Tag Archive for Film Studies

Wesleyan in the News


In this recurring feature in The Wesleyan Connection, we highlight some of the latest news stories about Wesleyan and our alumni.

Recent Wesleyan News

  1. Variety: “Entertainment Education Report: The Best Film Schools in 2018”

Wesleyan is highlighted as one of the best schools to study film. An exceptional group of filmmakers, including Joss Whedon ’87 and Michael Bay ’86, have cited Jeanine Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, as a major influence on their understanding of film.

2. Hartford Courant: “New Bike Share at Wesleyan Offers Speedy Transport for Students”

Sustainability Director Jennifer Kleindienst discusses Wesleyan’s new partnership with San Francisco–based start-up Spin to provide bicycles on campus for quick and low-cost rental by students and other community members.

3. WNPR: “Where We Live”

Katja Kolcio, associate professor and chair of dance, and Anna Fox ’19 discuss Wesleyan’s partnership with a university in Kiev, Ukraine, their recent visit to the country, and what they have learned from activists involved in the country’s revolution in 2014. Kolcio is also associate professor of Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian studies and associate professor of environmental studies. (Kolcio and Fox come in around 26 minutes).

4. Poets & Quants for Undergrads: “The Case for ‘Test Optional’ College Admissions”

A new study, which analyzed data from Wesleyan and many other schools that don’t require the SAT or ACT in admission, finds that “test optional” institutions tend to enroll a higher proportion of low-income, first-generation students on average, and students from more diverse backgrounds. The study also found that high school GPA was a better predictor of success in college than standardized test scores for these students.

5. Gizmodo“What Shapes Are Things in Outer Space?”

Meredith Hughes, assistant professor of astronomy, assistant professor of integrative sciences, paints a picture of the planet formation process, and explains why planetary systems tend to be flat.

Recent Alumni News

  1. Tech Crunch: With Loans of Just $10, This Startup Has Built a Financial Services Powerhouse in Emerging Markets”

    Shivani Siroya ’04 is founder and chief executive officer of Tala, a Santa Monica–based financial services start-up. The Tech Crunch article offers examples of lives that have been changed in places such as India, Mexico, the Philippines, and Tanzania with help from Tala. Additionally, author Jonathan Shieber reports that Steve Case’s Revolution Growth fund recently provided $65 million in new financing for Tala: “’We see Tala as a company building the future of finance. They have quickly become one of the leading mobile-first lenders in emerging markets where well over 3 billion consumers do not have access to traditional banks,’ says Case.”

2. Washington Post: “The Trailblazing Writing Life of Alexander Chee [’89]”

“Alexander Chee is best known as a novelist, and after the operatic plot of his Queen of the Night, readers may be surprised at the quiet intimacy of his first essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” writes reviewer Crystal Hana Kim. “By offering the reader such advice in the form of personal revelation, we are asked to journey with him, to learn how to write alongside him. In the ensuing essays, Chee reflects on his professional trajectory. In some, like ‘The Writing Life,’ which chronicles Chee’s class with Annie Dillard at Wesleyan University, he discusses craft explicitly. In others, like ‘The Rosary,’ he only alludes to his writerly life….”

 

3. Washington Post: Op-Ed: “I Thought Grit Would Bring Me Success. It Almost Killed Me,” by Nataly Kogan [’98]

Nataly Kogan, who arrived with her parents in the United States as Russian refugees when she was only 13, is the founder of Happier, a learning and technology platform. In this op-ed she writes about the pressure she put herself under to succeed in America, but through work with a life coach, she learned important lessons about self-compassion. She is the author of  Happier Now: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Embrace Everyday Moments (Sounds True; May 1, 2018).

