Last step: Pitt students hold inaugural film festival


Students gathered in Frick Fine Arts auditorium to watch submissions to the first Pitt Film Festival. John Hamilton | Contributing Editor

Nick Freeman had until 5 p.m. Saturday to submit his film for the first Pitt Film Festival, a showcase of short Pitt student films. He submitted it two minutes before deadline to Jake Savitz, the festival’s organizer, who would hand Freeman the festival’s most popular picture award two days later.

Freeman, a sophomore political science major, started working on a script for his latest thriller in November 2016. After winning a camera rental in a raffle in January, he was motivated to assemble a crew –– actors from Carnegie Mellon University and Pitt and some production assistants from UPTV.

Shot on his free Canon C300, Freeman’s “Collusion” tells the story of Nick –– an RA –– and his resident, Connor. After Conner becomes involved with Nick’s girlfriend, Nick punches him and attempts to frame his resident by slicing his arm with a knife that he claimed belonged to Connor. Just as two unlikely heroes caught the incident on video, seeming to ruin Nick’s ruse, the film ended abruptly –– to applause from the shocked audience.

The audience’s reaction was what Savitz had been waiting for.

“When I make it, I see it every day. I can’t even tell what works and what doesn’t,” he said before the screening. “I’m excited to see how other people respond to it.”

Monday night, the 50 students and faculty gathered in the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium clearly responded well to Freedman’s film, awarding “Collusion” the most popular picture at the festival via a text-in vote after the films were projected.

The festival handed out another award for best picture, chosen by a panel of five judges. The award went to Samantha McCoy for her one-take dance film about a rape at a college party.

The festival showed 13 other short films –– ranging from the lighthearted “Perks of Being a Waffle,” a comedy about a human and a waffle that switch bodies, to the darker “Follow Me,” about a stalker-for-hire who snaps photos for his clients but gets into trouble with police because of his own obsession.

Savitz, a sophomore film studies major, started the festival to showcase student work in a more communal platform than Facebook or YouTube.

“It’s a chance for everyone to get together and see other films,” he said. “A formal premiere event –– in front of your peers on a screen –– is something people might not get to experience.”

Demetrius Wren, a visiting professor at Pitt teaching topics in feature films, said screenings like this are an important part of the filmmaking process because they allow filmmakers to gauge reactions.

“There is a process to making a movie. Unfortunately, in the internet world, the last process –– which is presenting it to an audience and seeing how they react –– is lost,” Wren said. “You can feel a room become breathless and you can feel where things don’t land.”

Wren and his fellow judges picked McCoy’s “I Don’t Know How it Started” –– which left the audience silent and received the biggest applause of the night when the audience caught their breath –– as the festival’s best picture.

The short film was shot in a single take in Schenley Plaza as a group of dancers enacted a rape at a college party. A voice narrated the story –– “They let it happen, even though I was drunk” –– as the camera floated around the dancers who grabbed the victim and moved her into vulnerable positions.

Wren and another judge, Aaron Henderson, studio arts assistant professor, said they looked for a film that demonstrated both technical skills and emotional intelligence.

“I was looking for something that had a person’s voice coming out of it,” Henderson said.

The first festival had submissions from Pitt filmmakers only –– but Savitz said he hopes the festival can grow into a Pittsburgh-wide student festival.

“A writer at CMU could have someone directing from Pitt, borrowing equipment from Duquesne while a person at Point Park is the cinematographer,” he said.