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Media Beat: St. Olaf film program teaches story

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The other weekend I, along with a couple of my peers, road-tripped over to Appleton, Wisc. to participate in the 2nd ACM Film Festival at Lawrence University. Each of us had made a film that was going to be screened at the event, which accepted submissions from students and recent graduates from any of the several small liberal arts schools that constitute the Associated Colleges of the Midwest. My entry in the festival was a documentary I had made as part of a summer class abroad in Iceland. This was my second time at the fest; I was at the first one two years ago as well, also at Lawrence. Back then I had submitted a film about a haunted vending machine that I made for the St. Olaf Film Production Society’s Halloworst Festival.

Just like that last time two years ago, being at the ACM Film Festival led me to thinking a lot about my film education at St. Olaf. This is only natural given that it was at another college as well as meeting a bunch of people from other, yet sort-of-similar, schools.

The ACM Film Festival is primarily made up of selections from Lawrence University and Colorado College, and by a pretty wide margin. We’re talking about probably 80 percent of the films screened at the fest being from one of those two schools. And it makes sense; both Lawrence and Colorado’s film programs are heavily production-based, whereas many of the other ACM schools (St. Olaf included) lean more towards critical analysis. As a result, many of the students at Lawrence and Colorado have films on hand, ready to be submitted into an undergraduate film festival such as this.

But what really strikes me about the multitude of films from these two colleges is how god awful many of them are at any kind of storytelling.

Now, to be clear, I’m not trying to “rag on the competition” or anything. I will freely admit that most of Colorado’s documentaries are absolutely superb. My favorite thing I saw at the ACM Film Festival was a doc about a three year-old boy who was absolutely terrified of Colorado’s tiger mascot, Prowler. And Lawrence’s film are almost all incredibly visually stunning. But anytime either college forays into fiction, it often falls flat.

Essentially, it feels like these movies are made by very skilled technicians and videographers, but poor storytellers. This is unfortunate for aspiring filmmakers because they have so much talent, but little ability to apply it.

This is why I’m happy with my St. Olaf film education even though I don’t have much of an oeuvre to show for it yet. Being in the classroom and studying the effectiveness of various filmic techniques and devices has afforded the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of cinematic storytelling. And then, extracurricularly, I can figure out how to do that practically for myself. They say the best way to learn how to do something is to do it, so I don’t really need a class to teach me how to work a camera. There’s a reason the darn thing comes with a manual. It seems to me that the better use of an education is to teach the things that one might not necessarily pick up on purely from shooting out in the field.

Plus as far as practical experience goes, I’ve gotten plenty of it working on theater productions in that department (even though my film professor gets jealous when it seems I’m “favoring” it over film).

This being the last “Media Beat” film column I am going to write, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank professors Marc Robinson, Bjorn Nordfjord and Linda Mokdad for their wonderfully educating film courses.

mayo1@stolaf.edu