Arts & Life

MFA documentary students screen hopeful, poignant films

Jan. 31, 2022, 10:28 p.m.

I spent my Sunday afternoon in a small arthouse theater, soaking in the warmth of the MFA program’s nine thesis films event. Hosted at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, each of the films explored themes of adaptation, discovery and nostalgia with nuance, vulnerability and, at times, humor. Sharing the backdrop of surviving the pandemic and the search for community during an uncertain times, the films showcase the different aspects of navigating struggles, collapsing empires and seeking simple joys of being human in a society that hadn’t had time to slow down and reconnect with itself.

Two opposing themes — capitalist struggle and family dynamics — stood out to me during the screening. “The Game God(s)” by Adrian L. Burrell MFA ’21 and “Couchsurfing” by Laura Gamse ’21 both explored how capitalist systems can undermine social progress, but the documentaries tackled this question through starkly different lenses: one looked at the prison-industrial complex, the other at venture funding. 

Burrell collaborated with Oakland’s First Poet Laureate, Ayodele Nzinga, to tell the heartbreakingly mundane struggles of being Black in capitalist America for “The Game God(s).” Stylistically, the short’s larger-than-life aesthetic, featuring imagery of baptism, stood out for its confidence. Beginning each section with a poetry recitation, the documentary is grounded despite its magnificent set designs and cinematography. The documentary interviews Black prisoners during and after their sentences in order to dive into the pains and hopes of those impacted by incarceration.

Couchsurfing” continued to ask difficult questions by analyzing the impact of venture capitalism. The documentary explores how humans interact in society during the digital age. Gamse takes a nostalgic tour of couchsurfing.com’s history, from its origin as the pre-Airbnb online community for stranger-travelers. “I would call it just being the old school human, sharing,” says one of the documentary’s subjects as they describe the site. Gamse weaves together a moving narrative about the collapse of an organization once based on human trust after it was forced to rely on venture capital (VC) funding for survival. The film artfully laments the negative impact of VC funding on start-ups — when VC funding becomes the sole source of income for an organization, Gamse’s film argues that groups become forced to focus on fundraising rather than improving society.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the longing for human connections appears in a more personal form through depictions of familial bonds in “Still Waters”  by Aurora Brachman MFA ’21 and “Meantime” by Michael T. Workman MFA ’21.

In her short, Brachman shares efforts to repair her relationship with her mother during the pandemic. With her mother’s troubled past as a victim of child abuse fracturing their parental bond, the two reconnect in the film as Brachman dyes her mother’s hair in the bathtub. The conversations between the two women are intimate, empathetic and filled with mutual understanding. This film is spliced with shots of the pair exploring beach cliffs, facing peaceful waves and exploring the beauty of the hidden undercurrent. The final scene shows the mother and daughter sharing a blanket and staring blankly into a fire pit at the beach, with the warm quiet of the moment perfectly epitomizing the struggle of reconnecting. 

Extending themes of familial loss and reconnection, Workman’s “Meantime” uses brutal honesty to capture his relationship with his estranged father. Workman’s father was beginning to experience memory loss after a stroke, and the father and son began to grow closer. Workman crosscuts the short with clips of present-day conversations with his father and home movies from his childhood to heartbreaking effect. In one particularly moving moment, the father and son reenact a ski trip they took in Workman’s childhood to revisit the father-son relationship that didn’t have time to grow. The film uncovers the father’s persistent love and longing for his family and juxtaposes it with his crippling parental failures. “I never had a sensitive family; your mom provided that for me,” Workman’s father says in one of their conversations. I sobbed in the dark theater as I watched Workman and his father hug goodbye, their reflection shimmering in a puddle of water. The bittersweet gravity of the desire to become better felt palpable. 

In the Q&A after the screening, both Brachman and Workman addressed their own concerns about telling personal stories and using filmmaking as a way to tackle sensitive topics. “There was a point in the process where I felt like maybe I pushed too hard, like I had sort of opened something up or broken something, and I wasn’t sure we’d be able to mend it,” explained Brachman. However, both filmmakers agreed that the process provided a treasured opportunity to spend time with their parents, with Workman saying, “we became closer during the process, but we were emotionally worn out by the end.” 

The nine filmmakers featured at the event created strong, relatable films. I was exposed to a myriad of perspectives, cultures and experiences that were all connected by hopes of sharing a community. The films masterfully captured the human experience, letting the audience feel seen. The outstanding film selection left me wanting more; for a moment, the world felt full of possibilities, if given enough time. 

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Bhumikorn Kongtaveelert '25 is the culture desk editor for the Arts & Life section and the Energy and Environment Beat Reporter for the News section. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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