Back in November, the fourth annual Blackmagic Collective Film Festival (BMCFF) took place at the Laemmle NoHo 7 Theater in Los Angeles, California. Hosted by the LA-based non-profit Blackmagic Collective, the event showcased nine original short films selected as finalists following a year-round submission process. Spanning a variety of genres, tones, and styles, the evening was a beautiful celebration of independent filmmaking and the support that makes it possible.
The following afternoon, Blackmagic Collective hosted an awards dinner, in which a selection of films were honoured for their achievements in directing, acting, cinematography, screenwriting, and more. The festival’s top prize, the Grand Jury Award, was given to Jared Januschka’s They See You, a stirring supernatural suspense thriller. Other films awarded include Half (Audience Choice Award, Best Actress), A Smaller Big Bang (Best Direction, Best Cinematography), and Taliban Flower (Best Actor, Best Screenplay).
Following the screening and ceremony, That Shelf sat down with the winners to talk about the festival’s unique focus on filmmakers, the challenges they faced during production, and the advice they would give to emerging filmmakers. The following are excerpts from the conversations, edited for length and clarity.
Congratulations to everyone on their respective wins at the festival. How does it feel to be recognized for your work?
Jared Januschka (Grand Jury Award, They See You): I was fortunate to win second place at last year’s festival with another movie, so winning the Grand Jury this year was really nice. I’m about ten years deep [into being an independent filmmaker] and winning the camera has allowed me to actually start shooting and messing around. I’m buying all the little accoutrement for the camera right now to build it out and be able to start practicing with it. It’s nice just being a little bit closer to the art in that way.
Jacob Roberts (Audience Choice Award, Half): It was a last-minute surprise. We actually became finalists through our participation in the Austin Film Festival, which partnered with Blackmagic Collective. We were thrilled to get into Austin, and then we learned that we had won an award that got us a spot at BMCFF. I’m just thrilled to have been honoured in Austin and then to have had such a fantastic time being a part of BMCFF as well.
Jeff Perreca (Best Direction, A Smaller Big Bang): It’s very humbling to win something like Best Direction, but I think [the award is] a reflection of the team that I was fortunate to work with. The film wouldn’t have been what it was if it wasn’t for Russell; if it wasn’t for Amber [Romero], who was our stunt coordinator; if it wasn’t for the commitment from [stars] John [L. Curtis] and Djaka [Souaré] to show up three times to practice the fight scene so we could storyboard it. It was a lot of commitment by a lot of people––names I haven’t even included––that made it what it was. Yes, you need someone at the top to make sure everyone is moving in the right direction, but my job as a director is to put people in the position to best utilize their talents so that they’re able to be as creative as possible.
Akmal Rakhimov (Best Actor, Taliban Flower): It’s good to be recognized, especially after moving to America and not speaking the language and not having any idea of the industry. It’s great to be seen as an actor and see that your work is being rewarded.
Annabel O’Hagan (Best Actress, Half): I think the award felt extra special because this was a project that was so much fun to work on. Jacob and I have been friends for a long time and have worked together as actors before. We made [Half] during a time when I was really struggling with auditions and feeling really in my head. This was the project that got me out of my head. To see people at BMCFF enjoy my work felt extra special because I was feeling confident and enjoying my work.
Russell Kawaguchi (Best Cinematography, A Smaller Big Bang): Getting into BMCFF, or into any festival really, with the film is rewarding in and of itself, let alone being nominated and winning anything. With short films, it’s such a narrow audience, so being able to show it to anyone wider than the crew and cast and friends and family is always a great opportunity. Like Jeff said, there’s no way that any of this happens unless everyone does their role to a T and shows off their talents in their own departments.
Sofia Ayerdi (Best Screenplay, Taliban Flower): This award means a lot to me. It’s one of the first awards I’ve received as a filmmaker, so it really helps me conceptualize that I’m heading somewhere. Being a filmmaker can be very difficult, so getting that appreciation from an institution like BMC really means a lot to me.
This is a very filmmaker-focused festival. Not only are all of the profits from the event split between the filmmakers, but the prizes you each won are resources that can be directly utilized for your next projects. Can you each speak to the importance of having festivals like BMCFF that directly provide tools for you to go out and continue making films?
Januschka: It’s really wonderful applying for a prestigious film festival and having those accolades, but what makes BMCFF so wonderful and unique is you’re actually getting things that are going to help you make your next movie. I’m pretty excited, not only for the camera but to now have DaVinci Resolve, both the editing program and the studio. I usually cut in Premiere, but I’m excited to jump into their system and play around with it. I think it’s making art more accessible, which is pretty exciting in itself.
Roberts: There are a lot of barriers to entry if you want to make stuff. I think that a lot of those barriers can be stripped away when we understand that we can make something just as high quality with fewer resources if we get out of our heads about everything needing to be perfect. To have a festival where one award is a camera––that’s something that we can actually use. That’s all I need to make something, is a camera and two or three people who are willing to have fun.