4.  Channel NewsAsia: Commentary: ”A Liberal Arts Education in Singapore and the Usefulness of ‘Useless’ Knowledge

Terry Nardin, professor of political science and director of Common Curriculum at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, offers an explanation of a liberal arts education that challenges the cultural expectation that “the purpose of tertiary education is to equip students with technical or other specialised skills that qualify them for a specific job and stable employment.” As an example of a liberal arts graduate who has met with success he offers:  “Luke Wood [’91] graduated in 1991 from Wesleyan University, an American liberal arts college, where he had majored in American studies. Wood was able to turn his passion for music into an internship at Geffen Records, after which he signed artists for DreamWorks and Interscope.” Nardin traces Wood’s path further, concluding that “Wood’s success is another good reminder that ‘useless knowledge’ can not only turn out to be useful after all, but also that usefulness is in the eye of the beholder.”

5. Variety:Bloom/Spiegel Partnership Unveils Participants of Second Edition (EXCLUSIVE)

Ostin Fam ’17 (Dung Quoc Pham ’17) was selected as one of eight filmmakers for “the second edition of the Bloom/Spiegel Partnership, an alliance between New York’s IFP Marcie Bloom Fellowship in Film and Jerusalem’s prestigious Sam Spiegel Film School.” The article includes this background on the Wesleyan alumnus: “Born in Vietnam and based in New York, Fam graduated from Wesleyan University and received the Steven J. Ross Prize for his senior film thesis. Fam is currently finishing the screenplay of his first feature, Small Wars. Taking place in a rural village in Vietnam, the story is about a family of three.”

Executive Producer Selkow ’96 Directs Hip-Hop Docu-Series Rapture

At SXSW film and music festival, members of the creative team behind Rapture are Executive Producer Ben Selkow ’96, Director Marcus Clarke, Executive Producer Peter Bittenbender (of Mass Appeal), and Executive Producer Sacha Jenkins (of Mass Appeal). Rapture, a docu-series produced by Mass Appeal for Netflix is available now. Netflix describes the project as: “star[ing] directly into the bright light that hip-hop culture shines on the world…. Rapture dives into the artists’ lives with their families and friends, to sitting front row in the studio and grinding on tour, to experiencing the ecstatic power of moving the crowd.” (Photo Credit: Daniel Boczarski/Getty for Netflix)

Rapture, a new eight-part docu-series on hip-hop that premiered on Netflix March 30, features Ben Selkow ’96 as executive producer, showrunner, and one of the directors. It is art with an overarching purpose: “We hope to bring audiences and fans closer to the artists’ experience by sharing their biography and showing the perseverance, talent, and luck that helped each transform and transcend their situation,” says Selkow, a film studies and African American studies major while at Wesleyan, who previously directed Reza Aslan’s CNN series Believer. After returning from the SXSW film and music festival in Austin, Texas, where the team showcased several episodes of Rapture, Selkow discussed the project.

Connection: What drew you into this project and made it personally compelling?
Ben Selkow: Netflix wanted to collaborate on a new hip-hop project with Mass Appeal, an on-the-rise culture media and content company. A Netflix executive introduced me to Mass Appeal’s Sacha Jenkins and Peter Bittenbender, who needed an executive producer and showrunner. We got on really well from jump—and spent the next 18 months conceiving, refining, staffing, shooting, editing, finishing, and promoting Rapture.

I was drawn to it on many levels. I’ve been listening to hip-hop since my first Beastie Boy, Ice-T, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, and Public Enemy tapes—yes, tapes! And at Wesleyan, I continued my education in hip-hop with Javaid Khan (DJ Van Vader) ’96, Phil Jenkins (DJ Casual Phil) ’96, Jason Rosado ’96, and my man Jake Sussman ’96 making me mixtapes, as well as partying at [Malcolm] X house, while Matt Dickerson (DJ Denmark) ’95 was spinning. And then—beyond my love of the music, the culture, the politics, and its growing power of expression and American reporting—I really dug Sacha and Peter. Of course, the opportunity to work with Netflix and connect with audiences in 190-plus countries/117 million subscribers was a dream.

Connection: What was your role on the project and what were your biggest challenges?
Ben Selkow: As showrunner and one of the executive producers, I worked with all our specialists in each area, leading the charge—from conception to the talent casting, to the aesthetic look, to team staffing, to legal, to music supervision, to running everything with our amazing post-production team and doing the general crisis control. I also directed the episode with 2 Chainz.

