Chinese students finalists in student Academy Awards

Updated: 2014-05-15 07:00

By AMY HE in New York (China Daily USA)

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The annual Student Academy Awards, one of the nation's most prestigious student film competitions, named its finalists this month and will hold an awards ceremony on June 7 in Hollywood.

The Student Academy Awards have been given annually since 1975 to college and university filmmakers. Filmmakers submit their work, which can be no longer than 40 minutes, to one of five categories: animation, documentary, narrative, foreign and alternative.

The films are not allowed to have hands-on involvement from professional filmmakers in "key positions", including the roles of director, producer, editor or writer. Filmmakers submit their works to the Academy by geographical region.

A total of 45 finalists were announced in early May. Academy members will select up to three finalists in each category to win gold, silver and bronze prizes. The winners will go to Los Angeles for a week of film industry activities before attending the awards ceremony in June at the Directors Guild of America Theater in Hollywood.

Brooklyn-based Kate Tsang is a finalist in the narrative category for a 15-minute film called So You've Grown Attached, a fictional black-and-white short about what happens when a childhood imaginary friend is forced to consider retirement because his best friend is growing up.

Tsang, who lived in Hong Kong as a child, was inspired by a similar story told to her by a friend and decided to make a short out of it, shooting in Long Island, New York. The story is about "dealing with the hand you're dealt" - the imaginary friend in the story didn't ask to be an imaginary friend, and then is told to leave her, as per the job stipulations - and that's a relatable theme to everybody, said Tsang, who graduated from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts last year.

Tsang financed the film through taking out student loans, using her savings and putting together a campaign on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter. Her campaign asked donors to help raise $10,000 to fund the film, which in itself was like a full-time job, Tsang said. But her donors ended up exceeding her fundraising goal.

"It's a big honor to be a finalist for [the Student Academy Awards]. I can't even believe it, it's a big surprise, and I'm really excited," she said.

Tsang and her crew worked on the film for a year and a half, spending most of the time working on post-production to incorporate animation elements.

"It never seemed like really hard work, because I was always really excited about it. It was just icing on the cake when it turned out this well," she said.

Zijian Mu, one of the finalists in the documentary category, submitted One Child, a documentary about three families who lost their children during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Beichuan, where the documentary takes place, was one of the worst-hit counties by the earthquake, with more than 80 percent of the county destroyed. Mu said he wanted to do something to help with the earthquake efforts, but there wasn't much he could do, so he set out to make a documentary about the aftermath.

"I spent the whole time together with them, family by family. I was a fly on the wall. I wasn't doing interviews, I wasn't really producing footage in that I had a script or anything like that," the 25-year-old Mu said. "I was basically there and spent a lot of time trying to let them open up. Even though they knew me - everybody knows everybody in that small town - it still took them a lot of time to understand what I was trying to do, and get used to my presence with a camera all the time."

One Child is meant to document the reality of Chinese parents who pour everything into their one child only to have their lives change drastically after a tragedy, Mu said.

"No matter how much the government tries to reimburse, or tries to donate to you, there's nothing that can be done. You have the money, but you don't have the kid," he said. "What I observed is how important the kid is. It's the child as the core of the family, the making of the family."

Mu made the documentary as a student of New York University's journalism graduate program. He pitched his documentary idea to NYU and the school liked it and offered him a scholarship to attend.

Leslie Tai, a 30-year-old graduate of Stanford University's documentary program, is a finalist for the alternative category with her short film The Private Life of Fenfen. It is comprised of footage that Fenfen has taken since 2007, documenting her life as a young migrant worker in Guangzhou.

Tai was introduced to Fenfen through her mother, who knew her through a foot massage parlor that she frequented in Guangzhou. Tai's mother developed a friendship with Fenfen and would tell Tai about her, how the two women were the same age but had vastly different lives, and when Tai went to China on a Fulbright Scholarship later to work on another film, she finally met Fenfen and the two began working together.

In the footage, she talks about the people in her life - her parents, her first husband, a new boyfriend - and discusses the problems she faces. After the footage was edited, the film was later shown at small businesses throughout Beijing to see how customers would react.

"It was a social experiment in that way, if we put real life, self-made video diaries on TV, do people even know what it is? Are they going to pay attention?" San Francisco-based Tai told China Daily. "At first I was kind of shocked, or disappointed, and I hadn't expected that people would not pay attention to her, and then I thought that that was really authentic and really interesting and says something about Chinese society.

"Her place in life is like, who would care? And nobody cares, and there's just that glazed over, glassy-eyed kind of indifference, which I feel is a real part of her reality. It's this dog-eat-dog, glassy-eyed, if-you-died-I-don't-care kind of attitude in the migrant world," she said.

The film made its US premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in February.

Chinese students finalists in student Academy Awards

Brooklyn-based Kate Tsang is the writer and director of "So You've Grown Attached", one of the finalists in the narrative category at the 2014 Student Academy Awards. Amy He / China Daily

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