Fifteen minutes before show time, the green room of the Old Town Playhouse at the Traverse City Film Festival crackles with a nervous energy. Students chat and mill around the space, fiddling with the yellow lanyards that identify them as filmmakers. Finally, Robert Rayher, a lecturer in LSA’s Department of Screen Arts and Cultures, and Jim Burnstein, the Russell Fraser Collegiate Lecturer in Screen Arts and Cultures, enter the room. The crowd gets quiet.

“Ok everyone, it’s time,” says Burnstein. “You have the rare opportunity to show your films at a world-class film festival. Enjoy this moment.”

It’s the moment that these students have been waiting for, and they’ve done the work to get here. They have collaborated with students across campus: actors, musicians, and costume and set designers from the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance; producers in the Ross School of Business; and publicity experts in LSA Communication Studies in order to premiere the two, half-hour films they have written, filmed, and edited.

And they did all of this, by the way, in just 14 weeks.

The films were shot in the same semester of Screenwriting 423 with the same camera, but the similarities end there. The first, Present Day, written by Carly Keyes (A.B. ’16) and directed by Ryan McDonough (A.B. ’16), is ephemeral and dreamlike from the opening shot of the film’s antihero on a horse, snowflakes falling around him.

The second film, The Dejects, directed by Claudia Fuentes (A.B. ’16) and written by Danielle Jacobson (A.B. ’16), uses a more realistic approach to tell the drama of a high school student who is rejected from her dream college.

People were so eager to see the students' films, they didn't even mind waiting through a long line in the rain.
Photo courtesy of Matthew Adams

After the final credits roll, the visibly relieved—and proud—students make their way to the stage and wait through thunderous applause to answer audience questions.

“I just want you to know how incredibly impressed I am,” was all one audience member had to say.

Ready for Our Closeup

The Department of Screen Arts and Cultures’ Screenwriting 423 class was just one of the many U-M connections to this year’s Traverse City Film Festival, which took place the last week of July. In nine of the festival’s 12 years, U-M’s screenwriting program has been a sponsor. This year, LSA became a full education partner, garnering shoutouts from filmmaker and TCFF cofounder Michael Moore and cheers when the College of LSA logo appeared ahead of all the screened films at the festival.

LSA’s sponsorship helped to fund many things, including the festival’s internship program. Interns help the festival run smoothly by working behind the scenes: selling tickets, organizing volunteers, changing the letters on the venue marquees, and even putting together the end-of-festival highlight reel while the festival is still happening.

“There's no doubt that interning with TCFF has been one of the most fun and rewarding experiences I've ever had,” says rising School of Information senior and TCFF intern Anna Ludka. “Whether it's in the office, in town filming, or at one of the awesome venue locations, there's never a shortage of smiling, friendly faces. I love the surprise factor of coming to work each day not having a set plan, but rather prioritizing whatever comes up. TCFF has definitely enhanced my professional knowledge and skills while showing me a fabulous time in my home away from home.”

Play It Again, Ma'am

This year’s TCFF was the first mainstream film festival where all films in the U.S. official selection were directed by women. U-M alumna Aviva Kempner (A.B. ’69), who made the acclaimed documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, screened one of the festival’s favorites. Kempner was raised in a middle-class Jewish home in Detroit by a mother who survived the Holocaust, and she became interested in telling the stories of Jewish Americans, especially stories not known to the general public. Her latest film, Rosenwald, is about a Jewish philanthropist who gave away a third of his wealth to establish schools for African American children in the Jim Crow South. It played to two sold-out theaters at TCFF.

“I went to law school and did very well, but then I flunked the bar,” jokes Kempner. “That is why I went on to become a filmmaker.”

Another alumna, Ferne S. Pearlstein (A.B. ’87) was also featured at the festival. Her most recent documentary, The Last Laugh, looked at the role humor plays in even the worst of times.

Tracking and entering ticket data, preparing theaters for the next film, and even holding up the backdrop for the red-carpet photos, U-M interns kept the film festival running smoothly.
Photos courtesy of Screen Arts and Cultures

There were also older films, such as Adam’s Rib (1949), a progressive film featuring Katharine Hepburn, and there was a special screening event to watch Hillary Clinton’s historic speech accepting her party’s presidential nomination. Clinton’s speech was counterpointed by Kisses for My President (1964), a film that finds the idea of a woman president preposterous, accompanied by commentary from Michael Moore and comedian Doug Benson.

That’s a Wrap

As the festival neared its closing, people bounced from event to event with a spirit of bonhomie made possible by the beauty of Traverse City and the simple pleasure of seeing compelling films. Just standing in line for one’s 10th or 11th film of the week and seeing so many smiling people made clear how much this festival means to the local community and visitors. The volunteers and interns were in good spirits because the week’s hard work had brought joy to thousands of moviegoers—including a few famous faces, like motivational speaker Tony Robbins and actress Amy Smart.

At screenings and in the street, U-M students, faculty, and alumni shared stories about things like their undergraduate days, their children being LSA students themselves, or their optimism for a new season of Michigan football. They were proud to see fellow Wolverines showcasing their work, and they were certainly happy to pose in front of Grand Traverse Bay, let out a hearty “Go Blue!,” and capture a moving picture of their own.