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Student-produced films nominated for Cinequest

Two short films produced by Palo Alto High students — “Tomato” and “Nadir”— have been  nominated to be screened in March at Cinequest, a prestigious film festival recognized by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

Both nominated student films were created as part of a project in Paly’s Advanced Video Production elective, and were accepted into Cinequest’s High School Shorts competition.

“The youth and discovery category is highly selective in that it accepts content from around the world before they decide which films to screen,” said Advanced Video Production teacher Brett Griffith. “This is a major accolade for the student filmmakers, one that starts a resume and really supports whatever goals students have as they apply themselves after high school.”

Reminiscent of author Kate DiCamillo’s novel, “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,” “Tomato” follows the journey of a tomato can in a post-apocalyptic world. Because resources are so scarce, this ordinary object is suddenly considered something of great value, and goes through the possession of several different people, struggling for survival.

“Tomato” was produced by a team of four students — seniors Maya Chin, Gail Hildebrand and Andrew Lee and junior Arjun Venkatraman — in April and May of 2017.

According to student director and editor Arjun Venkatraman, the plot revolved around a tomato can so the group could “[challenge themselves] to see how well [they] could tell a story without having it centered around people, whether that be through dialogue or facial expressions or anything else.”

The film displays a carefully chosen use of color in an otherwise black-and-white view and shots of overgrown landscapes with an “interplay between human structures and nature,” as described by student cameraman and actor Maya Chin, to portray the dystopian setting.

On the other hand, “Nadir,” produced by juniors Sam Cook and Sebastian Chapela, is set in a modern context. It approaches mature themes and provides insight on mental health issues prevalent today. The film centers around Max, who student director Cook says is a struggling alcoholic teen who wants to break out of the box that alcoholism confines him in, due to traumatic memories of his alcoholic father who passed away.

The word ‘nadir’ itself means the lowest point and is synonymous to rock bottom, “emphasizing how alcoholism hijacks one’s mind and can drag you to the bottom,” Cook said. “I want the viewer to understand how difficult it really is to get over substance abuse . . . it’s a lifelong struggle for many.”

The Cinequest Film Festival is an annual international film festival hosted in San Jose, Calif., and is self-proclaimed to fuse the world of the filmed arts with that of Silicon Valley’s innovation to empower youth, artists and innovators to create and connect.

Venkatraman submitted “Tomato” to Cinequest’s High School Shorts Competition in November  of 2017, and was notified of their acceptance last December, though he was sworn to secrecy about the acceptance until it was publicly announced by Cinequest on Jan. 25.

“I found out in the middle of English on the last day of the semester,” Venkatraman said. “I was pretty excited, but I couldn’t show it . . . Cinequest is considered one of the top film festivals in the country. Getting in is a huge honor. It’s essentially one of the top things you can hope to get into [as a high schooler].”

The student crews of both “Tomato” and “Nadir” agree that short films are an extremely powerful way to connect with the viewing audience and express oneself.

“I think the appeal in making short films is the challenge of condensing down a story into such a short time, while still trying to hit those emotional notes which make a film touch people,” Chin said. “I personally believe in art being truly about what you, as the viewer, get out of it. Whatever interpretation, whatever feelings or thoughts you have as you look at a painting, or watch a film–they’re as valid as anyone else’s feelings.”

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