from Shanghai, that was a great chance show the world how great my home city is. I am proud that I can become part of the production.”
When starring in My Wounded Head, Savannah Burton was there to tell the story. Like any good actress, committing to the role and giving a believable and memorable performance was the top priority. However, unlike most actresses starring in a film, Burton was the only performer. The success of the film and sharing the story was up to her. And she didn’t take the responsibility lightly.
My Wounded Head tells the tale of a transgender woman as she delicately puts on makeup while staring at her reflection in the mirror. Burton, a transgender actress herself, plays this woman. Her makeup is a metaphor for her transformation to uphold society’s perception of beauty, while addressing the transition that transgender people may go through. Digging even deeper, the makeup also acts as a form of armor, protecting her from the scrutiny that comes from the outside world.
“I chose to use extreme close-ups throughout the film, in an effort to magnify the expectations of society for a transgender woman, versus what she expects of herself,” said Stephen Chen, the director and writer of the film. “I needed an actor of the utmost quality that could convey the film’s deep messages without speaking one word; Savannah Burton was the one and only actor that could do just that. The success of the entire film rests on her shoulders, as she is the only performer in My Wounded Head.”
“Savannah does a remarkable job of bringing an authenticity to the role, taking the audience on a journey of discovery by creating a combination of comfort and uneasiness that makes the film both fascinating and enthralling,” continued Chen.
Burton’s talent is evident in the film, and brought the film great acclaim as an Official Selection at the esteemed Imperfectu (Tijuana) International Film Festival, Gender Reel Festival, and Sydney Transgender International Film Festival. Chen believes the many Official Selections My Wounded Head received wouldn’t have been possible without Burton in the starring role.
“It is always a thrill to have a film selected to be in a film festival. It’s recognition of the project a group of people worked on and gives you a positive feeling that people appreciate your work. This also gives the film a larger audience and a chance to have more feedback,” said Burton.
Burton worked closely with Chen to make the film exactly what they envisioned. She says the partnership was easy, and Chen was very prepared and knew exactly what he wanted, which makes her job as an actor much easier.
“When watching the film for the first time I was very proud of the work I did and felt Stephen did an amazing job telling the story he wanted to make,” said Burton.
Being without makeup for parts of the film was originally uncomfortable for the actress, but she quickly began to see the artistry of the project.
“I start the film without any makeup on and the camera follows me as I get ready to go out for the evening. Not wearing makeup made me feel very vulnerable but I feel stronger after for focusing and completing the work. I felt a little anxious about seeing it, but I was very happy with the end result, she said”
Burton has worked on many successful projects, including Syfy’s hit show Killjoys and the CW success Beauty and The Beast. She also is in the new LGBT period piece The Kiss.
This project, however, was an important piece of her career. Beyond anything, she took away a valuable realization while working on My Wounded Head. It was her first film after her transition.
“It felt amazing to finally be working as myself,” she concluded. “I learned that I can have a career as a trans actress”
Director Jainardhan Sathyan’s film “Harvey’s Dream,” based on Stephen King’s short story of the same name, brings to the screen a multi-layered tale of a couple struggling through what seems to be the normal aging process; but as the story progresses we soon realize there are many other factors at play.
From the very start of the film Sathyan does a brilliant job of setting a mysterious and eerie tone that pulls us in and leads us to question what is going to happen next. A panning shot across the family’s mantle and living room walls in the opening scene reveal photos of an apparently happy family, but the slow and pensive sounds of a piano playing notes in minor keys in the background inform us that something is not right.
What seems to start off as a normal Saturday morning for Harvey, played by Golden Globe nominee Philip Casnoff, and his wife Janet, played by Roxanne Hart, who won two Best Actress Awards for her performance, becomes progressively more devastating and complex as the story unfolds.
Janet leans over the sink washing fruit for breakfast. She’s bitter. She feels like she was jipped out of the life her husband promised her, and she’s vocal about it. She calls him dumb and makes subtle jabs that he may have Alzheimer’s, something that serves as a major insight into the true nature of what’s going on in the story.
As Harvey sits at the breakfast table recounting his dream of a tragic phone call he received from one of his daughter’s telling him that their drunken neighbor killed one of her sisters with his car the night before, Janet stares out the window in horror.
Her reaction to the “dream” is perplexing, after all, if it was just a dream then why panic? Her face scrunches up as she tells herself that the dark stains on the mangled corner of their neighbor’s car that she sees out the window is not blood, it was just a dream– and if you say your dreams out loud, they don’t come true.
Harvey continues with his story, stopping momentarily as he struggles to recall the name of one of his daughters, and it is at this point that we begin to realize that there is more going on behind the scenes, something the couple is not yet aware of, or isn’t ready to face.