Perreca: I’ve been fortunate to have been involved in my fair share of festivals with this film. There are always prizes and considerations and stuff like that, but I’ve never seen a festival that is so filmmaker-forward. BMC gives you the tools to keep going and take the next step. It’s wonderful how supportive and empowering they are, because you need those little moments of encouragement, those little whispers from the universe, if you will, that tell you to keep going. We know how hard this pursuit can be at times, so when you find a festival that is such a champion for filmmakers, it shows you that you are on the right path.
Rakhimov: It was amazing to see the community behind the whole festival. The creators of the festival are always open to accepting new directors, actors, and producers. They’re ready to expand to many new levels. To me, it was just great to see that and be there and meet people and talk to them and share different ideas.
O’Hagan: It’s always, always, always a great idea to get more eyes on your work. I think it was really beautiful to receive the gift of more people looking at my work, [both through the film] screening at BMCFF and [my prize of] two coaching sessions, which are amazing because those can be so expensive. The number of people that have reached out to me over e-mail and Instagram telling me that they enjoyed my work, and that they hope to work with me someday––that is the best gift ever. I feel like every actor needs that little boost every now and then. The entertainment industry is just a lot of people pulling each other up and I think BMCFF really does a beautiful job at that.
Kawaguchi: I was fortunate enough to meet a lot of people who are part of the Blackmagic Collective. It was very assuring to see so many like-minded people that are on similar paths but with different skillsets that you could collaborate with. In terms of the technical tools itself, I think every project Jeff and I have worked on so far has been shot on a Blackmagic camera.
Perreca: We don’t have enough time for me to go into how much I love and am appreciative of Blackmagic and their technology. Russ knows I never give him a choice.
Ayerdi: At the end of the night, we were all in front of the audience and we got an opportunity to express ourselves [at the Q&A]. It’s really awesome that that’s the focus they want to give to this festival. Not only representing these films, but also who’s behind them. It’s all about connecting with other filmmakers and people in the audience who might connect with you. It was a great experience having that focus.
Jeff and Sofia, I know you two were a part of BMC’s First Frame Initiative, a program which gave first-time filmmakers support in beginning their careers. What was that experience like?
Perreca: This is the line I always say, but I’m a writer by nature. I’ve been writing films and TV for many years. It wasn’t until 2019 that I became sick of just writing a PDF and sticking it in the drawer. I made the leap and directed a short film called Talentless, which got me on BMC’s radar and got me into the FFI. I was very intimidated at first; I was like, “I’m a writer, I’m not really a director.” I give so much thanks to Jenn Page and John Parenteau, the people that were leading the initiative, because it really changed my mindset. When I started, I was a writer who sometimes directed, but when it ended, I was a director who writes. It was an explosion of productivity in a very short amount of time, but it’s an experience that I’ll never forget and I’ll forever be thankful for.
Ayerdi: Blackmagic Collective was a before and after in my career, even if it’s still in its early stages. I first felt imposter syndrome being in the room with such great filmmakers but, little by little, they help you start understanding your own value and potential as a filmmaker. It really pushed me forward. Even my mentors at BMC could see the improvement in how I spoke and how I approached actors. It’s a huge challenge, but I think you need that as a filmmaker. You need someone to be pushing you and challenging you to do your very best. It was absolutely amazing for me to be a part of BMC.
For the directors and writers, where did the conception for your films come from?
Januschka: My co-writer, Bryan Carmody, came up with the initial idea. The thing that really intrigued me about it was this question: “Is the person in the garage a monster or are they a person?” I feel like, in our modern Hollywood system, you can so often tell how a movie is going to end and what’s going to happen within 10 minutes. I’ve been really interested in trying to find stories where not only is it subversive but, from a very basic level, a story unfolds: you don’t exactly know what’s going to happen, it’s got some surprises in there, and it’s going to keep you entertained.
Roberts: [Half] came from the desire to write something a little more personal. It’s not autobiographical in terms of the actual events, but it did come from personal experience. As someone who is bisexual, I am very conscious of the fact that every time that I date a new person, there is that moment of, “Oh, when are you going to come out to them?” If I were dating a man, their first assumption is, “Oh, he’s gay because he’s dating a man.” If I were seeing a woman, they would be like, “Oh, this person’s straight.” It’s a constant, renewed process of coming out. I wanted to explore that through the lens of someone’s first time dealing with that.
Perreca: I tend to lean on dramatic irony. It’s a great way to come up with ideas, especially for shorts. I thought to myself, “Well, I’ve seen the trope of someone hiring a hitman, especially to kill their husband or their wife, a million times. How do you subvert that? Well, it’d be kind of funny if they both hired somebody.” Then I thought, “It’d actually be funnier if the hitmen showed up on the same night to kill the husband and wife, but they have no idea.” It really clicked for me when I thought, “Oh, this is kind of like a weird meet cute.” The film is not a pessimistic love story but a hopeful love story, just with the hit people, not the married couple.
Ayerdi: I first came across this story when I saw photographs of Taliban soldiers with makeup, holding flowers, and dressing up for a picture. I was like, “This is super interesting. I have to get more into this.” I started investigating more about the history of photography in Afghanistan and all the policies they had against photography.
Can some of you speak to any challenges that came with your particular projects?
