Navigating the Film Festival Maze

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Kira Bursky, Andrew Jenks, and Stephen at 2015 All American High School Film Festival

Free trips across the world?

Screening your films in NYC movie theaters?

Winning awards for your imagination?

It may seem that the answers to these questions are impossible unless you’re famous, experienced, and, well, older, but all of these are not only possible, but are waiting for you, the young filmmaker!

“There was this one film I made with my friend over the weekend. It was just a spontaneous idea and we were making it purely for the joy of making it. It was a mockumentary about a performance artist fighting against consumerism.

“I ended up entering that film into a lot of festivals even though it was just kind of this joke film between my friend and me. I didn’t expect it to get into any festivals, but I thought: Why not?

“A couple of weeks later, I found out that the film won Best 25 and Under Film at an upcoming film festival in Ireland called The Gstaad Film Festival. The festival was originally in Switzerland, but it had decided to tour to Ireland. I received a phone call from the head of the festival and he said that he wanted to pay for my trip to the event.

“I was completely blown away! Shocked! I just wasn’t expecting the film to go anywhere. I was speechless that the film that I had made one fun weekend (again, it was just a joke between me and my friend!) had now turned into this trip to Ireland. It made me realize that you never know what film festivals are looking for and what opportunities will present themselves when you just reach out and put your work out there.”

~ Abbey Sacks (nineteen years old)

Five young filmmakers and I recently attended the All American High School Film Festival and got together on October 9 during the weekend for a conversation roundtable.  The six filmmakers who participated in this forum attended AAHSFF one year ago in 2014 with films they had made in high school. October represents the start of the 2015-2016 film festival season and AAHSFF is one of the best venues for high school (and middle school) filmmakers.

This roundtable brings you the first-hand accounts of the unbelievable experiences of these young filmmakers.  The group included:

  • Kira Bursky (that’s me! – winner of AAHSFF‘s Overall Best Film 2014)
  • Stephen Boyer (winner of AAHSFF‘s Overall Best Film 2013)
  • Mida Chu (winner of AAHSFF‘s Best Drama and Best Score 2014)
  • Abbey Sacks
  • Iver Jensen
  • Kayla Briet

(left to right) Stephen Boyer, Kayla Breit, Mida Chu, Kira Bursky, Iver Jensen, Abby Sacks

(l to r) Stephen Boyer, Kayla Breit, Mida Chu, Kira Bursky, Iver Jensen, and Abbey Sacks

The Conversation Roundtable

The All American High School Film Festival Experience

It was such a magical learning experience. AAHSFF 2014 was the second film festival I’ve ever been to, and being in the city exploring, meeting friends, learning from all of the panels, the scale of it all was overwhelming but I left with this spark of inspiration and sureness in myself. Everyone’s so, so supportive.

Kayla Breit

Kira: I’ve run into Kayla at three different film festivals already: the White House Student Film Festival in Washington, DC; AAHSFF in NYC; and NFFTY in Seattle. For me, a big part about film festivals are the connections and friendships that I make and the excitement of knowing we’ll reunite at more festivals in the future. It’s been truly magical bumping into Kayla all over the U.S.! And this conversation alone is proof of the amazing friendships I made at AAHSFF. Remember: the friends you make at film festivals can become your future collaborators.

Iver: AAHSFF is an amazing arena for really young filmmakers to become passionate about film, get appreciated for what they do, and feel that they’re taken seriously. Also, I have to add that the location for the festival is amazing. The founders are super nice and the award ceremony is awe-inspiring for a young filmmaker who has never been to Cannes or Sundance or other big industry festivals.

Abbey: AAHSFF definitely supports young filmmakers by helping them feel important. Their work is displayed in an AMC movie theater in Manhattan, there is an extravagant award ceremony, as well as the red carpet. There are so many interesting films and I couldn’t believe that some of them were made by high schoolers.

Iver: I come from a small town in the north of Norway. The last year has been a continuous revelation to me. First, AAHSFF, and then, NFFTY. There are many awesome people who are as passionate about film as I am. And that’s truly the heart and core of festivals like this. You can show your work online but it will never be the same as showing it at a full screening in a cinema and meeting other people.

Stephen: I think a lot of young filmmakers find themselves sort of alone in their hometowns as the only one that makes movies at their age. The festival is a really great way to let people know that thye are not alone and that there’s this whole thriving community out there that’s just as excited about student filmmaking as you are.

Mida: The award show was the best part. It’s more like the drama it packs in, you know? The suspense you feel when you are like… omg omg omg… who is it……. And… DANG DANG DANG. It was fun!

Iver: The panel of judges are quite impressive. And, think about how a thirteen year old female filmmaker would feel about Kristen Stewart watching her film? That’s cool.

Inspiration to Enter Film Festivals!

Kira: On Big Little Filmmaker, I’ll be compiling and updating a massive list of film festivals that are geared towards young filmmakers. You may be pumped up about AAHSFF. If this is the case, be sure to enter AAHSFF’s 2016 festival! Middle school- and high school-made films are eligible. Before I knew much about film festivals, I was a bit timid to enter. I wasn’t sure if I was good enough. But then I quickly discovered that every film festival is looking for something different and that there is an audience out there for practically every film.

