Before Martin Scorsese made Mean Streets, there was It’s Not Just You, Murray! Before Robert Zemeckis took us Back to the Future, there was A Field of Honor. Even before Cronenberg hit the road screeching with Fast Company, he helmed 16 mm shorts with titles like From the Drain. Christopher Nolan, before he made Batman all dark and gritty or took us inside of people’s dreams of people who were dreaming of other people (or whatever Inception was about), made The Following (to say nothing of Doodlebug). And before Steven Spielberg captured our imaginations with 1941, there was Amblin’, a story of romance on the highways and byways of America itself. Student films all and launching pads for major filmmakers.
With 26 short and mid-length films screening over three nights at the Royal, the Ryerson University Film Festival (or RUFF, which is an excellent acronym, even in a post–Mase/DMX/The Lox world) is doubtless one of Toronto’s foremost showcases of student films. Besides being a kind of valedictory rite of passage for students graduating from the Ryerson School of Image Arts, RUFF also makes a point of offering a highly eclectic program. “We looked at it like making a mix tape,” explains Miranda Morris, a Ryerson student who helped program this year’s RUFF. “[We] tried to provide a variety of genres on each night. We were careful to place the comedies strategically among the dramas to provide comedic relief at the right moments.”
Morris notices a general trend towards dramas and towards stories rooted in the lives of these young filmmakers. Which makes sense. The old adage, after all, is write what you know. (Story goes that John Sayles’ directorial debut, Returns of the Secaucus 7, was built around the fact that he had access to a bunch of disenchanted 20-somethings and an old house for them to putt around in.) “We do see a lot of stories that are inspired from life. Either the writer’s family or his or her university experience,” Morris told us. “Often these stories are very strong because they come from somewhere honest.”
But RUFF 2011 isn’t all dorm kitchenette-sink realism and jokes about TAs. Ryerson students have become quite adept at turning out genre fare as well. (Just check out the team behind the recent contest-winning fake slasher trailer, Van Gore.) Take Josef Beeby’s The Space Between the Stars, a military sci-fi picture. Or Chris Penna’s The Gates of Rome, the story of a legionnaire surviving the collapse of the Roman Empire. And Madison Cawker’s Lady Bare Knuckles is a Regency-era period piece, of all things. There’s also a documentary, some experimental shorts, a film noir–inflected dramedy about a UFO sighting, and a comedy about a burrito. “Eclectic” would be the word, yes.
Still from Chris Penna’s The Gates of Rome. Courtesy of RUFF.
While some people like to use “student film” as pejorative—indicating amateurish production values, friends turning in hammy performances, etc.—doing so is especially dismissive nowadays. With the ongoing shifts in film formats and moves towards and away from independent financing options, student filmmaking provides a barometer for measuring changes in the broader climate of filmmaking.
Due to these films being self-financed (though the filmmakers have access to Ryerson’s equipment, and some receive grants or scholarships), most are shot on the higher-def affordable video formats, like the Red One digital camera (a recent favourite of Steven Soderbergh and not-so favourite of Werner Herzog). And, historically, Ryerson grads have gone on to make major imprints in Canadian cinema. Besides the school’s cowboy-hatted tin god, Bruce MacDonald, more recent Ryerson grads like Kazik Radwanski and Dan Montgomery have picked up Canada’s Top Ten nods from TIFF for Princess Margaret Blvd in 2008 and Out in that Deep Blue Sea in 2009.
With a varied program, a whack of films, and a proud tradition of quality, the 2011 Ryerson University Film Festival further cements the fest’s status as Toronto’s premiere outlet for student cinema. And who knows? Any one of these films could be the next Doodlebug!
RUFF 2011 takes over the Royal (608 College Street West) Thursday, May 12, to Saturday, May 14. Click here for more info.