Sixteen years ago, David Peck and Justin Slosky decided to showcase students’ films by creating the Ivy Film Festival (IFF). Then, the IFF’s keynote speakers were Oliver Stone and Henry Bean while Harvard Man was selected as the closing night’s screening. Now, the festival has grown to celebrate hundreds of student-made films as well as closed with films such as The Social Network, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Mean Girls and has led talks with speakers from the likes of Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster.
It seems like the Ivy Film Festival keeps delivering what the people want, and there’s nothing like the extensive student body behind the festival that keeps it running. Oakley Friedberg and Solveig Xia are the executive directors of the student-run IFF, a festival that boasts a team of 95 students from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. With a team that works year round while attending class, the festival’s directors spoke fondly of the work they have done to make this year of the best ones yet.
“I think the thing that makes me proudest is that this is run by students who have dedicated a considerable amount of time outside of their school and studies and other commitments,” said Xia, who praised all of the students’ hard work and care to detail. She commended their efforts, with Friedberg adding that students are met with a great deal of work considering “that a lot of what we do is held to a professional caliber a lot of times, with the event that we host and the people that we bring.” Friedberg continued, adding “The students who are working on all that stuff on top of their classes are incredibly dedicated to conceiving the most creative, intellectual, and sometimes political festival. It’s been a pleasure to learn from and work with such a big team.”
To say the two have a lot on their plate is an understatement. Seniors at Brown, the two work closely with the students on their staff to think of events, all the while they are in constant contact with production companies and agents in trying to conjure the best speakers and panel discussions possible. Most shockingly, they do it all themselves. They’re in touch with the festival’s founders but the two decide what to include and what to boot. “Since the festival has been founded in 2001, there’s been so many reiterations of directors and various people that directors had worked with in the industry—between studios, production companies, agencies—that we have a lot of informal advisors,” Friedberg said. The two make a list of people they would like to see at the festival and reach out to their contacts. “We conceive what would be the wisest, stimulating and exciting programming possibilities,” he continued, truly earning the “made by students” slogan.
That’s not to say it comes easy. It’s like how Xia confided, “It’s a one-year process of very much talking back and forth with different kinds of people and it’s definitely something that solidifies over time.”
But just how did this rich system of networks allow them to reach this year’s keynote speakers of Ezra Edelman, Barry Levinson, and M. Night Shyamalan? Better yet, considering the festival’s previous keynote speakers, ranging from the likes of Wes Craven, Lena Dunham and Robert De Niro, how did they come to include the three for this year’s festival?
“We wrote a letter to him and described what the IFF was about and described what our mission is and why we would like to have him come out and talk about the films and the work that he’s been doing, which resonates with a lot of these students,” Xia said of Levinson. “I think at the end of the day it’s catered towards what we believe students would be interested, and the audience.” For Shyamalan, she said it’s about the diversity he brings in his experience. “He has a different take on storytelling so we think this year we bring together filmmakers from different tastes, from different ways of looking at film and storytelling.”
However, the story behind Edelman is telling. “I think people were very struck by O.J.: Made in America and we think bringing in an up-and-coming director and writer to IFF is also something that’s very much in IFF history. For example, when we had Lena Dunham, that was before Girls had aired on HBO so even then we realized that there were students who recognized her work and realized she had a unique voice. So that’s what we’re trying to bring to Brown, to bring different voices from different perspectives.”
She concluded with her and Friedberg’s main goal for this year’s festival. “We wanted to make sure that we have people who have different perspectives and they all come from different generations and from different ethnic backgrounds. And that was one thing that we are representing, making sure that we have diversity in terms of race and ethnicity.”
This year’s IFF will feature a first not only for the festival but also student-run festivals: a VR film entitled Across the Line, as well as a number of VR arcades for attendees to interact with. In a time when everyone is looking for new modes of storytelling, VR seems to be the latest trend, and it shows no signs of stopping. As Friedberg said, VR is incredibly useful for going “beyond just watching the content. It’s creating discussions and bringing the conversation just a little bit further. So that is something that is really important for us.”
A Planned Parenthood sponsored film, Across the Line immerses viewers into an abortion clinic by using 360 video and computer images. The viewers immediately become the patient, from talking to a doctor in the exam room to walking through a crowd of protestors — all taken from real-life demonstrations across the country.
“I think with Across the Line in particular, the issue is at the center of so much division in the country so this is an opportunity for us to showcase a VR film which is part of our larger virtual reality initiative, to think creatively of what virtual reality is working, to bring together certain types of empathy gaps.”
“You’re no longer creating content that is 2D on a screen, you’re basically immersing yourself in an environment where you’re seeing a story through the eyes of someone else,” Xia added. “VR creates that experience for everyone…And on the storytelling side, we see that there are more and more filmmakers that are experimenting with the VR and there are festivals that are exploring what VR can do as well.”
The festival will feature Across the Line alongside its virtual reality arcade, allowing attendees to physically step into the shoes of other people and experience their everyday. The festival will have a “Storytelling in Virtual Reality” panel on Saturday that will feature content from Littlstar, NYT VR by The New York Times, Wevr, and Adam Blumenthal, the Virtual Reality Artist-in-Residence at Brown University who is in the midst of making an immersive documentary.
The Ivy Film Festival will take place from April 10 – 16 at Brown University, with satellite programming at other schools in the Ivy League and select institutions around the country and in Europe. All events are ticketed but free, and you can learn more about the festival and see the schedule at ivyfilmfestival.org.