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When You Tell People You Ran A Film Festival It Sounds Cool
In my sophomore year of college I had the opportunity to work on a film festival that drew student filmmakers from all over upstate New York. In addition to being an unparalleled experience in the world of student films, it also taught me two things: first, that a good extracurricular is what you make of it, and second, that the Ivy League is not always the best at everything.
That’s part of what was interesting about this film festival – its abhorrence of elitism. We could have accepted submissions from New York City and substantially increased both the quantity and quality of the productions, but the aim of the film festival was to show that art could exist in New York state, not just in the city.
We especially wanted to focus on helping college students in upstate New York schools define and express their creative vision in a competitive and expository atmosphere. We purposely didn’t accept films from NYC schools like Columbia and NYU, because we wanted to showcase the artistic vision of more geographically isolated schools.
This also means that Cornell, where I go to school, was the only Ivy in the mix – and none of our films even made it to the final round. It was a humbling lesson in the different things different kinds of schools have to offer – the small liberal arts college Cornell shares Ithaca with is often the subject of ridicule from Cornell students – but they outperformed us in every aspect of this festival.
The film festival was only in its third year when I worked on it, so needless to say it was quite small. However, it was also one of the biggest (not the best, though) learning experiences of my life.
It was almost completely student-run (although I think, for good reason, more faculty direction was incorporated the year after I left). There was a lot of stress and the kind of tedious mismanagement issues that you’d imagine arising from a student-run film festival.
What it looked like to me was students trying to find themselves and accumulate marketable experiences. This applies to both the filmmakers who submitted films and the students – mainly Performing and Media Arts students – who orchestrated the festival.
We basically manifested an extracurricular activity out of thin air and the vague fabric of our related interests. We were film students. There were other film students at other colleges. Central New York can feel like an academically and artistically isolated place. What could we do to provide an avenue for the experience and expression of ourselves and others?
Some extracurriculars are much more organized than that, of course. Running the film festival was more comparable to taking part in a really dedicated intramural sport than, for example, a project team.
At the end of the day, though, extracurriculars offer you outside experiences in areas of interest to you, preparing you for one future or maybe helping you get your feet wet in another one. Or maybe you just engage in the activity to have fun.
Either way, there are a lot of benefits to an extracurricular like that film festival, but there were also a lot of drawbacks. Unlike a curriculum, which, as much as you’d like to believe is student-directed, is still bordered and sanctioned by university mandates, an extracurricular is almost fully student-directed. It exists because students have interest in it, whereas a field like biology exists both because of interests and because it is necessary for modern society.
So it can be hard to make sure everyone is on the same page, because everyone wants to utilize their extracurricular opportunity for a different end. Everyone wants something unique out of the experience. This is what brings them to the collaboration in the first place, but it can also make collaboration hard.
Despite the hardship, though, it was a really valuable opportunity for me, and most people involved felt the same way. The eventual festival felt very “legit” and I was proud that we’d pulled it all together and were able to give out prizes to some of the most creative people I’ve ever met.
But when people say that the college experience is what you make of it, sometimes you can really take that literally. We created that film festival basically from scratch, and it couldn’t be anything other than what we made of it.
This means that it might not have enjoyed the professional caliber of a more academic endeavor, but then again, an extracurricular isn’t always going to fill that niche in the college experience. There’s a lot more leeway in terms of what extracurricular actually looks like as opposed to what “being a premed” looks like. This can be great, or it can be frustrating, but most of all, it tends to defy expectations in both good and bad ways – like most of the college experience.
No matter where you end up, though, there will be opportunities for you to do fun, offbeat things that end up shaping your experiences and teaching you valuable lessons and subverting your preconceived notions (which can be fun).
The Grand Prize
Speaking of defying expectations – even though I attend an Ivy League school, none of the films submitted by Cornell students even made it into the final “competition” (rather than “exposition”) day of the festival.
Their cinematography especially was unequivocally more beautiful, and their editing was seamless. Whether they just had better software, better curricula, or a more nurturing artistic environment, Ithaca College films outperformed Cornell films on almost every major dimension of film art.
The bulk of the films that made the cut to be included in competition were from schools throughout upstate New York and, with incredible frequency, the other college located in Ithaca, New York.
I must confess I had a really – unintentionally – uninformed perception of Ithaca College when I first came to Cornell. I didn’t know much about the college, but the passing thought I gave to it was something like, “Wow, it must suck to have to share a college town with an Ivy League school. I bet they hardly get any recognition.”
I cringe any time I think of those words, which I uttered subconsciously as a freshman in college. I can chalk it up to naivete, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable. It was definitely something I heard other Cornell students say; I just assumed Ithaca College was objectively “worse” because everyone acted like it was.
But I was dead wrong; they have one of the best film programs in the country, a fact I hadn’t even bothered to wonder about. I, along with my peers, was perpetuating a problem that plagues college students and applicants alike.
Because I wasn’t saying that I thought Cornell was better than Ithaca College – I had no way of knowing. But I was conscious of the fact that Cornell might be perceived as the “best” college in Ithaca because it is, in fact, an Ivy League school.
I gradually began to learn, though, that this was almost the opposite of true. Ithaca College is the bomb. It is a beautiful, liberal-artsy school with a nationally recognized film program. It dominated our film festival selections, and I was pleasantly surprised.
But it also illuminated for me some of the assumptions I’ve carried with me, implicitly, throughout the college experience, from application to admission.
Assumptions that schools are necessarily competing for the same niche rather than occupying unique ones. Assumptions that a school’s reputation is set in stone and means the same thing to everyone. Assumptions that such assumptions themselves can tell me all I need to know about what a school has to offer.
In reality, the college selection process opens up a treasure trove of hidden gems. I love Cornell, but I sort of wish I’d known more about Ithaca College when I was applying to schools, too. Who knows, maybe I would have won a film festival and be writing about that instead.
But then again, it was going to school at Cornell that afforded me the opportunity to write this blog post. There’s a lot of second-guessing that goes on when it comes to issues surrounding college. I don’t think people should second-guess their decisions, because every opportunity is special in its own way. Realizing this, though, did require second-guessing my assumptions.
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