Maya Montañez Smukler said student films are often at the forefront of experimental filmmaking – and they have been for decades.
As a tribute to both the history of student filmmaking and UCLA’s centennial anniversary, Smukler, the Archive Research and Study Center officer, curated the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s newest program, “40 Years of UCLA Student Filmmaking.” One hundred short films made between 1949-1989 are being screened at the Billy Wilder Theater through Dec. 15. Beginning from 1949, she said the films will cover a wide range of genres in order to present a holistic view of the decades, as well as admire the creative choices students make in their films.
“We really wanted to focus on their earliest films because there was something really special about the first film that a student makes in the film program, where they’re really experimenting and taking risks,” Smukler said.
Although some films may seem more polished than others, she said she wanted to choose a wide range of films in which students were experimenting with different cinematic elements including camera, form, editing or costumes. To Smukler, works such as Pierre Veck’s animated piece called “Man On Roof,” made in 1979, demonstrate experimentation with animation techniques.
Because students often dealt with budget constraints, Smukler said most of the films were shot on the UCLA campus or in the Los Angeles area. Many of the chosen projects can be seen as little historical studies of LA, as she said they were created locally over large spans of time. Audiences will be able to see this particularly in “Liquid Assets,” alumnus Ernest D. Rose’s film, focusing on the politics behind water use in the city. Rose said his story might have been released in 1951, but many of the highlighted issues still apply today.
“Even at that time we were dealing with shortages of energy and problems of pollution and water, and the issues back then there are even more exacerbated now,” Rose said.
Rose’s film is among other films in the program that highlight issues that are still relevant today, like J. Kristina Van Wagoner’s 1979 film “Little Wheels, Big Wheels.” The film focuses on the school bussing system and brings attention back to the racial conflicts that remain prevalent today, Smukler said.
Beyond the relevance of the curated slate of films, Smukler said the series also highlights how cinematic technology has evolved. She said this was another reason why she chose to present the films chronologically – so viewers are able to track the evolution as well.
Smukler said she wanted to take advantage of the ranging time periods to showcase how social and cinematic elements have changed. But in order to screen them now, Smukler said a significant amount of work had to be done in order to make these student productions compatible with current technology. This job fell on Randy Yantek, the digital lab manager of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, who had to boost the quality of the films, since age has faded many of the colors of the images.
“A lot of these films that we have in our collection were on what’s called Eastman stock, which fades horribly,” Yantek said. “You basically have to restore the film back to its original color, and we were successful on every single one of them.”
Many of the films of the ’50s and ’60s were hindered by poor audio and limited camera movement, while the filmmakers of the ’70s were dealing with poor quality and depth of field, Yantek said. Such technological developments will become very apparent to audiences as they move through the decades of student filmmaking, Yantek said.
But for Smukler, the event is also a chance to demonstrate the continued strength of UCLA’s filmmakers. Through the guidance of instructors and collaboration with peers, students are pushed to produce quality work, and it’s that work Smukler said she wants to pay homage to.
“We really wanted to showcase this moment,” Smukler said. “UCLA students had these amazing interests and were able to articulate them in film and video.”