• Lillie Burke

Student and alumni films shine on the silver screen at Nashville Film Festival, hosted on campus Mon

Belmont welcomed the 52nd Nashville Film Festival to campus and saw some familiar faces on the red carpet.

The Johnson theaters, the second venue of four in the traveling festival, played host to filmmakers and fans alike. Part of the program — NashFilm’s “NextGen Mixtape” — showcased 10 short films on a variety of subjects, from the daily life of women in 1980s South Africa to a story about a 12-year-old rugby fan stuck between her life in America and her New Zealand roots.

And two submissions from Belmont students and alumni stood among the selections.

One of the longest films in the set was the student-made documentary, “How Did We Get Here: Nashville Surviving 2020.” The documentary focused on landmark events over the course of last year, including the encroaching threat of COVID-19, the EF3 tornado that devastated Nashville in March, the Black Lives Matter protests in June, Belmont’s presidential debate in October and the Christmas Day bombing on Second Avenue.

Director, producer and editor Abigail Bowen, who is a senior at Belmont, spoke in a Q&A after the screening and said the subject of the documentary was initially going to be just the presidential debate on campus.

“The ‘How Did We Get Here?’ documentary kind of came out of an obligation to tell a bigger story,” she said. 

“When we got together in January of 2021, we were all a little bit haggard,” Bowen said. “You could see it in our faces, that we had just lived through one of the hardest years of our lives. And we realized that Nashville itself had been through one of the hardest years it had ever experienced.”

The film featured interviews with Nashville leaders like Mayor John Cooper and Councilwoman Zulfat Suara, all of whom spoke about the city’s hardships in 2020. Newsreels showing the chaos of the year flashed across the screen throughout the documentary, shining a light on a truly unprecedented and challenging time.

Following “How Did We Get Here?” was another Belmont-based production: “Treehouse,” a short film written and directed by Belmont University graduate William Austin.  

Austin said the film originally served as the senior capstone project for his motion pictures degree, but when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down campus and ground production to a halt, the dedicated cast and crew decided to continue the production independently.

Austin and his team struck out on their own, shooting almost the entire film in the woods of Tennessee.

The 25-minute drama “Treehouse” follows a young man, played by Andrew Dunkin, who decides to build a treehouse as a way to cope with the grief he feels following the death of his brother. The main character is loosely based on Austin and his experience with Tourette syndrome.

Rather than sticking to his comfort zone of comedic stories, Austin went deeply personal, and the risk paid off for the creator; “Treehouse” is his first short film to make it to the festival circuit.

“I think over the course of Christmas before COVID, I locked myself in my house for five days and I realized, ‘Okay, this dude’s alone, I know that.’ And that was kind of one of the first things I realized: his story was stemming from isolation and loneliness,” Austin said. 

“This definitely encourages me to use filmmaking in a way that is maybe a little bit less safe, to hopefully make things that people relate to more,” said Austin.

“How Did We Get Here?” and “Treehouse,” along with the other eight films screened Monday, are up for festival awards, and winners will be announced Tuesday at 5 p.m. on the NFF website. 

The festival continues Tuesday at Marathon Music Works and Wednesday at the Belcourt Theatre.

PHOTO: From left to right, Abigail Bowen, alum Zachary Powers, Emily Smith, Jordan Shatto and alum Alex Moock — the Belmont filmmakers behind “How Did We Get Here?” — walk the red carpet on campus Monday. Belmont Vision / Sarah Maninger.

This article was written by Sarah Maninger and Ashley Huffman.

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