Two talented and ambitious filmmakers have earned industry recognition for short films created at New Paltz. Autumn Holladay’s receipt of an INDIEFest Award of Merit this spring for her film “Nowhere” was quickly followed by a Best Student Film win for Xavier Avery’s “Revenir” at the Kingston Film Festival this August. Both films were initially submitted as assignments for the “Digital Storytelling” and “Field Production” classes taught by Thomas Cznarty, a lecturer in the Digital Media and Journalism Department.
Holladay ’16 (English) drew from her love of literature in crafting a modern take on the Apollo and Daphne myth. While in the myth, Apollo pursues Daphne, who flees from him, the film’s Daphne daydreams about a love affair. In rewriting the myth, Holladay wanted to show the female gaze, a topic she studied in courses on television culture and film noir.
“Nowhere” begins with Daphne, played by Jessica Jones, drawing a sunrise over the water in a sketch book. The story then follows her as she performs her morning routine and locks eyes with Apollo, played by Christopher Newman, through a store window. Successive scenes show the couple laughing together, strolling through the New Paltz campus and lying in bed. A close-up of Apollo’s eye cuts to the image of Daphne’s sketch, which is now not a sunset, but an eye backed by flaming red. The camera reveals that Daphne has been sitting in the shop seen at the beginning of the film, watching from a distance as Apollo plays the guitar.
Daphne’s sketch serves to connect the Apollo myth (Apollo is the sun god) and Holladay’s work with the female gaze. “The whole thing was supposed to be a daydream,” said Holladay. “Whether to talk to him or not.” The narrative structure was designed to “reveal space,” a course assignment.
Cznarty said he was “gobsmacked” by Holladay’s hand-held camera work, which he described as professional-level, and an artistic eye cultivated by years of painting. “Art was always in my life,” recalled Holladay. “My dad [a watercolorist] taught me to paint when I was four. I had to paint all the shadows and stuff, too; it couldn’t be a baby painting.”
To give her more experience in the field, Cznarty hired Holladay to work on his documentary, “What’s it Like Being Me: Gender and Identity in America.” Over the summer, Holladay assisted Cznarty with lighting and equipment set-up and continues to assist with post-production work this fall. “Autumn seems very eager to learn the business and I wanted to give her an opportunity to see what documentary production is like at the professional level,” said Cznarty, who believes mentoring students is central to his work at the college. “Some people are really passionate about this major, really eager to make this their career. And we want to help those people out, we want to give them what they need to potentially be successful beyond what they learn in school.”
While “Nowhere” is quiet and atmospheric, Avery’s “Revenir” is a bold homage to the work of rebel director and French New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard. Avery ’16 (Film contract major) said he admired Godard’s “beautiful, thought provoking, stylistically-savvy films” and sought to create a cinematic successor to the work of his idol. In the film’s credits, Avery playfully lists Godard as a co-director. “I wanted that pastiche notion because I knew that anyone who knew Godard and was watching my film would say this man was so heavily inspired by Godard that it would be almost ludicrous not to give him some sort of credit,” Avery said.
Employing the motif of two lovers on the run used by Godard in “Pierrot le Fou” and “Breathless,” “Revenir” follows Rio, played by Avery, and Veronique, played by pal Sabrina Sarro, as they travel the picturesque Hudson Valley landscape evading police while simultaneously dealing with the breakdown of their relationship. Rapid-fire narration voiced by Rio and Veronique conveys the tension between the lovers, who ultimately find forgiveness in the film’s climax, filmed in Minnewaska State park.
“One of the last lines they quote is ‘They had accepted the final form of love, which is forgiveness,’ and I thought the way to express that sentiment was to show them on the mountain top together, and instead of going out against the law, they decided to take their own lives,” said Avery. “And in the end, they’ll still be together, I assume, or hope they will be wherever they go, which is why I continued the dialogue after the act was presumably done.”
When Avery originally proposed the film to his professor, he was adamant about one thing: he wanted all of the dialogue to be in French. “I was so inspired by Godard and the French New Wave period, that I said it wouldn’t feel right if I did it in English,” said Avery. Avery had taken two semesters of French at New Paltz and shared a draft of the script with French lecturer Paul Fenouillet, who helped him make necessary revisions.
Cznarty initially questioned whether Avery could pull off such an ambitious project in less than a month, and was amazed by the end result. “I wasn’t surprised that he produced a very good film,” he noted. “What surprised me was the result of the effort. For him to not only create the film, have it translated into French, and act in it as well and say all his lines in French convincingly, that was a huge accomplishment. That’s the thing that really impressed me.”
In September, Avery flew to France to begin a 10-month study abroad program at the EICAR International Film and Television School in Paris. Paris, Avery said, “is some sort of a dream,” and he is enjoying his courses on directing and screenwriting.
In reflecting back on “Revenir,” Avery said the film captured his joy and excitement over the next phase of his filmmaking journey. “In a sense, it was speaking about what was going to happen for me, in going to France, which was an adventure. The characters are on an adventure, and that was my way to express what I was feeling,” he said.