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Zotfest 2016: Spotlight on Seniors

UCI’s Zotfest provides a space for young filmmakers to showcase their work. Photo courtesy of Nicole Block.

This weekend’s Zotfest, the only completely student-run film festival in the UC system, screened ten short films that had been nominated for the annual awards show.  Since the festival takes place Saturday of Week Eight, many senior filmmakers braced themselves for the end of their undergraduate careers. Many students involved in Zotfest are also part of the Film Arts Drama Alliance (FADA), a campus organization that connects students with Zotfilm, a ten-week film production process, and Zotfest, the yearly short film contest and festival held in spring.

Evelyn Martinez joined the club in her second year at UCI, became the marketing director during her third year, and now serves as the director in her last year at UCI. FADA is an organization she passionately believes in for its power of bringing people together, some of whom may be hesitant to dive into movie-making without any prior experience. When Zotfilm operates in the fall and winter quarters, FADA divides participants into groups of ten that have ten weeks to create a film with people from all different skill levels and academic studies. The result is an approachable atmosphere for all students, not just film majors, and it often leads to collaborative films that get submitted to Zotfest and larger festivals and contests too.

“What I enjoy about FADA is that it bridges the gap that UCI has between the Film and Media Studies majors and the Digital Filmmaking minor and the rest of campus that has no space to collaborate,” Martinez said. “Anyone at any level can get involved and get experience right away. It also becomes a meeting point for people to work on projects together afterwards or outside of FADA, and it builds a community around film.”

Russell Kawaguchi, the cinematographer and editor of the only horror film at the festival, “In the Shadows,” is also graduating this year and won the award for Best Cinematography, an honor he never expected. This was his first year being featured at Zotfest but he has been involved in FADA for two years. “In the Shadows” was shot in three or four days and edited within two weeks by their three-man team, so Kawaguchi was happily surprised to receive the nomination for Zotfest and the award.  

“It was pretty much an exercise in horror, building suspense just through the cinematography,” said Kawaguchi who really enjoys horror and suspense films, himself converted to the genre by “The Conjuring.”  

His exercise certainly worked. Many audience members, myself included, covered their eyes as an unseen terror haunted the lonely protagonist  by turning the lights off one by one, making slight noise, and occasionally presenting a lurking shadow. In almost complete darkness, the cinematography beautifully captured the shadow-cast household objects and continually preyed upon the viewer’s expectation of a jump-scare without much need for dialogue or plot,  thanks to Kawaguchi’s very effective suspense-building.  

On the other side of the film-making process, Jessica Lin is the writer and director of “Recall,” one of the more serious films that dealt with relationship violence. Lin was a part of Zotfest last year and won Best Screenwriter for “One Sided,” and this year won Best Sound Design.

“Recall” features visually striking imagery of a girl in a surreal tableau with a gilded mirror, a landscape painting, a rope and a clock in a field of yellow wheat. At first, the objects appear random but as the female protagonist realizes that she is in a coma listening to her hospital visitors and remembers her past in flashes, the objects explain her story — a devastating one of an abusive relationship that ended with her attempted suicide.

“I think of an ending first and then write the story around it. This one I was just on a bus for a while and trying to come up with story ideas,” said Lin, who hopes to keep writing and directing after she graduates in June.

The cinematographer for three of the productions featured, 2015 Zotfest winner of Superior Technical Achievement and 2014 Golden Anteater recipient, Alan Chung, also belongs to the Class of 2016 after working in FADA and rising to the top. He filmed “Punch,” “Tell Me a Joke” and Lin’s “Recall” this year.   

“Recall got to me the most but Punch was the most fun,” said Chung. “Punch” was filmed for the 48 Hour Film Project in LA, which tests the ability of a team to script, film, edit and score a film in 48 hours. “Punch” was assigned the genres of dark comedy and buddy film, and had to include an orange as a prop.

“I love the collaboration. Working with friends on a project for weeks is so challenging, but at the end we have a big screening and it’s so rewarding to see the finished product,” said Chung.

Zotfest and FADA definitely fulfill their intended mission of providing a space at UCI for filmmakers from all areas to explore and thrive, and even bring back alumni. 2015’s winner of the Golden Anteater, Gabriela Hernandez and Shardae Mendez, who was on the Zotfest Committee, returned this year to revisit their lasting ties to FADA and UCI. Both have made it in the film industry as a video editor and a talent scout, respectively, after surviving the post-grad blues and mini quarter-life crises, which, hopefully, provides some encouragement to graduating seniors this year to continue to follow their passion.