Maybe it was in high school when those Flip camcorders were all the rage. It was easy: press the red button, catch a friend running down the street toward you, press stop. Stay in the same place, press the red button again, get the empty street. Flip open the side of the camcorder, jam the USB into a computer, throw everything into that early version of iMovie or the infamous Windows Movie Maker, edit the two clips together. Suddenly the friend disappeared, and a cinematic star was born. Hollywood wasn’t ready. Maybe that was the moment film became interesting, accessible, possible. Or maybe it was having an iPhone: being able to film and share instantly, in some cases in real time, or being able to pull up a feature film in the palm of your hands. Maybe it was just Netflix. Or maybe, it was seeing your own work on a screen, instead of someone else’s. A plausible achievement, particularly for a filmmaker at The University of Alabama, where Black Warrior Film Festival screens top student films from the university and the rest of the nation. Maybe that was it. The student film festival was inspired by a 2013 trip to Sundance, one of the largest film festivals in the United States, and notable for introducing films like Garden State, Little Miss Sunshine, (500) Days of Summer, and more recently, Whiplash. The first Black Warrior Film Festival was held months later and will be back on campus for its fifth year this spring.
“At a school that’s so focused on achievement, whether that’s in academics or sports, there’s also a huge focus on achievement in arts, and creating impactful, movingshort films,” said Becca Murdoch, a co-director of BWFF. Murdoch, a junior telecommunication and film major, works with co-director and Trent Carlson, a senior political science and journalism major. Both Honors College students have been involved with the festival for the past three years, and continue to integrate networking opportunities into the weekend-long event, occurring this spring on March 24 and 25. Some past featured filmmakers have included: Tom Heller, producer of Precious and 127 Hours; Mitch Levine, the founder of The Film Festival Group, a festival consulting firm and Ava DuVernay, award-winning director of both Selma and 13th. Nick Corrao, an assistant professor in the Journalism and Creative Media Department, has been involved with the festival every year as a jury member, panel speaker or facilitator for the featured filmmakers. He is a new faculty adviser, working with previous and current adviser Rachel Raimist. The BWFF speakers are often based upon connections other faculty members have in the industry, which speaks to the importance of the festival, Corrao said. He took a trip last fall to Los Angeles, where he was a Television Academy Faculty Fellow, and one of the seminars stressed the importance of the truth within the clichéd “it’s who you know.”
“The evidence couldn’t be more clear based on the testimonials I heard from some of the industry’s top talent,” Corrao said. “They all had a story about that one person that gave them a break, offering entry into the industry. And most talked about how this connection came from their university experience.” Hunter Barcroft, a graduate of the telecommunication and film department (now part of journalism and creative media), was a founding member of BWFF. He currently works in Atlanta with AMC’s The Walking Dead, a job he attributes to connections fostered through the festival. Barcroft broke into the industry after speaking with featured filmmaker DuVernay, who offered him a position to work on her feature film, Selma. “As far as the networking, and actually getting to talk to someone that’s done the things you want to do in your life, [BWFF] really helps a lot,” Barcroft said, regarding the feature filmmakers he met and the friends he made. “That’s the golden part I think about what they do, is that they’re able to get those people in there that can really help you, or give your guidance.”
While at Alabama, Barcroft focused on producing student films as projects for BWFF or for Campus Movie Fest, a collegiate film festival that goes to universities around the world and provides students with one week and all the equipment necessary to make a short five-minute film. During the awards ceremony of CMF, BWFF gives their own Warrior Award, and that film is given is a spot in the festival. The selection process for BWFF begins with students submitting works, and, as of last year, also supplying a small entry fee, which is typical for most film festivals. The films are then vetted by a selection committee compiled by Murdoch and Carlson. The process takes at least two full days (there were nearly 65 films submitted last year), and each person on the 10- or 15-person selection committee discusses the film and fills out a document to score it. The number of films selected is determined by the length of the films (most are usually less than 20 minutes) and the spaces BWFF reserves. Last year, they settled on 26 films. In previous years, the festival has used campus buildings and the theater in the Ferguson Student Center, but has also held events in off-campus locations including the Bama Theatre, Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center and Black Warrior Brewing Company. The locations and schedule for the 2017 festival will be released closer to the festival weekend in March. Carlson is interested in arts advocacy, and has been pleasantly surprised with the level of involvement with the film community here. “I’m just impressed,” Carlson said. “I didn’t expect to find what I’ve found here, in Tuscaloosa, especially.”
Films in the festival are also eligible to win a handful of awards, which include the typical “bests” for story, sound, sign, performance, editing, directing and cinematography. There’s also an audience award and a few others, recognizing narrative and documentary works. But the top prize, recently added to the festival last year, is the Holle Award for Excellence in Filmmaking. The prize – a healthy $10,000 – is part of the group of Holle Awards for Excellence and Creativity in
Communication presented by the College of Communication & Information Sciences. It is selected by a separate panel of professors and industry professionals. Last year, the winner was Julius Damenz, a senior at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, who submitted the short film, Infinite. An award of this size, rivaling those at other festivals, has heightened the buzz and anticipation surrounding BWFF, in turn, influencing the caliber of work produced within the university’s filmmaking program.
“As with any hometown film festival, you want to be a part of it,” Corrao said. “I know my students are thinking about it at the beginning of the fall semester, plotting and planning the project that they will try to have completed for submission in the spring.” BWFF engages the community through their partnerships and sponsorships as well, which have included the likes of UA Honors College, the College of Communication and Information Sciences, New College, Creative Campus, the Telecommunication and Film Department, Steel City Pops and Glory Bound Gyro Co., amongst others. Although Carlson doesn’t consider himself a filmmaker, he hopes to work within arts advocacy. “[BWFF has] helped cultivate passions I didn’t know I had,” Carlson said. “I hope that I’m helping bringing something to the campus and the community that is needed.”