‘5,000 Acres,’ ‘StalkHer’ win top awards at Montage Film Festival
The second year of the annual Montage Film Festival looked a little different from its first.
The music still played, the IU Cinema logo still flashed across the screen, but audiences watched from the comfort and safety of their homes rather than the cinema. On Thursday, April 30, the show went on.
“We hope that you’re staying healthy and well; it’s hard to imagine that it’s been seven weeks since our last screening in IU Cinema,” said the cinema’s founding director, Jon Vickers, in an introduction delivered via Zoom. “We miss seeing you in person in our cinema lobby and look forward to that once again when it’s safe to do so. IU Cinema vows to come back stronger and more inspired than ever.”
This year’s festival, hosted by The Media School’s Cinema Academy, received 46 film submissions, all eligible for nominations. They spanned a range of genres and formal styles, tones and scale. The films can be viewed online, in lieu of the pre-festival screening in the Franklin Hall commons that took place last year.
Thirteen of the submitted films were screened in a curated program. The films chosen for the program were selected based not on comparative merit, but on the way they fit into a tight, but diverse, roughly 90-minute package.
Joining Vickers for his introduction was Alexa Enoch, president of IU’s Student Cinema Guild.
“On behalf of students that create motion pictures across campus, we’re so excited to share our creativity and passion with all of you watching near and far,” she said.
She also thanked everyone who worked to celebrate student work on campus. Montage is a collaboration between The Media School; IU Cinema; the Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance; the Jacobs School of Music; and the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture and Design.
“Since opening in 2011, IU Cinema has been a champion of student work — from student filmmakers to student composers to curators and scholars,” Vickers said. “We screen student films every year, mostly short films, but on occasion feature length films.”
After a window of time scheduled to give viewers the chance to watch the program of student work, Media School senior lecturer Craig Erpelding took the screen in the cinema’s Zoom room to announce the nominees and winners in each category.
Winners and nominees
Score: Isaak Liu
Original Song: Kayla Behforouz
Music Supervisor: Alexander Myers
“The Journey Home”
Caleb Allison and Patrick Dieterlen
Caitlin Noppenberger and Spencer Bowman
Producer/director: Bryce Reif
Producer: Kendall Hughes
Producer/director: Matt Lutz
Writers: Rena Johnson and Faith Geiger
Bryce Reif didn’t even know he was nominated. He knew his film — a documentary he made in the fall and spring semesters of his final year at IU through a two-semester documentary production course — had been entered into the festival. But it came as a complete surprise when a friend texted him that evening congratulating him on his Best Sound Design award. And then again, this time for Best Non-Fiction Film.
And again. Best in Show.
“5,000 Acres” transports viewers to a snow-covered ranch in southeastern Idaho, a haven for wildlife and humans alike, where Reif seeks a deeper understanding of the relationship between people and nature. It is grand and picturesque, filled with stunning vistas and breathtaking views of a landscape largely untouched by people, but also intimate in the portrait it creates of the ranch’s residents.
In short, Reif said, it’s about the relationship we have with the world we live in.
“It’s about what we take away and what we can give back.”
Reif, a 2019 Media School advertising graduate, worked for IUSTV, where he honed skills that would prove essential in making “5,000 Acres,” his first and, for the time being, only documentary. Long fascinated by conservation issues and familiar with the snowy ranch where the film was shot, Reif said the topic seemed a no-brainer for his first documentary, but also, perhaps, for a feature-length documentary that might better and more carefully probe the issues laid out in his short.
It was also meticulously planned. He spent the first semester of the course carefully considering the questions he wanted to ask, who to ask them to and what further questions their answers might beget. So when it came time to shoot the film, he was wholly prepared.
The shoot itself took place in March 2019 — a 24-hour car voyage to Idaho with the company of high school friends and a Media School classmate, followed by three days of shooting in the quiet, snowy and altogether breathtaking landscapes seen in the film. It was important to document the place and its people to the fullest of their abilities, Reif said, but also to respect the routines and rhythms of the ranch-owners’ day-to-day lives.
As any wise person does when in the untouched beauty of nature, they were careful to observe and not interfere; to take only pictures and leave only footprints.
For Jeremy Nutter, the story of his documentary “Relentless Service,” about a family of refugees in Indianapolis who’ve spent years giving back to the people around them, began 10 years ago at Christmastime. Having called him and his sister greedy, Nutter’s mother introduced them to Winnie and a community of refugees from around the world to teach them about giving, rather than coveting.
What started as a donation of essential goods to a family of refugees soon became a decade-long friendship centered around aid and building connections.
