PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Ask a current Brown student how the Ivy Film Festival was born, and they’ll likely tell you that it all started in a bar.
The story goes something like this: Fifteen years ago, then-undergraduates David Peck and Justin Slosky were hanging out at their favorite watering hole in New York City when they spotted director Oliver Stone. As student filmmakers, they couldn’t let this opportunity pass them by, so they introduced themselves. They also invited Stone to speak at this great little student film festival at Brown they’d organized, thinking he would brush them off. Turns out he was genuinely interested. Sure, he’d come. The problem? There was no Brown student film festival. So Peck and Slosky decided to create one.
It’s a great story, but alas, this particular campus legend isn’t true. Peck and Slosky convinced Stone to speak at the inaugural film festival, but they wooed him the old fashioned way — through a letter-writing campaign. A year later, they did run into Adrien Brody at a bar and successfully pitched him to come to Brown for the festival’s third year, so there’s some truth to the tale.
Even if not altogether factual, the legend exemplifies the Ivy Film Festival’s heritage as an event grounded in two things: student tenacity and compelling storytelling. To make a long origin story short: Slosky and Peck wanted to show a bunch of student movies, and there was nowhere to show them. So, in classic Brown student fashion, they figured out a way to make it happen.
The Way We Were
Peck says the Ivy Film Festival (IFF), which this year wraps up on campus on April 12, has always been a “student-first” event. “I was making films at Brown, and I realized there was nowhere to show them,” he says. “I wanted to create an outlet for everyone who was in the same boat I was, to have a place to show their films. And I wanted it to be an educational outlet so that people who attended would get something out of it and learn something about the industry. I figured the best way to do that would be to get some big-profile industry people there to speak about their experiences.” He also wanted the festival to be bigger than just Brown, representing the high-quality work of students across the country and the world.
In the years that have followed Peck and Slosky’s successful bids to get major Hollywood figures to attend their no-longer-little film fest, a steady stream of celebrities and film industry heavies (directors, producers, writers, cinematographers and more) have come to campus for the festival, offering up stories, expertise and wisdom to Brown’s budding filmmakers — and anyone else passionate about film.
Yet IFF organizers, past and present, are quick to echo Peck’s for-the-students, by-the-students message: celebrity spotting is not really the point. Though the University does seem to host a small red carpet of notables each year (this year Robert De Niro and Jodi Foster were speakers), the primary mission of IFF is and always has been to spotlight, honor and support the work of student filmmakers. Everything else that happens at the festival is in service to that.
From Here to Eternity
From Peck and Slosky’s two-man show, the festival has grown dramatically, with students handling every aspect of its production. Together, nearly 100 students make up a well-oiled machine that looks more like a small Hollywood production company than a student organization. The team is divided into 10 departments, ranging from programming (selecting the films) to publicity (getting butts in seats) to industry (recruiting the celebs), each managed by two coordinators who hire an army of staff for support. Two co-directors keep the whole organization running from the top.
Brown senior Angela Guo, who with junior Solveig Xia, is this year’s co-director, worked her way through the ranks from the business department (landing sponsors) to her current role. She says the festival attracts a wide range of students, not necessarily all aspiring filmmakers.
“There is a big variety of students who are interested in being part of IFF,” Guo says. “Our programming and screenplay departments are filled with people who are filmmakers themselves, but — take the branding department — those are people who may be more generally interested in graphic design and organizational branding. What unites us is an excitement about supporting student filmmakers and providing a platform for students to show their work and interact with the industry.”
And the machine that builds this platform really works. This year, more than a thousand people have attended. And the festival received more than 500 submissions from undergraduate and graduate students across the U.S. and abroad, an IFF record. Ultimately, 25 were chosen. Statistics like this point to the fact that the festival has become not just a popular and well-known event, but a highly coveted and selective one to show at as well.