Hip-hop artist Nas (left) and Executive Producer and Director Ben Selkow ’96 attend the Rapture Netflix Original Documentary Series, Special Screening at The Metrograph in New York City, on March 20. (Photo by Johnny Nunez/Getty Images for Netflix)  Wesleyan viewers will want to know that Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02 makes a cameo appearance in Rapture‘s Nas/Dave East episode, when the three are shown filming the video for the Hamilton mixtape song, “Wrote My Way Out.”

As for challenges, we had no proof of concept as this was Season 1, so the initial casting was the first challenge. We wanted a diverse group of artists and we were trying to compel the artists to entrust their stories with us. We were also making big asks for their time—not just an interview and some B-roll, but we wanted to do longitudinal, observational cinema, which makes for totally unique narratives. But we were able to earn a tremendous amount of trust with all the artists. Then the challenge was keeping up with their kinetic lives and building narratives. In the end, it was both a relief and incredibly exciting to watch the artists’ reactions once we screened their episodes with them. Sitting in a screening room with Nas, Just Blaze, or 2 Chainz and hearing that they loved it and thanked us…. Man, amazing feeling.

Connection: Why is this piece important? What do you think are the most important points you are bringing to the world?
Ben Selkow: By selecting a wide breadth of artists who range aesthetically, regionally, generationally, racially, and gender-wise—as well as including a super producer—Rapture paints the portrait of hip-hop as a diverse, complex, and wildly dynamic music universe. By offering an immersive view of the artists’ personal lives—beyond just seeing them as superstars—we are afforded the privilege of witnessing the artists’ humanness and mortality, as well as seeing what it is to live a life of an international celebrity.
We hope that Rapture illuminates some of the misconceptions about hip-hop and rap culture. For so long society at large has written off hip-hop as being only for gangsters, thugs, people who were morally corrupt. But through Rapture, we sought to depict the brilliance, passion, intelligence, artistry, dexterity, humanness, complexity, and perseverance that has made hip-hop and rap music the dominant global form.

We hope the series shows the featured artists at the top of their game for a reason, rising because of supreme artistry, hard work, a desire to change their situation: in summary, rising through the American dream.

Connection: Were there some best moment, breakthroughs, or epiphanies? What did you learn?
Ben Selkow: We had many, many incredible moments—from rocking with Nas at JazzFest in New Orleans backed by a 10-piece brass band in the Soul Rebels, to watching T.I. and Harry Belafonte intensely examine contemporary issues. But one moment that I just experienced speaks to the moments of resonance, the nuances and many gems throughout this whole series: During the screening of the Nas episode at the 1,100-seat Paramount Theatre at SXSW, T.I. was sitting with Dave East in the audience (I was one row behind them). They were really enjoying the episode, where director Sacha is highlighting Nas’s power in hip-hop—and she tells him that legendary Bronx rapper Big Pun’s grandson’s given name is Ether (“Ether” was a famous diss track Nas made in 2001). On screen, Nas is visibly taken aback at hearing this—as, I can see, are T.I. and Dave East, Nas’s protégés.

The next thing that happens in the film is we play a line from “Ether” to punctuate the point, that Nas’s influence is deep: “I am the truest, name a rapper that I ain’t influenced.” When this line plays, the audience spontaneously sings this line together—led most loudly by T.I. and Dave East.

At that moment, I realized: Doesn’t matter what the reviews say; true hip-hop is feeling this project. We did it—and, hopefully, get an opportunity to keep telling these stories. [See trailer below].

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Higgins in The Conversation: Letting Audiences Twist the Plot

Scott Higgins, the Charles W. Fries Professor of Film Studies, writes in The Conversation about a film innovation flop.

Scott Higgins, the Charles W. Fries Professor of Film Studies, writes in The Conversation about a film innovation flop.

Wesleyan faculty frequently publish articles based on their scholarship in The Conversation US, a nonprofit news organization with the tagline, “Academic rigor, journalistic flair.” Ahead of the 2018 Oscars ceremony that celebrates the best in film, The Conversation explores some of the worst film innovations of years past. Scott Higgins, director of the College of Film and the Moving Image, writes about Interfilm, a “choose your own adventure” theater technology that flopped in the early 1990s. Higgins is also the Charles W. Fries Professor of Film Studies, chair of Film Studies, and curator of the Wesleyan Cinema Archives. Read his bio on The Conversation.

