25 Years of the Columbia University Film Festival

As many of you know, this year marked the 25th Anniversary of the Columbia University Film Festival. We decided to mark the occasion with a huge celebration at Alice Tully Hall. As Chair of the Film Program, I had the honor of being the host. It was an opportunity to reflect on our history and to talk about who we are and what we do. While I would have like to have had my opening speech videotaped for posterity, the folks at Alice Tully make such an endeavor way too expensive, so instead I decided to share the text of my opening remarks. I welcome your comments.

Opening Remarks at Alice Tully Hall, May 4th, 2012

Good evening…

If you’re wondering why I’m dressed like this, it’s because we run a very democratic institution and the student committee (I’m told) voted to have me dress this way. So, who am I to argue?

The fact that I am standing here as Chair of the Film Program as we celebrate this momentous occasion, is an accident of fate. I am simply a representative of the amazing faculty of the Film Program, a group of groundbreaking writers, director and producers who have truly dedicated themselves to mentoring the next generation of filmmakers. I don’t have time to mention you all by name, but let’s have a round of applause for the Columbia Film Faculty.

(At this point, I spent some time thanking a whole lot of people who made the event possible.)

I would now like to acknowledge four people without whom this festival would not exist…

The founder of the film festival, who produced the first of these events in 1987, which was a screening of four films and a panel discussion at Symphony Space… A former Chair of the Program and still an adjunct professor in producing… Richard Brick.

In later years, another former Chair took up the mantle and made the festival into an annual event that began to be seen one of the foremost student film showcases in the world… Professor Annette Insdorf.

The person who, as Chair, brought together what had become the Faculty Selects program with a renegade student run festival, and grew the festival to its current form… Our dear late Lewis Cole.

And finally, our festival director for the last 11 years, the person who made this annual event into the well organized and professional event that it is…. Lydia Cavallo.

Now let’s get down to business.

Tonight is all about Storytelling… and we do have a story to tell you. It’s a story of a film program that has gradually evolved from humble academic beginnings to become the foremost training ground for the next generation of visual storytellers. You’ll see this story unfold on the screen over the course of the evening, but here’s a little context…

We like telling people that “Film” at Columbia began in 1914. It was single course in film history that is thought to be the first film course taught in any academic institution anywhere in the world. Of course, no one has any evidence that the latter is true.

Over the next many years, it stayed mainly theoretical, with some documentary film production thrown in.

This all changed in the early 1980’s when Frank Daniel and Milos Forman came aboard as co-chairs of the film program. They brought with them a deep understanding of the power of visual storytelling, an ethos they carried with them from the Czech Film School. They also brought with them some of the shining lights of Czech cinema… teachers like Milena Jelinik & Vojtech Jasney, both of whom are with us tonight.

With limited resources available to them, the emphasis was on screenwriting. Columbia became known as the “writing school,” a reputation that stayed with us even as it eventually became mostly inaccurate.

But even as other aspects of filmmaking have taken over center stage, screenwriting remains at the heart of what we do at the school. That tradition continued under the tutelage of such great professors as Lewis Cole, Janet Roach, Walter Bernstein, Guy Gallo and of course all the way through to today’s screenwriting faculty.

In fact, it wasn’t long until directing made its way into the curriculum.

Joining us early on was Nick Proferes, who is still one of our great directing professors, along with such adjuncts and mentors as Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Mike Nichols, Alan Pakula, and Robert Benton.

It was at that point that Columbia students were creating enough work that the idea of a festival started to make sense. Directing slowly moved its way toward the center of the curriculum, where it sits to this day due to the amazing directing faculty we have assembled.

One other early emphasis that remains a central part of the program, and unique among film schools, is the focus on working with actors. Generally, student projects, let us just say, are not known for their stellar performances…. Under the guidance of Lenore Dekoven, that was never true of Columbia films, as you’ll see tonight. Lenore is also here with us tonight.

The final piece began to take shape in the early ’90s as a smattering of courses in producing, taught by Richard Brick, Buffalo Mike Hausman and others, slowly evolved into a full-fledged producing program, and again you’ll see the influence of that change as the evening goes on.

What emerged from all this transformation was a program unique among film schools… a completely integrated program, stressing the collaboration among writers, directors and producers. That’s a big part of our story.

But there’s more to it than that.

The art of storytelling goes back to the dawn of man. While the means of storytelling is constantly evolving, storytelling is the basic building block of all human communication, be it sitting around a campfire or creating a hit TV show.

It’s fundamental to politics, to advertising, to business, to religion and to art. Over the last century, it’s become clear that visual storytelling, specifically, has become one of the most powerful means of moving people…moving them to laugh, moving them to cry, moving them to act on their better instincts, or in the wrong hands, moving them to their worst.

We are currently going through an upheaval in the ways stories are told… one as significant as the invention of the motion picture more than 100 years ago.

Governments and corporations are spending literally billions of dollars in research trying to understand these changes and trying to harness them for their own purposes. It behooves us as a major educational institution to understand these changes and to bring the conversation back to the basic building block, which is storytelling.

We need to support the storytellers.

We need to learn from them as much as they learn from us.

We need to continue to evolve our program to encompass the way humanity is changing and our means of communication is changing.

As we move toward this future, I want you to know how much we at Columbia appreciate your support of what we do.

Your presence here tonight indicates that you share our conviction that what we do is essential.

Thank you for coming.

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