Contemporary Art Month hosted a Student Film Festival at the Tobin Center’s Will’s Plaza on March 24, 2023. Curated by board member and artist Sarah Lasley, the festival accepted submissions from four San Antonio campuses, including NESA at Lee High School, Saint Mary’s Hall, SAY Sí and Communications Arts High School at TAFT.
The featured artists were: Jem Annayev, Bjorgvin Arnarson, Christopher Chan, Jake Cortez, Emily Cox, Katarina Erazo, Madison Feik, Estevan Garcia, Cira Garza, Pablo Lambreton, Olive Madrid, Mariana McKenzie, Bruce Miller, Analia Rivera, Ava Smith, Amarissa Soto, Clarissa Soto, Isabella Tealey, Ana Testas, Ines Wallisch, and Kate Whittington.
This year’s student films encompassed a wide range of themes, including what it is like to be a transgender ballerina, intergenerational trauma and expectations in Latino communities, and navigating romance as a teenager.
A film by Mariana McKenzie titled Don’t Froget featured two claymation frogs making masa, or dough for tortillas, as their grandmother observes them. The frogs seemed a bit insecure as their grandma hovered over them, alluding to a sense of generational dissatisfaction and expectations that create anxiety and restlessness.
Undoubtedly intentionally placed after Don’t Froget (because of the piece’s similar theme), a film titled La Llegada (“The Arrival”) by Ana Testas featured a mother and her children preparing for her mother in law’s visit. While her two children are cleaning the house, the mom is replacing Harry Styles posters and other items with La Virgen de Guadalupe everything: wall decorations, candles, even face masks. When the mother in law arrives, she critiques her daughter-in-law until they have a disagreement in the kitchen as a smoke alarm goes off. Finally, the daughter says she’s tired of trying to please her mother-in-law. At the end of the film, and after firefighters leave their house, the mother-in-law apologizes and admits she’s happy her son married a good woman. The film ends on a good note, and represents an idealized conversation and formal apology that many daughter-in-laws never receive.
The typical Latina woman already has the pressures of her own mother, but the added pressure of a Latina mother in law makes it nearly impossible to feel like a fully autonomous adult, regardless of their age. As a result of this generational gaze, there’s an infantilization occurring in both Don’t Froget and La Llegada,where the older, traditional figure/relative is gazing upon their descendents in an unsatisfactory manner, despite the descendant trying their best. In La Llegada, the film offers an alternate ending, an opportunity for generational accountability and unrealistic expectations through the apology of the mother-in-law. These two films were paired well together, operating in tandem to offer a glimpse into the pressures of being a Latina woman, while also providing the space for alternate outcomes and closure.
The artist Ava Smith screened an interesting series of films addressing queerness and transgender identity. In one of Smith’s films, Girl Fight, she explores a girl having romantic feelings for one of her closest friends. The film begins with the protagonist admitting her feelings for her friend, and the friend —unsure of what to say — decides to leave. In the final scene, the protagonist receives a text message while she’s brushing her teeth, that reads “I’ve been thinking about what you said earlier,” insinuating that the two go on to explore their feelings for one another.
Smith’s other film, Playing the Role of Ballet Woman, features a trans ballet dancer, Rowan Combs, who dances in a women’s ballet group in San Antonio but goes by the pronouns he/they. He said he finds it easier to play the role of “ballet woman” than the role of “regular woman.” Rowan also talks about how the exclusion they experience in ballet is “a very quiet little exclusion,” saying “they don’t really recognize me.”
This short documentary-style film drew power from its simplicity. There was no excessive music or scene changes, rather, the film features Combs sitting and telling his story, while sometimes cutting to footage of him dancing ballet. The strongest decision Smith made as a filmmaker was to offer the space for Combs to tell his story in a manner that was simple and honest.
Transcendent Beauty, a short film by Christopher Chan, is a compilation of home videos and photos of a dog with ambient piano music. That’s the entire film, which is at times focuses solely on the eyes of the dog. I appreciated the compilation of dog videos that — paired with the piano music — really helped us see the sentient and loving nature of the animals we so often take for granted.
It’s unfortunate that I can’t review each film individually, because I was either amazed or intrigued by every one that was shown. It was clear these high school students put immense thought into their films and feel passionate about what they are portraying. The Sick Egg by Analia Rivera, Ghost Party by Madison Feik, and a retelling of women we lost told through the Menger Hotel in San Antonio are also pieces worth noting.
These high school film enthusiasts and filmmakers, along with their production teams and actors, really put on their best shows for the San Antonio community.
Kayla Padilla is the recipient of the Contemporary Art Month Critical Writing Fellowship in 2023