Nutter produced and directed the film as part of an ongoing quest to direct a documentary every semester since he got into filmmaking. The first, a running documentary called “Late in the Race,” competed at last year’s Montage festival where it was nominated for Best Non-Fiction Film. The second, about a lacrosse coach, came the semester after, and the third won him his first Montage award: Audience Choice, voted online by watchers of the virtual film festival.
“It was really cool to do something about someone we’ve been friends with for so long,” he said.
His first experience in filmmaking came during his senior year of high school when he produced a documentary for a video and audio class. Like much of his work, it focused on sports — it followed the victories of his high school’s triumphant women’s basketball team. But he didn’t settle into documentary production as his thing until he transferred to The Media School after a year-and-a-half at DePauw. Now, in the last days of his senior year at IU, it’s clear that he has a passion for storytelling.
“I think that other people’s stories are so cool and very inspiring,” he said. “That’s what I like to do: inspire people with the people that I know who’ve done incredible things.”
Media School doctoral student Caleb Allison was fascinated by identity and the uncanny. A 10-minute short that combines digital and 8mm filmmaking into an eerie, oppressively moody horror film, “StalkHer” is in turns startlingly violent and intensely surreal.
“I thought that stalking as an act and as a metaphor for these deep, buried personas is an interesting metaphor if you turn it inward,” Allison said.
The off-putting nature of the material was very much on his mind through the process of conceiving and making the film. But so, too, was the singular power of horror filmmaking to graze and even push up against the boundaries of social taboos.
“We’re just going to sit with the killer’s point of view as he stalks this woman,” Allison said. “It’s really a horrific, intimate, perverse thing for someone to be stalked.”
In crafting this film that sublimates such heady material as desire and obsession into the format of something more familiar — a stalker flick — Allison consulted a variety of influences: Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” Robert Altman’s “Three Women,” Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom,” but also more explicitly horror fare like John Carpenter’s “The Fog” and “Halloween.”
As for the film’s handful of awards — in addition to Best Fiction Film it won Best Score/Composition and Best Cinematography — Allison asserts that it was the entire team’s dedication and collaboration that made the final work what it is. In addition to a moody original score by Isaak Liu, “StalkHer” also features an original song written by Jack Ritter, the film’s sound designer, and Behfouroz. Replacing a placeholder song, “Bette Davis Eyes” — “which seemed really fitting, it had that ’80s tempo,” Allison said — the pair wrote and produced an entirely original song that lends rhythm and energy to a dance sequence in the middle of the film.
“I’m super honored and grateful to have been able to work with the people that I did, and that they put so much effort and time and care into the work that they did,” Allison said.
For senior media major Rena Johnson, who presented three films in the festival, the third time — or perhaps, the third film — really was the charm. Johnson received an award for Best Director for her film “Superlike,” an aesthetic sweet treat of a short film that blends a bubblegum and baby blue retro look with a deadpan over-the-phone conversation between friends about the annoyances of online dating, mining humor and richness from the contrast between material and presentation.
Johnson made “Superlike!” spontaneously with a pair of friends, who star in the film.
“I’m always laughing with them,” she said. “It was really fun to make.”
She shot the film at the Haan Mansion Museum of Indiana Art, where she was granted an hour to shoot in a pair of pastel-tiled bathrooms.
But while “Superlike!” offered a whimsically entertaining feast for the eyes, Johnson’s other works proved more personal.
The first, “Growing Pains,” is an ode to the awkward moments of youth and adolescence, shot for an independent study course. It blends animation — painstakingly shot frame by frame on a Bolex camera, with 24 hours of work boiled down to a minute of animation — and super 8 footage to create a visual language that bridges the formal gap between the meditative process of the animation and the charming nostalgia of super 8.
“A lot of my films are about nostalgia,” Johnson said. “I’m a very sentimental person. With that one in particular I was really interested in seeking out stories about uncomfortable moments.”
And then there’s the second, a more personal piece called “High School Sweethearts” that blends home videos she found abandoned at a thrift store with the text from love letters written by a high school boyfriend and the music of a mixtape he gave her.
“That one was a really vulnerable piece that I made just for myself,” she said.
Johnson’s films are singular and innovative; they reflect in their variability the eclectic range of inspirations and personal practices she draws upon to make them. She admires the works of filmmaker Miranda July (“The Future,” “Me and You and Everyone We Know”) for the way she captures strange and awkward moments and finds in them something poignant and discernibly human. But also she admires the photographers Stephen Shore and William Egglestone, among others, for their ability to capture a specific time and place. And on her own she does film photography and writes poetry, drawing on the skills she’s honed with each to write and craft the narrative and look of her films.