The NBCUniversal Short Film Festival tackles heavy issues through visual storytelling

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Dihn Thai (left) and Kevin David Lee of “Monday” speak to reporters during the NBC Universal Film Festival at Director’s Guild for America in Los Angeles on Oct. 24, 2018. Thai would later win Outstanding Director, and Lee Outstanding Actor. Ava Ciosek/The Occidental

The 13th Annual NBCUniversal Short Film Festival hosted its final screening and awards ceremony at the Directors Guild of America in North Hollywood Oct. 24. The event was free to the public and hosted by comedian and actor Zainab Johnson. It featured screenings of the six finalist shorts: “B.U.T.S.: Spanish Class,” “Kyenvu,” “Masks,” “Monday,” “Rani” and “We Know Where You Live.

The screenings were followed by an awards ceremony where celebrity presenters handed out awards in eight categories, including Outstanding Drama, Outstanding Comedy and the Audience Award, for which the audience voted on their favorite short film after the screenings. Winners were awarded prizes ranging from development meetings and NBCUniversal holding deals to cash grants and industry standard software and camera packages.

According to the press release, the NBCUniversal Short Film Festival was founded in 2006 and is the first and only film festival created and run by an entertainment studio that aims to discover diverse talent both in front of and behind the camera. The finalists this year addressed issues ranging from the violence surrounding the LGBTQ community to gentrification in Northeast Los Angeles. The festival set a record for female representation with four of the finalist shorts either written or directed by women.

According to the Senior Vice President of Programming Talent Development & Inclusion for NBC Entertainment and Universal Television Karen Horne, planning for the festival is a year-long process for NBCUniversal. This year, there were over 4,000 submissions and several rounds of screenings. There was a semifinal round of screenings in New York City with the 16 best films. The six best films from that screening were brought to Los Angeles for the final round.

Horne said she thinks the festival is important because filmmakers who participate in the competition are telling the stories that NBCUniversal should be telling as a broadcaster.

“We need to tell the stories that represent the people who are watching our films or our television shows. I think that we are becoming a nation that is more diverse than not diverse, and the importance of telling those stories is just immeasurable,” Horne said.

NBC executive, Karen Horn, speaks to reporters during the NBC Universal Film Festival at Director’s Guild for America in Los Angeles on Oct. 24, 2018. Ava Ciosek/The Occidental

In representing the stories of marginalized voices, Horne said she wants people to come away from the films with an understanding of the universality that is present in these narratives.

“Even if you don’t see you on screen, [the filmakers] are basically telling stories of all of us,” Horne said.

“Masks,” written and directed by Mahaliyah Ayla O, won the Outstanding Drama Award and Audience Award. The film is about a Persian girl in a closeted relationship who experiences a mass shooting while she is out at a nightclub with her girlfriend. Ayla O said she identifies as a lesbian and is also a survivor of a mass shooting that happened when she was 5 years old. The film was inspired by the shooting at Pulse nightclub in 2016 and the subsequent response in the LGBTQ+ community.

“I think that violence that the LGBTQ+ community has experienced historically comes with this other layer because if you’re not out and you’ve experienced this trauma, it’s another thing you have to hide,” Ayla O said.

Ayla O said even though she used her own experiences and reactions to help create the film, mass shootings affect everyone to some extent. Everyone hears about mass shootings on the news and in political debates, but she thinks that it is important to make political issues human through filmmaking so that personal lives are conceptualized beyond discourse.

“Even if you don’t have a direct experience with it, it’s something that you’re affected by,” Ayla O said. “People think twice before they go to a movie theater. They think twice before they go to a concert. It’s in our psyche as a society.”

Drama was not the only film genre used to tackle tough issues. According to the co-creator, writer and lead actor in “B.U.T.S.: Spanish Class,” Emma Ramos, the film series aimed to subvert stereotypes of Latina culture in the United States and the best way to do this was through comedy. She said that she used “Key and Peele” as inspiration because it is a comedy web series that addresses race relations and ethnic stereotypes.

Ramos said that after immigrating to the United States from Mexico, there was a lot of stigma surrounding the fact that English was not her first language. Through filmmaking, she wanted to turn this feeling of hurt into comedy and return power to the Spanish speaker.

“Nobody should be discouraged to produce their own content and connecting through what we have right now, which is digital media,” Ramos said.

When Ramos and B.U.T.S.’ co-creator Irene Lucio started posting videos, Ramos said that they went viral organically because people connected to the content and appreciated the humor behind it. For her, it was a big deal because as a Latina woman, she was able to create a show that represents her community while also being enjoyable and funny overall.

“For any women anywhere in the world that really thinks that this is a medium for white men, we have to do something about it,” Ramos said. “We have to get together and inspire each other to collaborate by writing things down, putting it on video and uploading it online. Let’s create this community and not ask permission to do what we want to do and say what we want to say.”

Honora Talbott and Bill Posley are the directors, writers and two of the actors behind “We Know Where You Live.” They said that comedy has the power to tackle complicated issues and tough topics. According to Talbott, “We Know Where You Live” is a comedy-thriller about a Mexican-American couple that moves to a house in Atwater Village. A white hipster couple, played by Talbott and Posley, befriends the Mexican-American couple to eventually sign a lease on their house. Talbott said the film addresses gentrification in Los Angeles and is also a take on the 2017 film “Get Out,” a thriller that critically examines interracial relationship tensions and racism’s visceral presence in the U.S.

“I’ve definitely seen the city go through so many changes, and we’ve lived in areas where we’ve seen changes over the years. We felt like we had an opportunity to comment on that in a way that’s comedic,” Posley said. “To take something as serious as gentrification and make palatable through comedy is what we wanted to do.”

Posley said that if a filmmaker comes at a film from a dramatic angle, it can come off as overbearing. He and Talbott wanted to have fun with the film and address gentrification comedically because it gives people an opportunity to look at an issue in a different way than they may have looked at it before.

“Like, ‘Uh-oh, I see myself in these villains we’re looking at,’ rather than saying someone is the ‘bad guy’ directly,” Talbott said. “Maybe all of us can have some of the ‘bad guy’ in us and start acknowledging that we need to fit into a neighborhood rather than change it.”