Stop Motion, Dogs, and Betrayal: Highlights From the 2014 Teen Filmmaker Festival

Feb 21, 2014

A clip from Jonathan D'Ambrosio's "Far Beyond the Reservoir"

Each year as much of the entertainment world speculates on who will be taking home the Academy Awards, Kalamazoo audiences get ready for their own cinematic competition. 

The Kalamazoo Teen Filmmaker Festival is in its 11th year, and two dozen movies from filmmakers between the ages of 12 and 19 will be screened at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Kalamazoo State Theatre.

The program covers a variety of subjects and styles, and many of the entries score high for imagination, ingenuity and skillful production. Take, for instance, Jale Lamon's marvelously photographed Gull Lake Winter, in which summer fun on the water gives way to winter excitement on the ice. Crisply edited to the techno beats of Florence and the Machine's "Cosmic Love" and Modulation's "Groovy Movie," it's a stunner. 

The films can't be longer than 10 minutes, which may seem like a major handicap for anyone trying to make a documentary. Even so, a couple of these filmmakers manage to squeeze an impressive amount of information into a brief amount of time.

In The Home of Magic, Nathan Ginter offers a compact history of Colon, Michigan, from the time of Harry Blackstone Senior to the present-day Magic Festivals. Blackstone was a rival to Harry Houdini and he brought fellow magicians to Colon, which became a haven for practicers of prestidigitation.

Grittier subject matter is the focus of Emily Livermore's Mutts of Motown, which looks at the work of Daniel "Hush" Carlisle and his Detroit Dog Rescue, an organization dedicated to saving strays from the city streets.

Of course, it wouldn't be a teen filmmaker festival without a touch of teen angst. Madalyn Momano's apparently autobiographical Title Here may remind you of Clare Danes' My So-Called Life in its portrait of a self-described "disgustingly normal" 17-year-old realizes her life "is extremely lacking in defining moments" while trying to put together a college application essay. Momano is as witty as she is woebegone.

The festival has always had a surplus of clever animated films, and this year is no exception. Ryan Bare's The Robbery lays out a tale of crime and punishment using Lego figures and stop-motion animation.

Hand-drawn animation is the technique in Alexi Mitchell's Fireworks, which takes us around the world and into outer space in barely one minute, while Kaitlyn Ludeker uses elements of hand-drawn and stop-motion in Love Is Garbage, a film much sweeter than it sounds. Haley Labian tells re-intreprets the myth of Eros and Psyche through claymation, producing one of the program's loveliest and most endearing pieces. 

Admittedly, not every film is a knockout. There are a few ponderous shorts and a couple in which the filmmakers' ambition exceeded his or her ability to pull it off.

Some of them are unapologetically goofy, like Stephen Hull's Macho Banana, which could be a contemporary version of silent-film slapstick. Others take themselves much more seriously.

Jonathan D'Ambrosio, who won the best film prize last year for his Holocaust-inspired thriller The Whistle, returns with Far Beyond the Reservoir, which starts off as an Out of Africa-style period piece and takes a startling turn midway through. Let's just say Meryl Streep and Robert Redford never experienced anything quite like this.

Tickets to the Kalamazoo Teen Filmmaker Festival are free and will be distributed at the State Theatre box office beginning at 11 a.m. Sunday. As always, it's well worth attending.