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My Experience as a Film Judge

(May 1, 2005)

I have just returned from being a judge for the International Student Film Festival. For four hours on a beautiful sunny afternoon, I sat in the small living room of a Santa Barbara, California, beach house next to the breaking surf, watching video after video after video. In front of me was a score sheet and, during each screening, I would lean forward confidently, writing a number from 1 to 100 next to the name of the film. Here I was, taking no more than a few minutes to judge a film that someone had created after months of dedicated work and countless hours of devotion. It was both a humbling and vanity-inducing experience.

The International Student Film Festival, now in its third year, is organized by two patrons of the visual arts, Chrissy Strassburg and Larry Nimmer. (They also work together as a production company called Girl Man Media.)

Chrissy (the Girl) is short, dark-haired, and artistic at full volume in a way that gives her a charming offbeat sense of eccentricity. Larry (the Man) is a pleasantly graying, bespectacled fellow, as friendly as a large, mellow puppy dog. As opposite as they are, Chrissy and Larry have an unusual chemistry, playing off one another like two straight men in search of a punch line.

Around me were a gaggle of what I can only assume were other film lovers, all of whom were strangers to me. To my right, a husband and wife sat silently, thoughtfully evaluating the merits of each film and carefully marking their scores. Across the room to my left, were two men and two women, all of which would speak up from time to time, voicing opinions that were surprisingly different. At times I wondered if we were all watching the same film.

The film that earned the most comment — and the greatest disagreement among the judges — was a video collage of ideas and things that are colored red. Until you see such a collection of images, you don't realize just how powerful "redness" is to our culture. One of the women to my left shuddered visibly during a close-up shot of a needle being inserted into someone's arm in order to draw blood. The images ranged from the mundane to the sublime to the frankly disturbing.

The Red film was, in a microcosm, the epitome of what it is like to watch so many short films in one sitting. In the course of four hours, we watched tens of films: short documentaries, comedies, music videos and promos. Each film had only a few minutes, at most, and within that time, each of us was called upon to render a score.

At various times, I have been fortunate enough to have had three of my books nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and I always wondered what the judges were feeling as they examined one entry after another. Now I know.

What power I had! For a few hours, I held a part of someone's destiny in my hands. Someone I would never meet, a would-be artist who would never know me or have a clue as to what I was thinking when I graded his or her film. Although the process was anything but arbitrary and thoughtless, it felt arbitrary and thoughtless.

These were all student films, and there were times I wish I could have called out to the filmmaker, "For goodness sake, couldn't you have taken the trouble to hold the camera steady?" or "Are you not aware that the image and sound must connect in the mind of the audience?" or "Great idea! I love your originality. Be proud that you can think for yourself." However, I couldn't talk to the filmmakers, and they will never know why I gave them a 32 or a 64 or (in one case) a 95.

The International Student Film Festival accepts films from both high school and college students, and judges them separately. I was watching high school-level films, most of which were created by students who were enrolled in an established filmmaking program. It was obvious that some of the students had access to sophisticated equipment, computer programs and (if truth be told) adult supervision. However, if was not so much the films themselves that were striking as the patterns I noticed.

After the first hour, it became clear that each school had its own "look", not only in the technical details and the rendering of the film, but in the approach to filmmaking and life in general.

The students from wealthy schools tended to create fluffy pieces of entertainment, somewhat tongue-in-cheek and comfortable, but their boredom with life showed through. The poor students from big cities produced films that had a leaner, rougher, more desperate feeling. Where the wealthily, more comfortable kids would create a parody of their history lessons, MTV-wannabe music videos, or personal family tributes, the big-city teenagers devoted themselves to such topics as teenage pregnancy, the real dangers of recreational drugs, or — in one particularly provoking film — what happens when a young girl's single, thoughtless sexual encounter leads to her getting AIDS.

For the most part, I could see that, like teenagers anywhere, most of the budding filmmakers displayed a fascinating social contradiction. While they went to great lengths to show their rebellion and even their angst, they would unwittingly copy the images, techniques and clichés culled from the popular media: the lack of original thinking was disturbing.

Some of the filmmakers, however, demonstrated a startling creativity that made me wonder, more than once, if I was indeed lucky enough to be witnessing the debut of a real artist. I assume that most of them had the goal of becoming professional filmmakers.

If so, I wonder what effect my lightning-quick judgments were having on the careers of these promising directors and producers. Is this what it all came to? That after having worked so hard for so long, their paths through life would intersect with mine for a single, fleeting, Southern California instant and, in that instant, I would make a decision that had the potential to change their lives forever.