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SOVA: Festival Connections

Creative technologies students cultivate innovation, premiere films at New Orleans Film Festival

Since 2016, creative technologies students have participated in the New Orleans Film Festival thanks to assistant professor Rachel Lin Weaver’s partnership as the program director of Cinema Reset. Last fall, a group of students also had an opportunity to debut one of their films in a world premiere.

Top row: David Franusich, Rachel Lin Weaver. Bottom row: Vasia Ampatzi, Tacie Jones, and Carter Eggleston. Weaver, an assistant professor in the creative technologies program, led the group of students and program alumni in their involvement with the New Orleans Film Festival last fall. Photo by Roderick La Foy.

Do ideas exist if they haven’t been shared or viewed or heard? What are films without an audience? Creation requires collaboration from both parties – the filmmaker and the viewer – to imagine and be present simultaneously.

These points are what students in the creative technologies program in the Virginia Tech School of Visual Arts (SOVA) have learned, especially through valuable, multifaceted experiences like those found at the New Orleans Film Festival (NOFF). The festival, founded in 1989, happens every October for a time of artistry, movement, culture, innovation, and experimentation.

SOVA students have been attending and participating in NOFF since 2016, in part thanks to SOVA assistant professor and creative technologies program chair Rachel Lin Weaver, as well as other SOVA faculty, such as Les Duffield and Nate King. Weaver works with NOFF as the program director of Cinema Reset, a curatorial effort that began around 10 years ago and aims to increase representation of and accessibility to emerging forms of cinema and technology.

Because of Weaver’s work with Cinema Reset and NOFF, students have the opportunity to bring the festival to life by arriving early and playing a hands-on role in the festival’s setup and operations. They’ve also had some of their own creations make their world premiere at the Oscar-qualifying venue.

“Cinema Reset showcases media art and extended reality projects and tries to curate the kind of work that we yearn to see but rarely find in exhibition contexts in the South,” explained Weaver.

Initially, the Cinema Reset program was a smaller effort that highlighted a handful of installation, projection, and virtual reality (VR) projects. However, NOFF has grown substantially over the years, and now the program facilitates a fleet of 20 360-degree VR  screening headsets as well as room-scale, gamified, and interactive VR projects. Cinema Reset also features media installations and large-scale projection projects, hosts a 40-seat microcinema, and in 2019 led a special screening program in a large theater.

While most film festivals traditionally showcase work that’s meant to be viewed in a theatrical context, through the Cinema Reset program, NOFF welcomes everything else. This approach allows a wider diversity of media projects to have a place at the festival. The Cinema Reset program’s primary goal is to host these emerging media projects so audiences can experience exciting new forms of storytelling and creative making.

In addition to the important role students play in Cinema Reset projects at the festival, NOFF also gives these aspiring Virginia Tech filmmakers an opportunity to debut their own work.

While at the 2019 NOFF, creative technologies master’s of fine arts student Vasia Ampatzi and program alumni David Franusich, Tacie Jones, and Carter Eggleston debuted a world premiere with their film “Displace.”

“Displace” filmmakers in a publicity photo used at the New Orleans Film Festival: (left to right) Carter Eggleston, Tacie Jones, David Franusich, and Vasia Ampatzi. Photo courtesy of David Franusich.

“’Displace’ was very well-received for its visual qualities, the performance of the artists, and the project’s gentle poetics,” said Weaver.

These students’ individual work is all very different, but their desire to work together inspired a unique collaboration. In just two days, they decided on an idea, a focus of place (the New River Valley), and the theme (overconsumption of plastic). After storyboarding a linear project, they decided the only thing left to do was to make it happen.

“Displace” follows four people, in separate shots, each dragging a heavy burlap sack along a trail in the New River Valley. Dressed in dark clothes of mourning and pulling a burdensome bag, the travelers look completely out of place in the luscious green valley. Once they arrive at the river, they empty the sack, full of single-use water bottles, and pour the water they contain back into the river in an offering of salvation.

“We were a little ambiguous about how we wanted the film to feel at first, but the tone of the piece came out through the making of it,” said Jones. “When we started dragging this 100-pound bag of water bottles and made a commitment to taking it from point A to point B, which was about three-quarters of a mile, it became very serious – instantly.”

NOFF audience members had the opportunity to experience and understand that commitment through the film, and the students also had a chance to learn from their surroundings.

“The festival was a great source of inspiration for me,” said Ampatzi. “It was very helpful to be exposed to so many good films because it made me set higher expectations for my work.”

Weaver hopes the festival is a place where students can learn and gather information that will help them achieve their wildest dreams. But if they can only take one thing away from the experience, she hopes students remember joy.

“I hope it’s a kind of pure, unashamed creative joy,” said Weaver about students’ experience. “I want to inspire our students to keep making, to believe in themselves and their ideas, especially in uncertain times. The New Orleans Film Festival is energized, and I want our students to return to that joy and cultivate it in their own lives and communities.”

– Written by Colie Touzel