As it readies to launch its first ever graduating class out into the world, the Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema in Brooklyn is sending one clear message to Hollywood: if you want to change the systemic barriers that keep certain groups out of the film industry, you need to invest and nurture a new kind of film school student. The class of 2018, for example, is more than 50% female and nearly 50% identify as part of a marginalized group. At a time when female filmmakers continue to struggle to get their foot in the door and when people of color still face obstacles to see their stories up on the silver screen, those numbers hope to herald a changing wave of young filmmakers.
Those numbers are no accident. They are the result of a carefully orchestrated attempt to make Feirstein an inclusive program. As Jonathan Wacks, the school’s founding director told Remezcla, the guiding principles of the school are anchored in actionable ways of diversifying the film industry. First and foremost, he said, the ideas “was to create a school in which people who had been previously shut out of the film industry were given an opportunity to go to graduate school at a world-class institution. We consciously have sought to make the school as diverse and inclusive as we possibly can.”
That meant actively recruiting women and people of color while also, and this remains key, making its tuition affordable so as to lower the bar of entry. In fact, Feirstein is the first and currently only public graduate school of cinema in New York, offering degrees for a fraction of the price you’d see at comparable private institution elsewhere in the city. Moreover, since the school is built on a working film studio, students are getting the kind of hands-on education that readies them to enter the workforce with ample experience under their belt. The school boasts, for example, an Advisory Council that includes Ethan Hawke, Darren Aronofsky, and Steven Soderbergh – no small feat for a budding film program.
To talk to some of the students from Feirstein’s first graduating class is to hear those very tenets echoed. Christian Fernandez, a Cuban-American who grew up in Key West, was quick to tell Remezcla that “the students are what make Fierstein special.” Indeed, for Texan native Amanda Reyes, the diversity of the student body was what most attracted her to the school in the first place. This means the student population not only come from all walks of life but they they are eager to tell stories that speak to their own communities, often exploring subject matter you wouldn’t normally see on the big screen.
Reyes, for example, who had at one point moved to Los Angeles to try to make it as an actress, used her thesis film to tackle issues of incarceration — a subject that’s been ever-present in her family life. Set in Texas, Rosa’s Esperanza is about a mother dealing with bringing her daughter home after a 10-year stint in prison. “I have three brothers who have been in and out prison all my life,” Reyes told Remezcla. “All of my stories are around incarceration and around being an inmate family because that’s just my experience; what I grew up with.” And while she’d tackled that in earlier projects, her producing partner insisted she tap into it once more, reminding her that this was her voice, this was her story to tell.
Just as Reyes tapped into her own life for her short film, Fernandez went back to the Florida Keys (were he grew up) to shoot Esta niña linda. Centered on Marciel and his younger sister, Perla, who escape off the coast of Cuba in a makeshift raft in search of a new life, Fernandez’s thesis film is a story the director had been toying with for a long time. He’d first dreamed up the idea when he and his father came upon a blue raft in the mangroves by the Keys after a fishing trip. For years, the image of a little girl’s sweater they’d found on the raft (which his parents kept for him) haunted him. The raft, he told Remezcla, waited patiently for him as he and his girlfriend (and fellow Feirstein student) developed it. To further score just how much of a meant-to-be situation this was, he shared that the raft ended up being destroyed only a week and a half after they finished shooting the film once hurricane Irma hit the Keys.
Even a survey of these kinds of projects suggests, for Wacks, a new approach to storytelling. “The topics that they’re exploring are quite impressive,” he told Remezcla. “It’s not often that you see a film about an aging gay couple where one of them has dementia – and it’s definitely not something you’d see in a thesis film from a younger student.” Similarly, films like Kristen Garris’ Madre Maria, which is described as a feminist neo-western about a pregnant Mexican woman who gets captured by an American vigilante near the Mexican border and must fight to regain her freedom, point to a slate of projects that are unlike anything out there right now.
The thesis films screened May 23 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Theater at the inaugural Feirstein Film Festival. It’ll mark the arrival of a slew of new talent that, the school hopes, will begin making waves in the industry at large. As Wacks noted, he’s confident that these thesis films will serve as ace calling cards that will leverage strong careers for his students in the field. But, he added, “I think it’s equally important for them to change the conversation in Hollywood about what constitutes the appropriate themes to be explored in the movies. You look at the films currently playing at Cannes in competition, it’s a smorgasbord of different ideas and concepts and themes and dreams that, sadly, in American cinema we are missing.”
“My hope,” he concluded, “is that if we keep pumping students who are smart, and interesting and creative and have something to say, we can really have an impact and hopefully be an example for other schools and the industry of what this art form can be.”