Birds to Bullets: MFA students screen films

by Jaclyn Diaz / Beacon Staff • September 13, 2012

Mfa thesis
Riff Raff follows a young jazz musician, Rafael Parissi as he attempts to gather enough cash to buy a train ticket to New York.
Courtesy of Jeremy Weiss
Riff Raff follows a young jazz musician, Rafael Parissi as he attempts to gather enough cash to buy a train ticket to New York.
Courtesy of Jeremy Weiss

The camera moves slowly across a man’s hairy leg, over his chest, and to his toes, immersed in soapy water. Smiling peacefully, he sips a brown liquid from a highball glass as classical music bounces off the bathroom tile. Reaching off-screen, the man grabs a gun puts it in his mouth and pulls the trigger.

The 3 Suicides of Paul Hamilton by Daniel Gerges was one of five films screened in Emerson College’s Bright Family Screening Room on Sunday night for the MFA Media Arts Thesis film screening. In addition to Gerges’ film, Riff Raf by Jeremy Weiss, Was by Danielle Zuckerman, The Safe Maker by Alex Peacher, and Bird by Bird: Birds of America by Elena Mead were also screened.

After the screenings, Peacher, Gerges, and Mead shared their thoughts on the filmmaking process through a Q - and - A with the audience. 

During the final step to receive their graduate degrees in media arts, the students found the final chapter was not an easy journey. They embarked on the strenuous process of filmmaking, writing, production, and editing.

“It was originally 45 minutes first cut,” said Peacher. “It was really tough to cut down with a three - act structure that I had for my story.”  

The Safe Maker, a 24-minute film, told the story of Fernando and Eric, who were once friends. The two meet again as Eric and his cronies, Jack and Dan, decide to rob Fernando’s safe - making business.  In a series of flashbacks, the audience learns that in high school, Eric stood aside as classmates beat his friend. Now an adult, Eric risks making the same mistake as Jack and Dan hold Fernando’s life in their hands during the heist.

Gerges had the same issue as Peacher with The 3 Suicides of Paul Hamilton. 

“It took me 10 rewrites. It started off as a full-length feature. I essentially had to chop out characters and details, ” said Gerges.

The 3 Suicides of Paul Hamilton deals with a protagonist who initially wakes up drunk on a bar counter with no recollection of how he got there. Stumbling into the cold night, the character returns to what he believes is his home. As he awakes in the morning, kissing his sleeping wife good-bye, he finds that she does not know who he is, and the person he claims to be died two weeks ago. 

With Mead’s documentary, Bird by Bird: Birds of America, the difficulty was getting the content to flow cohesively.

Bird by Bird: Birds of America follows Mead on her cross-country journey to find all 50 state birds. Mead spent a budgeted 24 hours in each state to find and film each bird by the end of the summer. From Connecticut to Alaska, Mead spent hours in the wild battling fowl feces and bug bites to get her desired shots.

“For me, it was getting all the birds to work together. I had to make the story move along as well. I had trouble writing this film. I had a lot of footage and trying to get everything to fit was very difficult,” said Mead.

The avian ambition was accomplished with the exception of Nevada and New Mexico because Mead failed to find those states’ birds.

Although the film is largely shot in natural settings, Mead wanted to avoid the look of a nature documentary. 

“I wanted to make the film more cinematic than nature photography,” said Mead.

Like Mead’s film, Was tells a story through documentary. The shortest of the five films at nine minutes long, Zuckerman shared her grandmother’s story of how the house she lived in was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The story was told through a series of personal photographs and home videos.

Filmed entirely in black and white, Riff Raf by Jeremy Weiss follows a young jazz musician, Rafael Parissi, as he attempts to gather enough cash to buy a train ticket to New York. As Parissi crosses a police officer in his attempt to perform on the street for a quick dollar, Parissi ends up on stage, fumbling his way through an orchestra performance after a case of mistaken identity lands him on stage.

The students explained that fellow students and crew helped tremendously along, an arduous journey from concept to script to big screen. 

“Collaboration with other students was a huge part [of the process]. Everyone would share their work with each other, and if something was wrong with it, everyone would tear it apart,” Peacher said. 

The constructive criticism provided Peacher with grounds to re-evaluate his initial work.

The filmmakers shared their plans to enter into a variety of film festivals as well as their continued hopes to create big - screen productions.

“Film festivals are the next step,” Peacher said, crossing his fingers.