Allowing the frustration and animosity that’s clearly been brewing for decades to take center stage, Sathyan captures the essence of what it is like to be an unhappily married couple. What keeps us engaged in anticipation of what’s next though is the way the director uses subtle cinematic devices to let us know that there’s a dramatic twist coming, one we will never expect.
In the end we discover that what seemed to be a precognitive dream was a tell-tale sign of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease– the phone call Harvey received from his daughter that morning did happen, he just forgot about it.
The interplay between the couple is spot-on. Ironically enough, Casnoff and Hart are a couple in real life, which was a main factor in Sathyan’s casting process when it came to selecting the film’s lead actors. Casnoff, who is known for his performances in the series “Sinatra,” “Oz” and “Strong Medicine,” endows Harvey with subtle signs of inner confusion and the perfect amount of vulnerability, traits which only begin to make sense after we discover the story’s final twist at the very end.
The shot sequences and sound design of the film are tantamount to the impact of the story as they heighten our emotions and piques our interest to know the truth of what’s going on the whole way through.
Thanks to Sathyan’s genius storytelling and the actor’s captivating performances, it’s not surprising that the film has already achieved astonishing international success since its release earlier this year. So far “Harvey’s Dream” has screened at over a hundred festivals and earned an impress list of awards including the Best Lead Actress, Best Overall Short and Judge’s Choice Awards at the Women’s Only Entertainment Film Festival, the awards for Best Actor and Best Film from TMFF (The Monthly Film Festival) and the Best Short Film Award from the Direct Monthly Online Film Festival, Chandler International Film Festival and the 6th Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival. The film was also nominated for Best Acting Duo and Best Screenplay at the Sanford International Film Festival, Best Film and Best Actress from the Bucharest ShortCut Cinefest, Best Original Score from the Milan Online Film Festival, as well as several others.
Sathyan, who also produced the film, takes a unique approach to filmmaking. Without disclosing too much, he leaves space for the audience to make their own judgements and lets the story run its course in a way that keeps the viewers constantly engaged.
Xiao Hou recounts mimicking 1930s actions to recreate perfect sound
Xiao Hou is an international sound designer with a passion for the craft burning so bright it pushed him to move his entire world from China to Savannah, Ga. in pursuit of his Masters Degree in Sound Engineering. However, Hou’s devotion to sound had its root far earlier than his post-undergraduate days.
“I’ve always been a big fan of music,” he said. “I love recording and mixing it, and really got a chance to explore live sound while in college for several years as an undergrad in China. So one day I told my parents that I wanted to dedicate myself to sound, to audio, to anything related to sound. Luckily, my parents supported me. To study abroad is a lot of energy, time and money, but my family was fully on board.”
The investment and dedication would pay off. Hou got a call in Jan. 2013 to work as sound designer on the short drama film, “Until the Dust Settles.” The story follows a father and his two sons who reconnect while traveling through the American Dust Bowl in 1932.
The call to Hou came after various colleagues sang Hou’s praises to the sound supervisor — Mike Patterson (“Battlefield Hardline” and “The Walking Dead: Michonne”) — who is a fellow Savannah College of Art & Design alum.
Patterson raves about Hou. “As the leading sound designer of the film, Xiao absolutely excelled in his duties of recording custom sound effects to reach a more realistic aesthetic for the film. He recorded these sound effects in an environment similar to the location of our main characters in the early 1930s to achieve a more realistic vision for the film as a whole,” said Patterson. “While an uninspired sound designer could have easily pulled catalogued noises from sound libraries, Xiao took it upon himself to go the extra mile.”
Hou recalls director Alex Gangi’s high standards for the film’s quality and sound. But it wasn’t Gangi that pushed Hou to supersede expectations — Hou’s hard work is innate and is one of the reasons he’s amassed many outstanding achievements in film. His brilliant sound can also be heard in titles such as Lionsgate’s “Compadres,” in commercials for Paris Hilton and the LA Clippers and in other acclaimed short films such as “Once” and “God Save the Queen.”
“It was very challenging,” Hou said of “Until the Dust Settles.” “The director wanted to have really great sound, so I sifted carefully through the sound library, but for some actions I couldn’t find the exact sound I wanted, so I ended up recording the sound in my kitchen, and bathroom.”
Hou carefully explains the delicate and intriguing process of “foley,” whereby sound designers mimic on-screen actions to recreate precise sounds. Hou adds that since the film was set in the 1930s, he had to be very careful and precise while re-enacting. “I had to custom record by myself and cut those sounds into the film,” he said. “In the end, it turned out pretty great.”