Letting audiences twist the plot

Artists have long sought to erase the boundary between a film and its viewers, and Alejandro Iñárritu’s 2017 Oscar-winning virtual reality installation “Carne y Arena” has come close.

But the dream of putting audiences in the picture has fueled a number of film fiascoes, including an early 1990s debacle called Interfilm.

Basinger Speaks to Staff about Film Studies, Musicals

Jeanine Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, spoke on her latest work during a luncheon for staff, Nov. 28 in Daniel Family Commons. Basinger, who has been employed at Wesleyan for 58 years, recently completed her 12th book manuscript with a working title of Musicals: History and Definition. The book tells the history of the musical and defines the genre.

Jeanine Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, spoke on her latest work during the Staff Luncheon Series Nov. 28 in Daniel Family Commons. Basinger, who has been employed at Wesleyan for 58 years, recently completed her 12th book manuscript with a working title of “Musicals: History and Definition.” The book tells the history of the musical and defines the genre. Basinger, who’s collected film memorabilia her entire life, said film studies is a relatively new field of study. “Film was officially born in 1895, it wasn’t until the 1960s that it began to become an academic field. Wesleyan was one of the pioneers; we were one of the first universities (in the country) to add it to our curriculum.”

She Makes Comics: Award-Winning Film by Stotter ’13, Meaney ’07 Available on Netflix

When Patrick Meaney ’07 and Marisa Stotter ’13 wanted a logo for their award-winning documentary, She Makes Comics, they commissioned artist Courtney Wirth. “We wanted something that evoked Rosie the Riveter, which we loved and thought it would be both recognizable and resonate with our audience,” says Stotter. ”I have original hanging on my wall, and whenever I see that strong, confident pose it’s a wonderful boost, a surge of energy to my heart.”

She Makes Comics, a documentary directed by Marisa Stotter ’13, and produced by Patrick Meaney ’07 and Stotter, won Best Documentary at the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con International Film Festival, and was released on Netflix on Oct. 15.  Also available on iTunes and Amazon Prime, the film tells the story of the women—artists, writers, executives, as well as ardent fans—in the comic book industry. The documentary has played at film festivals around the world since its release in December 2014.

Both a thoroughly researched history—featuring luminaries such as Karen Green, the comic librarian at Columbia University, as well as women who wrote and drew comics in the 1950s and ’60s—and a lively story for a general-audience, She Makes Comics is a collaboration between two Wesleyan alumni, one a film major and one an English major—whose years as undergraduates had no overlap.

Zeitlin ’04, Janvey ’06, Quinn ’05 Produce Brimstone and Glory Documentary

The documentary Brimstone and Glory, captures a sense of both danger and exultation in the weeklong festival in Tultepec, Mexico, where pyrotechnics are the major industry. The film is produced by film studies alumni Benh Zeitlin ’04, Dan Janvey ’06, Kellen Quinn ’05 and others.

Brimstone and Glory is the feature-length documentary produced by Benh Zeitlin ’04, Dan Janvey ’06, Kellen Quinn ’05 and others, on the annual festival in Tultepec, Mexico, where pyrotechnics are the major industry. The weeklong celebration honors San Juan de Dios, patron saint of firework makers, and celebrates the artisans who dedicate themselves to pyrotechnics. Directed by Viktor Jakovleski, and edited by Affonso Gonçalves, the film is scored by Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer, the two who collaborated on the Beasts of the Southern Wild score.

Dubbed “Best Documentary Feature” at the San Francisco Film Festival, Brimstone and Glory opens in theaters this fall. In preparation, Quinn spoke about this collaboration in this Q&A:

Q: What was the genesis of this project?
A: Viktor, the director, was shown some photographs of the festival by an artist who had recently been there. He was amazed but completely baffled by the images of people “raving in the fire”, as he puts it. Sometime later, during a Berlin techno party, the crowds and sensory experience reminded him of one of the images. He recognized a connection between the collective effervescence of the techno scene that is a big part of his life and the ritualistic elements of what he had seen in those pictures of Tultepec. His initial idea was a short film, but after doing an exploratory first shoot, it became clear that there was something bigger and more ambitious to be made. Ultimately, the film shot over three consecutive festivals.

