"I really miss the joy and the emotional journey of sitting next to people watching a movie," said Azza Cohen. She, along with her five fellow first-year students in Stanford University's documentary film MFA program, will get a chance to share the short films they've made this spring at an in-person, outdoor event at Stanford's Frost Amphitheater on Thursday, June 10.
"Nothing left to do but marvel," Cohen's film, is an experimental, immersive project rooted in her personal experience dealing with chronic migraine headaches stemming from a concussion. She juxtaposes anonymous audio interviews with other migraine and chronic pain sufferers with soft-focus, blurry visuals to express how pain can distort one's worldview. Coming from a journalism background, she said this project was a chance to flex her creativity and push herself to try new ideas and techniques.
"It's amazing how many people relate to this topic," Cohen said. "It's been very interesting and very cathartic to connect with other people."
Maxwell Lee Mueller, too, wove his own life into his documentary, titled "The Key To It." His film starts out as the story of Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller, two long-married puppeteers, authors and theatermakers based in the North Bay. While he was originally drawn to the visual appeal of puppeteering, Mueller soon became intrigued by the couple's enduring bond, their spirituality, and their life and career together. Midway through the film, he incorporates conversations with his own partner, and the film becomes a parallel tale of two relationships.
"I find it really easy to assess what is interesting about other people, and making a film about someone else is sort of an act of love," he said. "It feels so hard to turn that same gaze on myself. It takes a leap of faith that what I'm putting out there is something other people might be interested in."
The experience under the microscope wasn't easy on his relationship, but has ultimately been rewarding, Mueller said.
"It's been really, really hard," he acknowledged with a laugh. "It's really hard to be objective about oneself as a subject, and it created a lot of difficult conversations with my partner. It brought us closer and allowed us to talk through challenges, but it was not an easy road and I'm not even done."
While the COVID-19 pandemic has presented many challenges for the students' first year at Stanford, they said it's been full of valuable moments for learning and growth.
"In the throes of our editing you sort of lose sight of this but, being forced to be creative and create films within an extraordinary set of limitations — not just the literal state and local lockdowns, but filmmaking requires being physically close in a time people felt very nervous — really forced us to be extremely creative and push our boundaries," Cohen said, noting that the very first week of their time in the program was also when "the sky turned orange," thanks to California's raging wildfires.
"I just say if we can make films in the pandemic we can deal with any other possible hurdles that Hollywood can throw at us," Cohen said.
Having a supportive program and tight-knit cohort has been especially essential this year.
While classes were held over Zoom and screenings over Vimeo, "The six of us in the first-year cohort all live on campus and see each other regularly," said Drew de Pinto, who's especially interested in telling stories about labor and community organizing, and queer and trans characters.
De Pinto's film, with the working title of "Fishbowl," follows the struggle of the Fishbowl Collective, a group of artists and housing advocates living in the historic Red Victorian Hotel on Haight Street in San Francisco.
"They started living and working in the Red Vic in the summer of 2020, taking care of the building and putting on drag shows in the storefront windows as a COVID-safe way to raise money to convert the building into affordable housing for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) queer and trans people," de Pinto said. "Since then, they've been fighting eviction by their landlords, and are still living in the hotel, although they have been locked out of the main room where they hosted the shows."
Other films on the slate include Connor Lee O'Keefe's "Imagine a Body," Alexandra Stergiou's "The Infinite Act" and Kyle Myers-Haugh's "The Yerba Buena Chess Club." A Q&A with the filmmakers follows the screening.
While they're thrilled for the chance to screen their films on campus in person, the student filmmakers are also appreciative for the wider reach and accessibility this year's virtual screenings have offered.
"One benefit of online screenings was that we were able to invite friends and family from all over the world," de Pinto said.
"I hope they keep doing that as well, that virtual screenings become normal. There's all sorts of film festivals all over the world and finally I can go to them," Mueller said. "My parents in Massachusetts could see our screenings and see the Q&A and that's really cool, too."
The June 10 in-person event, though, will be an especially exciting achievement for the cohort after a long year.
"There's an experience of electricity, when people can view your film and you can be in a group watching it, and it's an essential aspect of understanding your film," Mueller said. "It's hard to know what people's reactions are if you don't experience the feeling in a group when they're watching the film. I haven't done that in a long time."
The 2021 Spring MFA Documentary Film Screening starts at 8 p.m. on June 10, at Frost Amphitheater, 351 Lasuen St., Stanford. Admission is free but advance tickets are required, and social distancing and safety protocols are in effect. More information is available at live.stanford.edu.