A Place in the Sun
Among this year’s selections, two directed by Brown senior Pom Bunsermvicha will be shown: “Graduation Speech,” part of the festival’s official selection, which was written by Brown alumna Lanna Leite, and “Coach,” which took home the prize in IFF’s 48-hour film contest last November. This is her second year showing at the festival, but her first as a member of the organization. Working in IFF’s business department this year, Bunsermvicha has been deeply impressed by the amount of work that goes into the festival’s creation — and how the mission stays relentlessly focused on student storytelling.
“IFF has created a whole ecosystem for students who care about and want to make films,” she says. “That’s really powerful. Recognizing great student films in a festival is empowering, and it creates a wider audience for this work.”
By keeping the festival focused on student productions, Bunsermvicha says, it also prevents these fledgling pieces of art from being overshadowed by professional films with bigger budgets and more experienced creators, recognizing that though students have to work though many limitations, they still create powerful film.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
This year’s 25 official selections represent 11 countries, with students from 35 countries submitting. Two highly anticipated screenings include “Everything Will Be Ok,” a German film by graduate student Patrick Vollrath that was nominated for a best short film Oscar, and “Para Ellos,” an immigration story by University of Southern California filmmakers Christian Contreras and Victoria De La Torre that was a semifinalist in the 42nd Student Academy Awards. The films range from comedy to drama to documentary and from the experimental to traditional narrative. They also touch on many of today’s most salient issues, things like immigration, the Syrian refugee crisis, gender roles, and eating disorders.
In the selection of films for IFF, quality is paramount, but the wide diversity of place, topic and filmmaker represented in the final official selection is essential, too, Guo says. It’s also something that IFF’s organizers are mindful about when selecting topics and speakers for the panels that run during the festival. Junior Oakley Friedberg is a managing director for IFF this year and has been heavily involved in its industry department for the last two years. He’s part of the team who recruits not just celebrities to campus but also industry experts and academics who research and write about film. He says that IFF strives to create panels that reflect bigger-picture, sometimes difficult conversations on campus, in Hollywood, and across the country.
“As an organization, we’re representing student film and also the current climate of the film industry that students will contribute to as the next generation of filmmakers,” Friedberg says. “So part of our mission is to represent a full variety of perspectives.”
He points to one of this year’s three panels as an example. Co-sponsored by the Pembroke Center, “The Audience in Revolt: Gender, Race, and Representation in Hollywood” featured an all-women panel, including Lauren Zalaznick, a media executive and former NBCUniversal leader, and Mia Mask, a Vassar College faculty member who teaches African American cinema and feminist film theory. Together, they examined movements in the film industry around gender and race equality and how they are driving the creation of new models for storytelling on the screen.
To further highlight the notion of looking at film “through a different lens,” this year’s festival featured live readings of an official selection of screenplays and, in one of its final events, will host a “virtual reality bar” where attendees will don virtual reality “Google cardboards” to watch “A History of Cuban Dance,” a film by Lucy Walker, billed as the first documentary created specifically for virtual reality viewing.
Though Peck and Slosky named IFF with the other Ivies in mind, and initially worked with students at each of the schools to support and promote the event, in recent years the festival has been centered mainly at Brown. Last year, however, IFF worked to strengthen partnerships with other campuses, showing the official selection at other schools including Harvard, Princeton, Northwestern, and the University of Michigan.
This year, IFF created “satellite festivals” at each of the other Ivies, as well as at University of Texas-Austin, University of California-Berkeley, New York University, and New York City’s School of Visual Arts. The goal is to create and expand an intercollegiate network of emerging filmmakers — and to continue to raise the profile of student-produced films.
Peck and Slosky may not have invented IFF out of thin air in response to the piqued interest of a powerful Hollywood director — although Peck says he very much enjoys the Oliver Stone myth — but the festival’s growth and success is definitely a classic feel-good story. It’s also a testament to their vision of keeping student storytelling at the center of it all, which has remained a strong and consistent thread through the years.
“We wanted the festival to grow and evolve over time,” Peck says. “We knew that we wanted it to live forever at Brown and to be a part of the institution, and the best way to do that was to make it so students were completely it charge of it, so that they would continue to feel connected to its life and growth.”