Januschka: We had COVID hit our scout, so we lost our art team right before the shoot. Even though we tested everyone and were super safe, they were coming off of another shoot that was irresponsible and they sent somebody onto set who had tested positive. It trickled into ours, so we had hiccups. However, I shot this film in Boulder, Colorado. We did not have to deal with a lot of limitations that sometimes come from a bigger city that has more codified systems. In LA, you have so many wonderful prop houses, resources, crew, gear, and all these things. In Colorado, we don’t have the infrastructure, but because we don’t have the infrastructure, I feel like I can tell more of the story that I want to tell in the way that I want to tell it, which is great.
Ayerdi: Creativity is a lot about limitations that push you to figure out how to make the most out of the resources that you have. Since [my film is] a period piece, I really tried to focus a lot on the story. I couldn’t have a bunch of exteriors or a bunch of extras with the budget I had, but we made the most out of one location and really detailed the specificity of that time and that country, especially with the production design and the costuming. My production designer, Shreya Jha, did a great job. The locations were practically empty initially, so she was able to make a space from the ground up.
Kawaguchi: The bedroom scene was shot during the middle of the day, but we needed to make it look like nighttime, just like the rest of the fight scene. It gave me a lot of creative opportunities for lighting, though, so we have a lot of little cookie blinds in our lighting on almost every wall, which added a lot of texture. We lit everything with Aputure lights, too. We had some of those little lightbulbs they make that threw into the practicals. That was a whole other meeting Jeff and I had, too. “What practicals are we putting in and throwing into the background?” Luckily, Jeff did a lot of good set design.
O’Hagan: [regarding a tennis scene in the film] I’m really shitty at tennis. I am so bad at tennis to the point where we tried to shoot a wide shot of us literally hitting back and forth and I couldn’t keep it over the net. We were on a time crunch too because we were scared we were going to get kicked off this tennis court. I literally had Jacob feeding me balls at the net. Anytime you see me hitting the tennis ball back, you don’t see where the ball’s going, but it’s going into someone’s yard or hitting a lady on roller skates on the other side. It was sheer chaos.
What is one piece of advice you would give to an emerging filmmaker who may be feeling discouraged?
Januschka: It’s good to look in the mirror and realize that you may not be able to do everything. I sometimes feel, especially with directing or producing or writing, that people feel like they need to be that in order to have a voice. It’s about realizing what your talents are. Like, I am fucking shit at hanging a picture frame. Yeah, I can talk with a production designer and understand the philosophy, but when it comes to the pragmatics of it, I’m terrible. So, for me, I’m never stepping into that role to try and make that come to life, you know? You need people to make a movie. Don’t try and do it all yourself.
Roberts: You can never make something and have your focus be on the reception. You have to approach every project with a love for the process as the motivating factor. Find people that you are going to have a lot of fun working with. Find a project that you really care about. Then, maybe that one won’t hit, but the next one will. Just keep making stuff and keep enjoying it.
Perreca: Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is that, as an artist, you always start with the ideas in your head. You can see your movie plain as day. Then, when you actually make the thing, there are a million things that conspire to create a gap between the vision and the output. That gap, oftentimes, can be debilitating. You start thinking, “I’m never going to get where I want to be, why even continue to go forward?” Lately, I’ve been trying to find excitement and motivation in that gap, because that’s your potential. What do I have to do every day to make that gap just a little bit smaller? The more you work hard and try to shorten that gap, the closer you get to making something that’s undeniable. That’s what gets me up in the morning.
Rakhimov: I think you just have to do it because, no matter what you do, there are people who will disagree with your ideas. There will also be people who accept and cherish your courage and vision. It’s your choice where you put your attention. If you have a story that is important to you, tell that and show that. We’re always stuck in our own heads like, “Maybe I’m not good enough or maybe I don’t have enough training,” or whatever. You have a vision, you have a goal, so do it. Bad, good, doesn’t matter. I think that you just have to be a little courageous.
O’Hagan: If [you’re working on] a project that lights up something in you, it’s very likely that it will inspire other people as well. Don’t get discouraged when the first one doesn’t hit, because that’s the name of the game in this industry. You have to be resilient. You really, really have to. In some essence, you can’t care what people think. Otherwise you’ll become so obsessed with other people’s view of your work that you will lock up your creativity. Let it rip.
Kawaguchi: Just keep pushing. No matter where you are in your career, whether you are starting out or close to retiring––if that’s a thing in this industry––you’re going to have pockets of time when you have nothing. Just keep pushing, keep meeting people, keep making projects. Don’t burn yourself out trying to make every project perfect.
Ayerdi: Continue working on understanding yourself. The more you understand yourself, the more you know what stories to tell based on your specific experiences. One might think that the very specific things in your life might not mean anything to anybody else but, sometimes, the more specific something is, the more universal it is. If you’re able to express those emotions and those feelings, someone out there will understand them and will be able to connect with your story. It is difficult working on yourself and your artistry. But, eventually, if you work hard every day, it’s going to be impossible for you not to get to where you want to be. That’s the motivation I give to myself, and hopefully, that will help someone out there.
Submissions for the festival’s 2023 edition are now open!! See the BMCFF FilmFreeway page for more information.