MILLBURN, NJ - Millburn High School was aglow with camera flashes and moving spotlights this week at the Red Carpet Premiere of the First Annual Millburn Film Festival, presented by the Education Foundation of Millburn-Short Hills.
Students, teachers, community members and industry professionals donned their finest threads and packed into the auditorium to view the eight student films selected for the festival. Glitz and glam could be found in every corner, from the red carpet photos being taken by a professional photographer, to the concession stands selling popcorn and t-shirts.
Though the focus of the evening was on the films created by Millburn middle and high school students, the auditorium was abuzz with excitement to hear the guest speaker for the evening, Jon Kilik.
Having graduated from Millburn High School in 1974, the Academy Award-nominated producer of The Hunger Games returned to speak at a student assembly regarding his experience in the film industry, and to introduce the winning films for the evening. Kilik has produced 37 films throughout his 32-year career, including such notable films as Biutiful, W., The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Babel, Inside Man, Alexander, Pollock, Pleasantville, A Bronx Tale, Malcolm X, and Do the Right Thing.
“I am proud that Millburn High School is part of my history,” Kilik stated in his introduction. “I am grateful for the opportunity to come back and speak, and to share my experiences, because that’s exactly what got me started in this industry.”
Millburn High School offers English electives in Mass Media and Communications, as well as Digital Video production courses with intermediate and advanced levels. “It’s so amazing how you can now experiment with filmmaking as an art form, the way you used to only be able to with music, writing and painting,” Kilik said, acknowledging that these classes were not available to him back when he was a student.
Several additional industry professionals were in the audience as well, having been asked to judge and select the films to be shown that evening. The judges included Emily Bauer, actress and owner of the acclaimed performing arts school Acting with Emily; Stephen Whitty, entertainment writer for The Star Ledger; stage, film and television actors Stephen Zinnato and Brian Sullivan; and Dr. Christine Burton, assistant superintendent of Millburn public schools.
With three films in the festival, Millburn High School junior Jake Oleson was the big winner of the evening. An avid filmmaker who enjoys creating narratives, experimental films, documentary shorts and music videos, Jake earned the highest scores in the festival with his films “Look Up” and “Julie-O.”
“Look Up,” an adventurous and beautifully shot music video about a young boy’s unwavering dreams to fly, earned the highest overall score for the evening. Inspired by Bon Iver’s song “Wash,” Jake Oleson and fellow student Amanda Prager wrote, produced and directed the film together. “Co-directing was so different, but we got along extremely well,” Amanda said of the experience. “We both wanted to make this a film about dreams and empowerment, and I think we succeeded.”
Amanda Prager’s film “Human,” which she wrote, directed, and edited, also won for having the best overall production value. This narrative drama centers on a judgmental, insecure girl who learns not to judge her self or others so harshly. As a young female filmmaker, Amanda seeks to challenge and overcome the barriers of being in a male-dominated industry. “It’s very unusual—I’ve noticed, at other film festivals, that a lot of men in the industry are always looking for someone else when they meet me—as if I was there for my boyfriend or something!” Undeterred, Amanda plans to continue going to festivals in an effort to connect with audiences and join the ranks of fearless female filmmakers.
The next highest score in the festival went to Jake Oleson and fellow student Will Politan for “Julie-O,” a music video featuring the amazingly talented Millburn High School cellist Brandon Cho. “We wanted to contrast classical music with grit,” explained Jake Oleson, describing the films’ aesthetics of a single, well-dressed cellist playing amongst concrete rubble and graffiti. “Julie-O” won first place in the High School Open Category at the 2011 WHYY Youth Media Awards in Philadelphia, and will be screened this summer at the Princeton Student Film Festival and the Artist Visions Festival in Lambertville.
Jake Oleson’s final film in the festival, “Talk to Me,” was awarded for its performances and storyline. Parents were encouraged to take young audience members outside the auditorium for its premiere, as the premise of this courageous and insightful film dealt with the sad consequences of suicide and missed opportunities to change someone’s life. Written by Jake Oleson and fellow student Tara Anglade, the film stars Millburn students Ashley McLeroy, Eric Shepard, and Evan Wolf.
“Skyping Ben,” a thought provoking drama about a little girl who Skypes with her older brother in Iraq, was also awarded for its original script and scoring. As a screenwriter heavily influenced by Christopher Nolan, Millburn High School Senior Matthew Taylor wrote the script based on a prompt from a college essay for Chapman University, where he was recently accepted into the undergraduate screenwriting program. The prompt read, “A person comes home to find an uninvited guest.” While Matthew wrote, produced and directed the film (which featured an affecting performance by his younger sister Megan), fellow student Avishek Pramanik composed its haunting, original piano score.
“Dear Savannah,” a drama written, directed, and edited by Millburn Middle School student Shannon Peng, was also awarded for its performances and storyline. Starring Jessie Finkelstein and Elaine Zhou, “Dear Savannah” is a story told through letters, highlighting the power of music and the insecurities inside us all. The script’s high level of sophistication and exceptional camerawork proved that these middle school students would be forces to reckon with should they decide to join the film industry in the future.
“In Plain Sight” also featured an affecting storyline and unique cinematography, where backwards footage was used to reveal a young brother and sister to be homeless. Written, produced and directed by Millburn students Tyler Corsello and Max Retik, this was the first film festival either student has ever entered.
Last but certainly not least, “Not Again” won best comedy for its portrayal of a young boy in search of his missing hat. Written, directed and edited by Millburn student Ethan Muhlon, “Not Again” featured hilarious family performances by Ethan’s younger sister, Ahna, and his younger brother, Owen, plus bonus behind-the-scenes footage of a goofy Owen on set.
At the end of each film, Kilik got out of his seat to personally congratulate each student filmmaker. He commended them for their courage, ingenuity, sophisticated storytelling, camerawork, originality, and their ability to reflect upon society and the direction that it’s headed. “I’ve seen the future of American new wave filmmaking, and its here in Millburn, NJ!” Kilik exclaimed as he wrapped up the events for the evening.
Each film featured in last night’s festival will receive an encore performance next Wednesday, April 18, at the Millburn Clearview Cinema, starting at 10 a.m.