Q: And what brought you in?
A: In 2014 I was just beginning to move into producing and I was eager to work with friends. Dan Janvey told me about the project and it was immediately intriguing. Also, my mother grew up in Mexico and I spent a lot of time there as a child visiting my grandmother. I felt that working on a documentary in Mexico would offer a really meaningful way of reconnecting with the country.

Wesleyan Film Outreach Volunteers Teach Local Youth about Filmmaking

Luisa Bryan ’21 helps fourth-grader Justin and third-grader Franchesca film a short movie as part of a class taught by Wesleyan Film Outreach.

Sarah Lucente '21 works with MacDonough students Isaiah and Violet on how to operate the videocamera.

Sarah Lucente ’21 watches Isaiah direct a scene.

“Press this button and say, ‘Action!'” Sarah Lucente ’21 explains to third-grader Isaiah as he intently peers into a videocamera’s viewfinder. “Think about this scene. Think about doing a closeup.”

Isaiah is one of 10 area youth learning about filmmaking though Wesleyan Film Outreach, a program that provides school-aged children with the skills to write, film, direct and edit themselves.

The class is taught by Wesleyan students as part of the YMCA’s Kids’ Korner, an after-school enrichment program held at MacDonough Elementary School in Middletown.

Stephen Collins ’96, associate professor of film studies, teaches the community-engagement class for two hours every Tuesday with Film Outreach volunteers Lucente, Caris Yeoman ’21, Luisa Bryan ’21 and Nick Catrambone ’21.

Collins modeled the class after a pilot he ran in 2016 at MacDonough with his youngest daughter’s fourth grade class.

“Having two kids in the public school system, I see how starved they are for arts education,” Collins says.

Documentary by Magruder ’17, DuMont ’17 to be Screened Sept. 18 on Campus

While still undergraduates, Julie Magruder ’17 and Jackson DuMont ’17 began filming The Face of Kinship Care, a documentary highlighting the important role that familial, but non-parental, caregivers provide in the lives of children. The documentary will be will be shown at Wesleyan—as well as more widely—at 8 p.m., Monday, Sept. 18, at the Powell Family Cinema. September, notes Magruder, is Kinship Care Month in a number of states. Through her work on this film, Magruder has become an advocate for highlighting the importance of kinship caregivers in all states.

The project began more than a year ago, when Christine James-Brown, president of the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), requested a documentary on the topic. Through the W. T. Grant Foundation, DuMont was put in touch with James-Brown. DuMont knew of Magruder’s particular interest in nonfiction storytelling, and once the idea had been solidified, he reached out to collaborate.

Bay ’86 Honored with Prints in Cement at Theater in Hollywood

On May 23, Michael Bay ’86 added his hand- and footprints to the cement outside the iconic TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, signifying his status as a film icon. Bay’s 1995 debut film, Bad Boys, was only the first of Bay’s blockbusters, which include Armageddon and The Rock  as well as five “Transformers” movies, with an upcoming release of Transformers: The Last Knight slated for June 21.

A film major at Wesleyan whose senior project, My Brother Benjamin, won the Frank Capra prize for best film when he graduated, Bay recalled for Variety that it was at this theater, when he was seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark at age 15, that he decided he wanted to become a director. He had had a part-time job at filing storyboards for Raiders at Lucasfilm, and he had come to the conclusion that it would be terrible. But when he saw the movie, the transformation from concept to screen captured his imagination.

Bay’s excitement about film and talent for it were clear to Jeanine Basinger, Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies and founder and curator of the Wesleyan Cinema Archives, when he arrived on campus in 1982 and showed her some of his photographic work. She told Variety, “I was actually quite taken aback that it was the work of a high school kid because it was dynamic, had great compositions and angles, showed a real control and mastery, but the work had life and energy in it.” Basinger became his advisor.