Great is an understatement. “Until the Dust Settles” went on to win a handful of awards and festival selections: winner of the Savannah Film Commission Award at the 2013 Savannah Film Festival, winner of Best Student Short at the 2013 California International Shorts Fest, a nomination for Best Student Short at the 2013 We Like ‘Em Short Film Festival, 2013 official selections at the LA Shorts, Cincinnati Film Festival, Orlando Film Festival, Big Bear Lake Film Festival and Bald Shorts Film Festival, and 2014 official selections to the Macon Film Festival and Speechless Film Festival.
“I’m very happy to be the behind the scenes person. I have always been obsessed with sound. I call myself an audiophile,” said Hou.
His passion for the field oozes out of his pores, as he subscribes to magazines, reads articles and continues to keep his skills fresh and sharp. “The most important learning process is working on projects,” Hou said. “The ultimate dream would be to continue working on exciting projects and traveling to work with other countries. I’m an international person and so my goals aren’t limited to just the United States, but all over the world, working with different people.”
When Canadian actress Alison Balnar first stepped on stage, it was to play the classic role of Dorothy in Wizard of Oz. At the time, she was ten years old, with big dreams and a life ahead of her. Now, she is a part of a film headed to the Cannes Short Film Corner.
Balnar believes that going to Cannes will give the film, 60 Eight, the recognition it deserves.
“It’s one of the most prestigious international film festivals and will provide a great platform for a fantastic film,” she said. “I feel that the filmmaker, Raja, and the film itself are very worthy of this platform.”
60 Eight follows the life of John, who at the age of eight gets stuck in a lengthy comatose/minimally conscious state. It exposes the life and relationships surrounding John. Balnar plays the role of Sarah, John’s best friend. Sarah is captured at three different ages since the film focuses on the 52 years that John is in a coma. Balnar portrays Sarah at the age of 18.
“It feels great to be involved with a project with such a touching story,” said Balnar. “Raja was a terrific person to work with and was the driving force behind finding and using the vulnerability that was required to portray Sarah.”
The film was written and directed by Raja Pothineni, and stars Matt Jayson, Reginald Span, Lucas Zaffari, Laine Hannon and Denah Angel.
Balnar was extremely dedicated to an accurate portrayal of Sarah right from the beginning, said director Raja Pothineni.
“It was great working with Alison. In the very first meeting, we talked about how 60 eight was going to be a film that tried to portray the lives of its characters as authentically as possible, and the work that would need to go in to be able to pull that off,” said Pothineni. “Right from the start, I could see that Alison was dedicated in bringing her character to life and her talent lets her play complex characters while hiding the effort it takes to create them.”
Pothineni also said that Balnar’s attitude and commitment allowed for a smoother production.
“During the shoot, her commitment to the moment and her fellow actors meant that I had to give very minimal direction, and on the edit table, I was very glad to find her maintain her rhythm across shots and takes,” he said.
For Balnar however, the film is about the story it tells and the life lessons that are conveyed.
“I think that this film is filled with many valuable lessons and Raja does a beautiful job in capturing them,” said Balnar. “One lesson that resonates with me is the power of love. John is consistently loved throughout his life even though he is put in extraordinary circumstances. I think that this film reminds the audience of this force of love and puts life into perspective.”
Playing the character of Sarah has given Balnar the chance show audiences her versatility by playing a very vulnerable character.
“As an actress, each role and character is unique. It requires you to look into different emotions and experiences and translate them to find parts of the character,” she said. “When you combine my exploration of the character with the director’s openness to my interpretation, it gives me total freedom to perform. As an actress, that is a great gift.”
The role did not come without it’s difficulties. Her character is in an extraordinary circumstance that needed to be displayed effectively on screen, and Balnar stepped up the the task.
“A challenge I had with the character, Sarah, was finding the right colours in my performance that captured exactly how she felt,” she said. “It was a matter of how to authentically capture what her character was feeling given these extraordinary circumstances. I needed to find a balance of both strength and weakness within her and have that translate on camera.”
Although Balnar is only portraying the character of Sarah for a portion of the film, she is able to capture her story and the character’s feelings in a way she feels many will be able to relate to.
“When I play Sarah, she is 18 years old and moving to college. She needs to let go of John and accept his fate in order to move forward with her life. Sarah of course takes care of herself and lets go of her dedicated visits to John in the hospital. It’s her struggle of coming to that decision and moving forward with life that I can relate to. Sarah is growing up and facing decisions that will ultimately affect her life for the better or worse,” she said. “I think this is a struggle that is not only relatable to me, but so many other millennials.”
60 Eight premieres May 16 at the Cannes Short Film Corner.
International filmmaker Badr Farha earned the Award of Recognition at the 2016 IndieFEST Film Awards earlier this year for the film “The Last Conversation,” which he wrote and directed.
