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July 23, 2009

Visiting Spanish filmmaker helps students tell their own screen stories

When Jason Dallas signed up for a course this summer, the Spanish major probably didn’t expect to be watching a music video of his favorite band, El Canto del Loco, in class. But that’s just what happened last week. His teacher, Felix Viscarret, is the video’s director, and he wasn’t showing it for entertainment.


Viscarret told the students where he had set up cameras to shoot the video, how he had created suspense to capture interest and how he had coordinated his visuals with the music. He is a visiting filmmaker from Spain and the course — which is offered jointly by DXArts and Spanish and Portuguese Studies — is in film production.


The 20 students enrolled are a varied lot. Dallas, for example, has no film experience at all. DXArts and Spanish major Bronwyn Lewis, on the other hand, made nine short videos as part of her assignments in a yearlong series of classes and served as a TA for another video class. But this week, after a short four weeks of classes, all of the students had produced their own five-to-eight-minute film.


“The purpose is to help them to find their own tone in storytelling,” Viscarret said. “I believe every person, every filmmaker, tells a story in his own particular way, so in the class I encourage them to experiment and find their voice.”


Viscarret got his BA in Madrid in communications and film studies. And then, thanks to an international exchange program, he did some post graduate classes at William Paterson University in New Jersey. There, he made some short films that got attention and awards at film festivals. Since then he’s made music videos, commercials, and most recently, feature films. It was when his first feature film, Under the Stars, played at the Northwest Film Forum that he first came to Seattle.


“The forum was doing a festival focused on ‘New Cinema from Spain,’ and Felix was the featured director,” said Tony Geist, chair of Spanish and Portuguese Studies at the University. “He did a master class, and I was very impressed not only with his work, but also with him as a person — with his energy and potential as a teacher. And since we are a department focused on Spanish studies, not just on the language, I thought it would be a great opportunity for our students to have him here.”


In addition to teaching the students how to make a film, Viscarret is showing them clips from films made by Spanish filmmakers, including himself. “I think there are some very interesting artists working now in Spain and they might not get the international distribution they deserve,” he said.


Lewis has found it interesting to see Viscarret’s own work. “The first day he showed us some films he made when he was in film school,” she said. “It was great to see that he’s coming from the same place and the same level of quality that a lot of us are. Obviously he’s wildly successful now, so it’s neat to see that kind of development.”


The students made their films from scratch, starting with a premise, then a synopsis and finally a script. Then, script in hand, they prepared for production by creating a shot list, a storyboard and a technical lighting diagram. Cameras were available for them to borrow to do the production itself. Although each student made his or her own film, they worked in groups and helped each other.


The process wasn’t always smooth. Spanish and comparative literature major Leilani Novotny reported that her first film was damaged and she had to do the whole thing over, but she wasn’t too upset. “It was much smoother the second time because I knew exactly what I wanted,” she said.


Lewis also had technical problems as a high-end camera she’d borrowed from a friend of a friend proved to have a broken part. She spent a few days stewing but ultimately was able to recoup her losses.


For the students new to filmmaking, the process itself was sometimes frustrating. “How you film it and how you conceptualize it in your head are two different things,” said Ben Schock, a Spanish and journalism major who said he’d had no previous experience. “So when you look at it, it’s like, oh it sounded really cool on paper and I thought it would be really cool but actually it looks really stupid.”


Interviewed midway through the class, he called the editing process tedious. “I’ve spent about five or six hours on editing and I’m not near finished,” he said. “Now I understand why films cost so much to make.”


The subjects and approaches in the student films vary — from Novotny’s mostly silent film about a klutzy girl’s bad day to Lewis’ “nostalgic, disjunctive trip down memory lane” taken by a couple in conversation. All of them got a showing at the end of the class this week.


Viscarret emphasized that having their “voice” shine through was the thing he most wanted his students to achieve.


“I want them to be happy with these short films in 10 years, the way I’m happy with the very first short films I did when I was a student,” he said. “I gave them a lot of freedom in what they did as long as the film represented something important to them.”