At Wesleyan he also started collaborating with Brad Fuller ’87—now co-founder of Platinum Dunes with partners Bay and Andrew Form in 2001. With Platinum Dunes, Bay has been involved in producing a series smaller-budget hits, as well as television shows and an upcoming Amazon series, Jack Ryan.

Fuller recalled his college connection with Bay for Variety: “All I can tell you is I sat next to the right guy in film class,” he says. “I knew that guy was going to be successful; he just saw things in a way that other people didn’t.”

Basinger concurs. “Michael has consistently, over a long period of time, proved himself as a filmmaker who can get it done and whose films appeal so much they make huge amounts of money,” she told Variety. Bay added: “It’s a great industry, but it can be very cynical…So people need to remember it’s a really, really, really fun job. And I love, love, love doing it.”

Note: This weekend, Brad Fuller ’87 was on campus for Reunion/Commencement 2017 events and spoke at a WESeminar, “Wesleyan in Hollywood,” with Documentary Producer Sasha Alpert ’82; Creator/Executive Producer of Will & Grace, David Kohan ’86, P’17; and former Co-Chairman of Creative Artists Agency Rick Nicita ’67. Jeanine Basinger, who originated Wesleyan’s Film Studies Program, moderated the panel, which was held in the Goldsmith Family Cinema at the Center for Film Studies.

Junger ’84, Garcia ’99 Screen Their Work at the Tribeca Film Festival

This month, Sebastian Junger ’84 and Liz W. Garcia ’99 will each feature their films at the annual Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Founded in 2001 by Jane Rosenthal, Robert DeNiro and Craig Hatkoff, the Tribeca Film Festival attracts nearly half a million attendees.

Junger, a journalist, author and filmmaker, is co-director, with Nick Quested, of the film Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS, 

It follows an extended family’s attempt to flee their homeland in the face of violence and tragedy. Edited down to 99 minutes from an extensive 1,000 hours of footage, it also captures the combat of Kurdish fighters in Sinjar and Shia Militias in Iraq.

Hell on Earth is the latest product of Junger’s long-held interest in war journalism. He directed the award winning documentary Restrepo (2010), which documents US military personnel stationed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. This film would eventually become part of a trilogy that includes Korengal (2014) and The Last Patrol (2016).

Prior to his war journalism, Junger authored two notable works of nonfiction,The Perfect Storm, which was adapted into a film staring George Clooney, and A Death in Belmont. His writing and journalism has earned him a Magazine Award and a Peabody Award and has appeared in magazines such as Vanity Fair, Harpers and The New York Times Magazine.

Filmmaker Liz W. Garcia '99

Filmmaker Liz W. Garcia ’99

One Percent More Humid, which will also play at the festival, is director Liz W. Garcia’s second narrative film. It follows two college-age childhood friends, played by Juno Temple and Julia Garner, who return home from school for a New England summer. Although together they engage in typical summer mischief, the effects of their shared past traumas become increasingly pronounced. Yet as they attempt to process their traumas, a rift eventually arises in their old friendship.

Deborah Rudolph, assistant programmer at the festival, describes One Percent More Humid as “a sun-soaked, atmospheric coming-of-age tale of two young women looking to free themselves from distractions, to repair their friendship, and help each other reach the other side of grief.”

Previously, Garcia directed The Lifeguard, her directorial debut, which premiered in 2013 at the Sundance Film Festival. She was the co-creator of the 2010 TNT series Memphis Beat, and has written for television series like Wonderfalls, Cold Case, and Dawson’s Creek. Currently she is writing the final installment of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Festival literature calls her “one of the most prolific female voices working today in film and television.”

Draper ’12, Celestin ’13, Khandros ’13 Create Film Festival on Greek Island

The Syros International Film Festival was founded in 2013 by a team of four—including Nathaniel Draper ’12, Casandra Celestin ’13, and Aaron Kahndros ’13—and will run this year for five days in July.

The Syros International Film Festival was founded in 2013 by a team of four—including Nathaniel Draper ’12, Casandra Celestin ’13 and Aaron Kahndros ’13—and will run this year for five days in July.

