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Connally student filmmakers are dreaming of Cannes

Pierre Bertrand

For a small group of Connally High School film students, the Cannes Film Festival five months ago seemed just a novelty, a desirable but unattainable goal. Now, they're not only planning to go to Cannes, but they're also hoping their short film might be selected as part of the festival's official competition.

Meet Sofia Castellanos, director; Damian Flores, associate director and screenwriter; and Chris Fuson, producer. Together, with a crew of roughly 20 classmates, they dedicated long hours and weekends this past fall to develop and shoot a short film.

By the end of January, photography was completed, and the rough cut was submitted Feb. 14 to the Cinéfondation, a Cannes-affiliated educational organization that helps promote and encourage student filmmakers. With fingers crossed, they've also set their eyes on the actual Cannes Film Festival in May. By mid-March, they hope to submit the film for consideration in the festival's official shorts competition.

Rewind to August.

Austin independent filmmakers Dana Glover and Michelle Carter of Midian Films, based in Round Rock, came up with an idea. In their annual trips to Cannes, both Glover and Carter noticed multiple student-produced short film screenings throughout the Riviera resort. Many of the screenings were not part of the festival's official competition, but they made Glover wonder whether it would be possible to help students film a short — and to have that film accepted in the actual festival and screened along with the best pieces of cinema. In September of last year, Glover and Carter contacted Humberto Adrian Perez, another independent filmmaker who teaches a video technology class at Connally in the Pflugerville school district, and the rest fell into place, Glover said.

"The idea kind of just clicked," he said.

Perez addressed his class one morning and told his students he had a big announcement for them. Glover and Carter entered the room and presented their idea.

"I was shocked," said Castellanos. She usually sits in the corner of the large classroom and doesn't say much, but that day she was particularly speechless. The film would be entirely produced and directed by students. Carter, Glover and Perez would act only as advisers. The rest was up to the students — and up to her as the film's director.

"To do films, you have to be very passionate, but you also need to have a cool mind," Castellanos said. "It's difficult because you are dealing with two conflicting emotions."

Salvador Gutierrez, the film's lead actor and publicity director, and Gregory Wicks, the art director, sound recordist and sound designer, nod their heads along with their classmates. They are all huddled around a circular table in their classroom's editing room.

Some of them started in middle school, filming their friends just for fun with an old camcorder. Others were first theater performers, and still others, like Castellanos, have always been interested in filmmaking. Even if their looming college careers take them away from filmmaking, they say they would be hard-pressed to truly give it up.

For the moment, they are immersed in it. It's their calling.

In the months after Glover's proposal, the students, most of them seniors or juniors, filmed just about anywhere they could. They used their school, their neighborhoods and even their own homes.

The film mirrors the students' anxieties and fears. It follows the life of a young student, dealing with his parents' death and his subsequent downward spiral into drug use and despair. It deals with the toll of drugs and attempts to synthesize a student's personal experiences, said Flores. It's not a coincidence, then, that the film is titled "Fallen."

"It's definitely not 'High School Musical' or 'Glee,'\u2009" Glover said.

Flores needed two weeks to write what would be an 18-page script. And he's still writing and revising it as the team conducts last-minute edits.

"I took a journey in my mind," Flores said. "The character is trying to figure out who he is, and why the world is against him. He wants to find an answer."

The film tries to bridge the gap that forms between adults and teens, Flores says.

"We need to open up more," he said. "That's why I wrote this story for people to see."

In roughly two weeks, the young filmmakers will hear whether their movie is accepted into the Cinéfondation program. By March 14, they need to have a final version of the film submitted for consideration in the official Cannes selection. They will then know in another two weeks whether the film has made the cut.

But even if the film does not make it, the students still plan to screen "Fallen" in the multiple independent viewing booths that will dot the Short Film Corner in the Cannes palais, where most of the festival takes place. And they hope the film will serve as a calling card for the students, possibly attracting the eye of a passing director or agent.

Much still has to be done — namely fundraising. The team has $1,000 but needs an additional $49,000. The goal is to take 30 students to the festival, and Glover and Carter hope to find corporate sponsors. The donation period ends in about a month, and they are looking for anyone willing to donate online.

One thing is for sure: Someone in Cannes this summer will watch "Fallen." Whether the rest of the team will be able to do so remains to be seen.

For now, the students are still unsure of where the film will take them, or how much a film featured at Cannes could redirect their college prospects. They are playing it safe, even if it does linger on their minds, and at times, they say, they daydream of red-carpet strolls.

"I don't think I want to think too far ahead," Fuson said. "Just hope for the best and work hard and we'll get what we deserve."

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To find out more about this project, visit www.chscougar.tv/Cannesfilmproject.html.