“The Last Conversation” starring Christopher Callen from the film “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and the series “One Life to Live” and “Young and the Restless,” Eddie Eisele from “Die Hard Dracula” and “Sweet and Lowdown,” and Don Lucas from the film “Party Like the Rich and Famous,” brings to the screen a dramatic tale of secrets exposed and the loss of a loved one. For those of you who haven’t had a chance to see the film yet, you can get a taste of Farha’s brilliant approach to this intensely emotional story through the trailer below.
After Lucas’s character Luci, a middle-aged man who’s kept a life-long secret from those around him, discovers that his mother’s advanced stage of cancer is terminal, the need to reveal these unspoken truths arises. However, whether he’s ready to tell her or not, Luci’s mother Yvonne could very well find out the truth as Luci’s ability to keep his secrets in the dark falters in the midst of the pain he feels over her imminent passing.
The heart-wrenching and layered drama, which was accepted into the 2015 Cannes Film Festival Court Metrage, reveals Farha’s acute vision as both a director and an art director. The powerful emotions within the story are intensified further by the film’s score, which was composed by Julian De La Chica and performed by the Scorchio Quartet in New York City. The founder of Irreverence Group Music (IGM), De La Chica is a Colombian born pianist and composer who currently resides in New York.
“The Last Conversation” is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Farha’s accolades in the industry to date; but, what is even more impressive is the fact that his creative talents encompass multiple fields of work in film. Considering the heavy competition and large pool of talented individuals who want to work in film, Farha’s accomplishments as an art director, director, screenwriter and to top it off, a production designer, have proven him to be someone with a remarkably rare gift for bringing stories to life on film.
“Writing and directing have always been my end goal. Over the years I’ve purposefully taken on a wide spectrum of leadership roles on film productions from the creative design aspects of production design and art direction, which create the environment for the stories we are creating, to working as a producer where I’ve tested and perfected my ability to execute and ensure that a project is flawlessly created as envisioned,” explains Farha.
“Aside from simply enjoying the process, these experiences have laid the foundation for me to become the director I am today. As the head of the entire film production, a director needs to manage the leads of every department in order to make sure the vision is clear, attainable and that everyone is on the same page… I don’t know if that would be possible if I hadn’t spent the time devoting myself to actual performing the roles myself.”
Over the last few years Farha has been working closely with producers Regina Bang and Javier Del Olmo, who produced “The Last Conversation” through their production company, Bang Bang Pictures.
After linking up a little over two years ago on the film “Deliver Us,” which Bang production designed, Del Olmo produced and Farha art directed, an unstoppable team was formed. “Deliver Us” earned a $10,000 grand prize, and Bang and Del Olmo going on to form Bang Bang Pictures soon after.
Some of Bang’s other work as a producer include feature films such as “Sophie Gold, the Diary of a Gold Digger,” and “Finding Her,” which was line produced by Del Olmo and starred Johnny Whitworth from “Limitless,” “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” and ABC’s newest hit TV series “Blindspot,” and Larry Pine from “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “House of Cards”.
In addition to “The Last Conversation,” Farha production designed the film “More Than Words,” as well as art directed “When Negatives Collide,” both of which were produced by Bang Bang Pictures. While the films portray two totally different narratives, with “More than Words” focusing on a young couple as they struggle to cope with terminal illness and the painfully real possibility of losing one another if a cure is not found, and “When Negatives Collides” centering on a lower class teenager’s struggle to move forward from her tarnished past and form a stronger bond with her mother, both films were well received internationally in their own right.
““When Negatives Collide,” which was written and directed by Michelle Castro, a well-known cinematographer and international filmmaker who has collaborated with Farha and the team at Bang Bang Pictures on multiple occasions over the last few years, also earned the Award of Merit at the IndieFest Film Awards in 2015. That makes Farha’s recent award win at the 2016 IndieFest Film Awards for “The Last Conversation” the second time his work has gained praise at the popular LA-based awards festival in the past year!
Additionally the film, “When Negatives Collide,” was also chosen as an Official Selection of the 2015 International Film Festival of Cinematic Arts IFFCA, Studio City Film Festival and the Sun and Sand Film Festival, and it was also included in the Cannes Film Festival Court Metrage along with Farha and Bang Bang Picture’s other films “More Than Words” and “The Last Conversation.”
The fact that these filmmakers had three films in the prestigious internationally renowned festival in Nice, France last year speaks leagues to the power of their collaborative efforts; and, with the creative juices in full swing, the team has joined forces once again to bring audiences the upcoming film “Margaret,” which Farha is slated to direct. The upcoming film will begin shooting in April and stars Lucia Moerk as Margaret, as well as Christopher Callen who will take on the role of Mother Superior.
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