How does one convert a shipyard into a cinema? “With a lot of gumption and very little sleep,” reports Nathaniel Draper ’12, the technical director of the Syros International Film Festival (SIFF).

For five days in July, Draper and his colleagues Cassandra Celestin ’13, Aaron Khandros ’13 and Jacob Moe will transform the small Greek island of Syros into a multifaceted cinema space.

Projectors hauled over three hours by boat from Athens will be erected on Syros’s docks, beaches and quarries to screen a variety of films, from art house to Hollywood. Musicians and filmmakers will gather for all-night multimedia performances and, with the help of participants, will construct musical instruments and perform. These are just a few of the unconventional features of the Syros International Film Festival.

Initiated in 2013 by Celestin and Khandros, the festival began as a DIY project financed out of pocket. But it has grown rapidly. Today, their sponsors—the Onassis Foundation, the US Embassy of Athens, Institut Français and Huffington Post Greece, among others—cover much of the expenses.

This year, the festival roster will explore the comedic and psychotic implications of its thematic idiom, “Cracking Up.” As such, it will feature a mix of cinema and expanded cinema that will, according to Draper, break open “the traditional confines of the projection experience.” One of the selections is a 1926 silent film by Japanese director Teinosuke Kinugasais A Page of Madness, which depicts the lives of patients in a insane asylum through an expressionistic style.

These alternative cinematic performances inspired Draper and his team to engage with the shadow puppetry of Indonesian gamelan performance, which Draper was first introduced to through Wesleyan’s world music program. They hope to feature the experimental musician Mike Cooper, performing alongside Gods of Bali, a film that documents Gamelan music and dance. With the assistance of an expert from nearby Cyprus, volunteers and participants will also learn to perform in a Gamelan ensemble built from from items gathered on Syros.

Quite literally a product of its environment, the SIFF has also had to contend with the Greek economic crisis–ironically, the opening night of the 2015 festival coincided with Greece’s vote for austerity.

The SIFF is not Draper’s first experience curating film: As an undergrad, he helped create the “Cinema Sorcery Front,” a club that ran independent film screenings for students. A film major, he fondly remembers Associate Professor of Film Studies Steve Collins ’96, who supported his work and pushed the boundaries of his classroom education.

Bronstein ’89, Selkow ’96 join Reza Aslan for CNN Documentary Series ‘Believer’

“We have to give a shout-out to Jeanine Basinger, who changed all of our lives with her incredible mind and teaching,” Bronstein adds. “Exactly—teaching the principles of story, the foundation of drama and cinema, which we were rigorous in trying to apply to the series.”—Selkow Adds Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies:  “I am really looking forward to seeing this show.  I’m very excited that two of my very best film students, Ben and Liz, are working together on this.  It’s a good example of the collaboration that all students who study film at Wesleyan learn.

Two film alumni, Liz Bronstein ’89 and Ben Selkow ’96 collaborated on the new CNN series, Believer. “We have to give a shout-out to Jeanine Basinger, who changed all of our lives with her incredible mind and teaching,” Bronstein notes.
Selkow concurs, adding “She taught us the principles of story, the foundation of drama and cinema, which we were rigorous in trying to apply to the series.”
For her part, Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies says she’s looking forward to the show. “I’m very excited that two of my very best film students, Ben and Liz, are working together on this. It’s a good example of the collaboration that all students who study film at Wesleyan learn.”

A new CNN original series, Believer with Reza Aslan, premieres Sunday, March 5, at 10 p.m. ET. Billed as a “spiritual adventure series,” in which Aslan, acclaimed author and religious scholar, will “immerse himself in the world’s most fascinating faith-based groups to experience life as a true believer.” The show employs the talents of two alumni who majored in film at Wesleyan: executive producer and show runner Liz Bronstein ’89 and director Ben Selkow ’96. Additionally, Professor of Religion Liza McAlister provided both academic scholarship and on-the-ground connections when the crew traveled to Haiti for the segment on Vodou, which will air as third in the series.

