“It’s just one of those things,” begins the quintessential Emory tour guide mantra. “It’s there if you want it, but you’re not missing out if you don’t.” It’s a tactful half-truth students use to justify our campus’ noncommittal stance on everything from sports to parties to the arts.
It seemed Campus MovieFest (CMF), despite being the world’s largest undergraduate film festival, had become “just one of those things” — an annual, ubiquitously known tradition treated more as a peripheral spectacle than a galvanizing, community-wide event. Organizers’ attempts to glam up the screening Feb. 27 with a red carpet, photography umbrellas and ostentatious amounts of La Croix in the Dobbs University Center went largely unnoticed.
Yet as the audience swelled in Harland Cinema to watch the top 16 films selected from a pool of 129 student teams by a panel of anonymous judges, I was struck with the feeling that I had stumbled into something far more enormous than I could comprehend. Surely a team of half a dozen Emory students could come up with nothing more than frivolity — a pet project peppered with inside jokes to be shared amongst friends, a hodgepodge of convenient locations and culturally salient storylines, a representation of the common banalities college students face.
And yes, we saw this in the uproarious “Group Project,” carried by pristine editing and the cast’s impeccable comedic timing and delivery (“You might be wondering why I’m dressed as a hot dog … I have a very exclusive unpaid internship for the promotional company of the leading hot dog company here in Atlanta … it’s really quite prestigious, honestly”) and in “Netsplice,” a bizarre, avant-garde patchwork of CGI, memes and unedited takes of actors breaking into laughter that concluded the screening. College senior Evan Welch’s “Strangers Play Cards,” which bore more resemblance to a Buzzfeed video than a short film, pairs students playing cards games under different rules and captures their resulting confusion, ending with the fairly obvious moral that, “It’s not distance that keeps people apart … But rather a lack of communication!”
Yet teams also leapt at the opportunity to tackle weightier, controversial topics with sociopolitical relevance. Within seconds, College sophomore Alex Kass forced audience members into a tense, deeply intimate discomfort with her performance in “One in Five,” portraying a sexual assault survivor’s imagined backlash if she ever spoke out about her attacker. Conversely, “Waylon” follows its eponymous subject who, with her skeletal cheekbones and tattoo sleeves, presents a stark contrast to the sterile, conventional college campus aesthetic as she speaks about her sex transition in a dimly lit bathroom and sings about hormone replacement therapy.
Audrey Easton, who captained both projects, won a Silver Tripod — Performance award for a third film titled “Butchered” by AE Films, a gory jumpscare short that breaks the fourth wall in its final 20 seconds (“Let me go!”/“I can’t!”/“Why not?”/“Because this is a horror movie!”). “Butchered” also took home one of four Jury Awards, alongside “The Fisherman & The Butterfly” by Studio 53, “Petals” by FemmeFilms and “Garden” by Torrian Robertson.
Most compellingly, College freshman Melissa Ackaway and College junior and The Emory Wheel Video Editor Leila Yavari’s documentary “Are We Next?” intersperses home footage with an interview of Yavari’s mother, Marjan Yavari, about her family’s escape from Iranian religious persecution as members of the Bahá’í Faith. Though Marjan Yavari never addresses anything beyond Iran — touching on her father’s arrest, the revolution, the execution of a childhood friend and Saddam Hussein’s violence — a poignant stillness settled on the audience as parallels with today’s political climate emerged, building toward questions of morality and humanity: “This is the moment when you think, would I do that? If push comes to shove, will I be that person that will open my door and put my own family’s life at risk to save another family?”
Other shorts eschewed storylines and themes in favor of integrating vivid imagery. “I like to get my hands dirty” focused its camerawork exclusively on a pair of hands, which, after the dissolution of a marriage, succumb to increasingly toxic vices and become filthy, savage and disturbingly violent, culminating in a gratuitous, nearly twenty-second closeup of ripping apart raw, bloody meat.
“The Fisherman and the Butterfly” and “Garden” became strange, captivating blends of poetry, choreography and cinematography, albeit to remarkably different outcomes: the former as a folkloric tale reminiscent of animated tangram fables and the latter employing Biblical imagery to examine the intersection of religion and sexuality, which team captain and College senior Torrian Robertson dedicated to men who recently taunted him with homophobic slurs.
After originating in 2001 “in a dorm with two dudes and a computer” (“like most horrible things in college,” co-host and Wheel alumnus Brandon Wagner quipped), CMF has since become a conduit for the boundless range of Emory students’ ideas. Sure, it is difficult to be profound with a five-minute cap. The films don’t boast the gravity of Tropfest shorts or Hemingway’s six-word-stories — but they are not and were never supposed to. These are Emory students reinterpreting stories they know too well, shedding light on them so we too might bear witness to this shared beauty, pain and foolishness.
When discussing CMF on my tours, I tack on a sheepish, self-deprecating admission — “But, you know, we’re pretty busy. So they’re not that good” — to choruses of chuckles. To the filmmakers, producers, writers, actors and artists who submitted films, consider this a formal apology and acknowledgement that I must eat my words. Your work is far greater than the sum of its parts and captured glimpses of humanity — its depravity, its joy, its mundanity — with breathtaking conviction. Bravo.