Are you a student moviemaker yearning to make your mark on the world? If so, then the Angelus Student Film Festival might be the perfect place to jump-start your moviemaking career. The festival, which will be held Sept. 13 at the Directors Guild of America Theater in Hollywood, honors future moviemakers as they create works that respect the dignity and complexity of the human condition. After 12 years honoring the inspiring works of student moviemakers, the 2008 festival has attracted an accomplished jury for their documentary competition. The jury includes such recognized industry figures as Sara Bernstein, HBO director of documentary programming; Michael Kaufman, VP of development and production for Al Roker Entertainment; moviemakers Doug Block and Hilla Medalia; HBO film editor Geof Bartz; and John Priddy, co-founder of producer/distributor Priddy Brothers.

MM spoke with Monika Moreno, director of the Angelus Student Film Festival, to discover more about this great opportunity for aspiring moviemakers.

Kyle Rupprecht (MM): You’ve been the Angelus Student Film Festival director since 1998. How did the festival initially get started?

Monika Moreno (MO): The festival began when a group of indie producers and leaders, (Mole-Richardson, David Buelow, etc) realized there was no venue or showcase available to encourage student filmmakers to create projects that had redemptive or “triumph of the human spirit” themes. It was the year film schools were churning out Tarantino wannabes and we wanted to encourage young filmmakers-on-the-verge to focus on “universal themes” that would apply to all cultures, all people, all faiths. That was critical, as film is a universal language that transcends differences and can bring people together.

MM: What criteria do you use for evaluating the film festival submissions?

MO: Specifically, we look for films that reflect “the dignity of the human person,” which can be interpreted a myriad of ways. That is the fun of Angelus! While our themes center around redemption, equality, triumph of the human spirit, tolerance, forgiveness, etc.—the unifying element seems to be “heart.” Whether a comedy or drama, a documentary or animation, an Angelus film tends to focus more on story than spectacle and must have superb production skills as well. We’ve had quirky Wes Anderson-style comedies win because the underlying theme was “overcoming isolation” and unconventional dramas and animation win for similar reasons. Our documentary winners must engage the audience on a personal level—one past winner just won the Peabody Award. Hilla Medalia’s To Die In Jerusalem began as an Angelus winner and was invested in by an Angelus sponsor. It was purchased by HBO, re-shot and just won the Peabody.

MM: The Angelus Student Film Festival is exclusive to undergraduate or graduate students at accredited film schools or universities. What do you think are the advantages of becoming involved with moviemaking at an early age?

MO: When Angelus began in 1996, the proliferation of quality hand-helds and laptop studios was virtually non-existent. The quality in recent years exceeds the past by enormous leaps and bounds—I attribute this to filmmakers becoming involved at an earlier age and the ability to have access to quality equipment at a fraction of the cost. It is tremendously exciting to see the quality improve. However, on the flip side, having access also means mediocrity proliferates too. But discovering the crème that rises to the top is the best part of the job.

MM: This year marks the 13th anniversary of the festival. What do you think the future holds for the Angelus Student Film Festival? Are any major changes in the works?

MO: We are always looking for ways to grow Angelus and this year we are excited to announce a significant boost to the Documentary category. For the first time, the Angelus Documentary Jury will assemble in New York City and will include jurors from HBO’s Director of Documentary Programming (Sara Bernstein), HBO Editor (Geoff Bartz), Emmy Award-winning documentarians Doug Block and Hilla Medalia and major players in production companies that focus on documentaries. We hope to be the go-to festival for young documentary filmmakers in the future. Eventually, we plan on expanding Angelus to include another day, perhaps seminars and workshops.

MM: What is your favorite aspect of the Angelus film festival?

MO: The Jury process in our festival is the most time consuming, yet ultimately the most rewarding. We insist on at least three judges viewing each film (because of divergent opinions) and there are three rounds. An Angelus entrant can be assured their film will be seen by industry professionals and judged accordingly. The evening of Angelus, held at the Directors Guild in Hollywood, September 13th, is free and open to the public (requires tickets) and it is quite gratifying to see the audience interact with the filmmakers. We deliberately create a very special evening for everyone.

MM: What’s the best piece of advice you have for burgeoning moviemakers?

MO: Focus on the story. All the flash and spectacle in the world is just that… flash and spectacle. We receive many films that have the package, but don’t deliver. Engage the heart, the audience always follows. Avoid clichés, trends and knock-offs. If it matters to you, it will matter to your audience.

MM: You’ve said that, “The Angelus Student Film Festival showcases films of high artistic caliber that also embody values such as equality, dignity, spirituality, tolerance and respect for diversity, peacemaking and hope.” Why do you think it’s important to emphasize films that project a positive message?

MO: While for the most part, Angelus films impart a “positive message,” quite often they just simply reflect the human condition, be it in the arena of war, injustice (in the home or elsewhere), spirituality or lack of understanding. We tend to award films that shed light to the condition and explore avenues of change or recourse. Maybe it’s an allegory, maybe just a personal story with heart. We believe it is important to showcase emerging talent—tomorrow’s filmmakers, just as much as it is to create the work itself. Everyone on staff has great passion for film, its transcendence and looks forward to discovering tomorrow’s household names.

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