Bronstein joined the project soon after a close friend sold Believer to CNN. “He told me, ‘This is the show you were born to run—and he was right.” Growing up with a “spiritually curious mother” who’d often invite different gurus to their home—and with a sister who’d left to join what the family viewed as a cult—Bronstein welcomed this opportunity “to tell the stories that I’d always wanted to tell.”

She began searching for a nonfiction television director who was also a filmmaker. Selkow fit the bill, and, like Bronstein, came with a unique backstory: he had spent most of his youth living with his mother on a religious commune. Both envisioned the show as an immersive experience. The team formed a tight bond, which became crucial in what Selkow calls “dicey situations.”

In one of these (see the trailer), Aslan is seated on the sand next to a cannibalistic tribe member, whose gestures and mood turn threatening. Aslan calls Selkow over from off-camera for assistance.

“The adage in filmmaking is that when you stop rolling, that’s when the action gets good—so we kept rolling,” Selkow recalls. “And It’s amazing to watch the scene unfold, with Reza slowly realizing that he’s in a perhaps dangerous situation and figuring out how to handle it.”

The new CNN series, Believer with Reza Aslan takes viewers on an immersive tour with the noted scholar, with Liz Bronstein ’89 as executive producer and Ben Selkow ’96 as director.

The new CNN series, Believer with Reza Aslan takes viewers on an immersive tour with the noted scholar, with Liz Bronstein ’89 as executive producer and Ben Selkow ’96 as director. (Photo © Ben Selkow)

One of the biggest challenges in filming the show was gaining access to religious communities that were often closed off and wary of outsiders. Bronstein found that working with academic scholars who had done extensive field research often opened a lot of doors in local communities.

For the episode exploring Vodou in Haiti, she researched foremost scholars: “Everybody we talked to said, ‘Liza McAlister is the one.’”

In the episode, McAlister provides Aslan with both the historical and cultural perspective on Vodou. “But more than that, she acted as an incredible ambassador and helped us get access to people we wouldn’t have known,” said Bronstein.

“You could see her years of work in the community,” said Selkow. “She was deeply trusted—and Reza would mine her for as much info as he could off-camera.”

More than gaining access, integrating cultural knowledge, and immersing themselves in the experience, the filmmakers had a further challenge:

“How are we going to tell stories about religion in a way that’s visually and emotionally exciting?” asks Bronstein. “In hour-long episodes, how will Reza participate? Scenes of people praying and mediating don’t make for the best TV. So figuring out what Reza would be doing was paramount.”

The team worked with a thesis statement for each episode, often finding the dramatic structure through a conflict. “Most episodes look at a religion that’s under siege or at least highly misunderstood for a variety of reasons,” Selkow says.

Bronstein gives an example: “For Scientology, we asked, ‘Is this what a religious reformation looks like?’ We focus on people who have left the Church of Scientology but still believe that L. Ron Hubbard is their prophet. We compare it to the Protestant reformation. The true believers featured in the series feel like, ‘The church may be corrupt, but we’re taking back the religion and doing it our way.'”

Despite preparation, the team found surprises: “With our Wesleyan film background, Liz and I know that you go into each documentary super prepared—and the outline goes out the window the first day your feet hit the ground. We’d watch Reza starting every time with ‘All right; this is what I can expect to happen,’ and then there would be a great revelation and we’d watch him go through that—and it was extraordinary.”

While the show was filmed a year ago, the two agree that the series is even more relevant today. “It demonstrates compassion for others, domestically and globally,” says Selkow.

Bronstein concurs. “During the filming of each segment we had different people on the set look at the camera and finish this sentence: ‘I believe…’. I thought it might be a cool way to end each episode. It was just an experiment we thought we’d try and it ended up working pretty well. Now CNN is doing a campaign where users can send in their own ‘I believe’ videos. In these crazy times there’s so much need for tolerance and respect for others who don’t share your beliefs.”

The production crew of Believer joined Reza Aslan in Mexico for ceremonies celebrating Santa Muerte. (Photo © Ben Selkow)

The production crew of Believer joined Reza Aslan in Mexico for ceremonies honoring Santa Muerte. (Photo © Ben Selkow)