Abbey: Submit to everything you can. There are endless festivals on Filmfreeway and Withoutabox. A lot of them have youth or high school categories. You never know what a festival might be looking for, and it never hurts to try. There were so many times where I submitted all of my films into a festival expecting not to get in and then being completely surprised by the film they selected. If I had never taken the chance to submit in the first place, that never could have happened.

Kayla: I agree wholeheartedly to that feeling of self-doubt and nervousness. It’s hard to take a chance when your mind is feeding you thoughts like “I’m not good enough for a festival. I’ll wait until next year.” or “I couldn’t film this on a good camera.” But that doesn’t matter! If you don’t submit and reach out to share your story, who else will? Go for it!

Some festivals have submission fees, and it’s hard to afford a lot of those fees as a young filmmaker, but have no fear! It’s not so much about getting into a festival than it is about sharing your story with an audience. And you can find your audience anywhere – especially online.

Emily Diana Ruth is a lovely person and filmmaker who created INTERMIX as a way to bridge the gap between YouTube/Online filmmakers and the traditional film festival — to help create a platform for those with smaller audiences. It’s no longer the case that filmmakers who showcase their work online are less professional, and there are festivals like the All American and communities like Big Little Filmmaker who are reaching out to young filmmakers like you, so share away! It’s the story that counts. You never know which doors can open and who you can inspire.

Abbey: When I submit to festivals, I go to Filmfreeway and I try to find all of the free festivals. Then there are also the festivals that have categories specifically for high school or youth or student filmmakers, and I’ll just enter everything that I can even if I don’t think I have a chance getting in. I’ll always enter it especially if it’s free.

Kira: The Gstaadfilm Festival was free to enter and you ended up getting a free trip to Ireland. What I find even CRAZIER about this story is that you and I both were two of the twenty-four finalists in the world for a film festival in Alabama – and it gave us both a free trip! But it was the same weekend as the Gstaadfilm Festival. You got to choose which free trip you wanted. And both trips were from festivals that were free to enter.

Abbey: Yes, I did! It was a crazy feeling to have to choose between these two festivals happening in the same weekend. Both of them were willing to pay for my whole trip. The two projects that were accepted into the festivals were made in the same kind of way – a very spontaneous and free way of filmmaking. No script, no planning, no crew. Just me, my camera, and whoever was acting or dancing in front of the camera. Making things this way feels much more intimate and liberating. I don’t need to explain myself to anyone. I can experiment and play around, never knowing where the project will go. That’s what I find so exciting about filmmaking. When I’m making stuff, I’m never thinking, “Oh, I’m gonna make this to enter into a festival”. I’m making the film more for the pure joy that the creative process brings to me. When I’m making these short projects, that’s when I feel the most free.

Kira: There ya have it, young filmmaker folks. You can get a free trip overseas, win an award, and adventure into the world as a high schooler by making a film over the weekend! I hope this inspires you. I’m inspired!


Stephen: Focus on telling stories that are important to you. That being said, get people to work on your film that are smarter and more experienced than you and listen to what they have to say.

Iver: Amen, Stephen. Work with the best people possible, people who are better than you at what they do, and put yourself into the film. It doesn’t have to be a true story or true event from your life or anything, but find something in your heart and soul and life that you can put into the film.  It may be a feeling, a moment, a person, or a whole story. It will be so much more real and authentic, and I think that you, the people you work with, and the audience will connect much more with it that way. And lastly, stay true to yourself. Always.

Mida: To know what you are really doing, not in terms of the craftsmanship of your art, but in terms of your relationship to all the people around you that your project is affecting. Because at some point you might hurt people — people that help you, people that care about you. Sometimes it is at a cost of your personal life to pursue what is artistically important to you. So it is very important to know what you are really doing, and the consequences of it.

Kayla: Just do it.

Abbey: Just go out and make stuff. Whatever you’re interested in, even if it’s just a random idea that pops into your head. There’s no such thing as not being qualified enough to make the things you want to make. And there’s no right or wrong way to make a film. As long as you feel good while you’re making it, that’s all that should matter.

Kira: I second everything. But on top of that: know that there is an audience out there for everything! There truly is. And know that there are people who want to support you and help you achieve your dreams. If you’re struggling where to find that support, well, you’ve come to the right place. Big Little Filmmaker! We’re here for you.

Kira Bursky

The Interviewer

About Kira

Kira Bursky, the founder of Big Little Filmmaker, is a nineteen year old filmmaker who has been pursuing her dreams for the past six years. A graduate of the Interlochen Academy of the Arts where she was a student of the school’s filmmaking program, Kira was a 2014 National YoungArts Finalist as well as a Presidential Scholar in the Arts Semi-Finalist and received the top prize for Best Overall Film at the 2014 All American High School Film Festival for We’re Okay.

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