Still from the Big Lens short 'Oak'

Still from the Big Lens short ‘Oak’


By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Each year Wright State University’s Motion Picture program, an award-winning department and a crown jewel in Midwest film industry, shines a spotlight on a set of new features from the program’s best and brightest, and as a purveyor of the critical scene, it is always a pleasure to sample a few appetizers from the lineup, in order to whet the appetites of regional film fans. Time and again, as I settle in for my Big Lens Film Festival teaser, I have to remind myself that these are the works of students, because, as the visual narratives unfold, one after another, it is easy to forget that these shorts have been created within the confines of an academic program. What Wright State sustains instead is akin to the nurturing environs of the East Coast indie film world, where talented artists develop and foster a collaborative commune that enriches and insulates that small community, but spreads a greater and higher love to the audience waiting beyond its borders.

I drifted through this cinematic landscape, sneaking into scenes from multi-hyphenate Liz Yong Lowe’s “Anesthesiaphobia,” an experimental short about a female dancer on the verge of taking her place in a line of seemingly social engineered performers, until, at the last moment, she breaks free. A dreamy urgency infects her escape and the film reminded me of the subversive horrors of “It Follows” stitched to the beauty found in “Pina,” Wim Wenders’ 3D dance portrait. The lush and expertly choreographed dance segments exhibited all of the grace and perfection of that form, and yet, once the images shifted to the lead dancer breaking off on her own, alone and bloody in a field, the transition never felt tonally jarring. This was all about a filmmaker in complete control of this narrative leap, like a dancer soaring high above the stage, only to land softly, as if gravity could not exert its full power.

Onward I traveled to “Noia,” with its protagonist Graham Spoke (Nathan Robert Pecchia), a desperate man beset by the notion that the world—wherever he goes—stops and stares at him, as if, he says at one point, “everyone’s on pause.” It is an unnerving situation, an existential concern, but a fear that serves as a unique counterpoint to Ralph Ellison’s unnamed narrative from “Invisible Man.” Writer-director Kel Lind doesn’t directly address larger racial and/or societal arguments, preferring instead to show indirectly that the dilemmas, in practical terms, are two sides of the same coin. Graham finds a way to suss out a solution to his problem thanks to an encounter with a blind woman (Kate Mueller) working in a rundown motel on the edge of town.

Another pair of outsiders, this time in writer-director Aubrey Keith’s “Oak,” seek to navigate dangerous social terrain. Joel and Sarah are teenagers in the suburbs with a deep love of music that they share, in secret, with little fanfare. Joel dreams of being Johnny Cash, a black-suited outlaw with a guitar strapped to his back, while Sarah pens heartfelt lyrics and sings with all of the quiet conviction of a coffeehouse siren, but together what they create feels real and true.

It is in Keith’s film that the Wright State network of connections became visible to me. After watching “Oak” I checked out the production notes for the fest, like a music hound devouring liner notes, and discovered that Keith served as a producer on “Noia,” while Liz Yong Lowe, the filmmaker behind “Anesthesiaphobia,” handled production chores on “Oak.” The full schedule offers the opportunity to play this engaging game.

Of course, none of this is surprising, but what it should do, for the lucky audiences who attend the one-night Big Lens Film Festival event, is trigger a desire to investigate beyond the flickering frames, to get to know this collection of talent now, because it won’t be long before they head off with these projects to noted festivals around the country (and the globe), where they will earn the right to tell bigger stories on even larger canvasses. I hope, though, that they never forget what they’ve learned here, because we need these intimate stories, now more than ever before.

The Big Lens Film Festival premieres Friday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. at the Dayton Art Institute.