Two Student Academy Award Winners Talk Inspiration, Future

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held the Student Academy Awards last week, honoring some of the nation’s brightest young filmmaking minds.

The SAAs were founded in 1972 as a means of honoring the best in student films, according to the Academy’s website. Past SAA honorees have included John Lasseter, Robert Zemeckis, Spike Lee and South Park co-creator Trey Parker.

The SAA judges films in four categories: Narrative, Animation, Alternative and Documentary, along with an honor for one student filmmaker from outside the U.S. Candidates (all short films under 40 minutes long) are narrowed down through regional judgings, with the top three finishers as voted by the Academy being honored at the ceremony. In addition to the award, winners receive grants from the Academy and plenty of opportunities for networking.

Paste talked to two of the winners about their films and future plans.

Gold Medal: Documentary Category

For Ruth Fertig, who received the Gold Medal for Best Documentary, the reasons behind making her film, Yizkor (the Hebrew word for “Remembrance”), had deep emotional roots. Fertig was named for an aunt who was born — and died — in the Theresienstadt (Terezin) concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Her grandparents, who survived the Holocaust under miraculous circumstances, spoke very little about their years in the concentration camps. Fertig started making documentaries after her grandparents passed away about a decade ago.

“One of the reasons I went into documentary film is because I watched so many Holocaust documentaries as a child,” Fertig says. “For me, they served as a proxy to what my grandparents’ story. That was the closest that I came to being able to understand what my grandparents had gone through.”

Fertig started the Yizkor project in 2007 while in the beginning stages of preparing her thesis for film school at the University of Texas at Austin. She knew she wanted to incorporate her grandparents’ story, but how to go about it became the important question. After probing the older generation for more information, she discovered her grandmother had written a memoir in the last years of her life. And there was the documentary.

Fertig used colorful, almost watercolor-esque animated scenes to bring her grandmother’s story to life, which she calls a “survival mechanism” for the documentary. Photography and video were illegal in Theresienstadt, so the available primary footage was limited, so she says animation was the best option, not only for aesthetics, but also for honoring the idea of memory itself. “The animation is my experience of reading her memoir and interpreting, when I wasn’t able to ask her ‘How did you feel?’ or ask follow-up questions,” Fertig says. “It’s a 30-page memoir so it’s very short, and the part about the Holocaust is maybe half of that. It acknowledges that I have to guess and that there are all a lot of questions that can’t be concretely answered.”

Fertig says the documentary gives both her as a filmmaker and her viewers the opportunity to bear witness to her grandparents’ story and allow the memoir that went unread for so long to illuminate others. “It honors their experience,” she says. “So the more people who see it and are moved by it, the more that story is remembered and honored. It doesn’t matter to me what people take away, just that they take something away and witness it.”

In addition to Yizkor, Fertig has made two other documentary shorts with her production company, Fertigová Films: The Cockroach Project, in which Fertig tackles her own phobia of cockroaches in a look at bug enthusiasts and others, and Two Spirits, which profiles Two Spirit activist Joey Criddle and takes a look at the modern intersectionality of Native American and LGBTQ identities. She also works as an online community builder for the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit that provides “relief, respect and renewal to refugees and victims of armed conflict around the world.”

Watch a clip from Yizkor here.

Gold Medal: Narrative Category

Luke Matheny, who took home the top honor for Best Narrative, has been following the Academy Awards for quite some time. “When I was 12, I memorized all the Best Pictures for the Oscars, so to actually receive an Oscar was quite thrilling,” Matheny says.

Matheny enchanted viewers with his modern twist on the Cupid myth, God of Love. His protagonist, Raymond Goodfellow, is a darts champion and lounge singer who receives a box of love-inducing darts and uses them to solve an unrequited love triangle. “The nice thing about myths is that you can keep updating them for the present,” Matheny says. “It’s just a fun way for audiences to get into the story, if there’s something old, something new, something familiar but also something unexplored.”

Matheny says he wrote the script for his thesis film at New York University’s graduate program because he wanted to make a comedy with romantic elements, but one that went outside the typically romantic comedy formula. He also sought to incorporate the look of 1950s jazz photography to bring out the sense of nostalgia he thought would work well with comedy and romance. Using photographs and 1950s jazz films like Paris Blues as an inspiration, Matheny and his cinematographer, Bobby Webster, worked to give the film its sleek, black-and-white appearance.

Another key to the film’s look? Location, location, location. “We also knew we wanted to take advantage of New York City, because that’s where we are. So we have tons of exterior locations all around,” he says. “It’s a little bit of a day-trip for the audience as well because you get to see lots of cool sights in the city.”

Matheny says he hopes audiences that see God of Love go in with as little information or expectation as possible. Because it’s a short, he says, he has less time to make an impression. “You hear a lot about how good There Will Be Blood is, but then you have more than two hours to watch,” Matheny says. “Really pumping up a short film, sometimes I’m afraid expectations will be a little too high. There are a lot of surprises in the script, so I prefer the audience going in with as little information as possible.”

Following the success of God of Love, Matheny’s working on a pair of feature films — one, A Birder’s Guide to Everything, is a “teen bird-watching coming-of-age story” which he co-wrote with classmate Rob Meyer. Meyer is directing and director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) is producing. And his love of updated legends is still present — he’s writing the script for a feature retelling of Don Quixote next, called Ron Quixote.

Watch a clip from God of Love here.