“No Such Thing as Student Work”

Forever Queens began as a student project in a classroom at Columbia Journalism School. Now, a year and a half later, it’s a feature length documentary film. 

Producers Leo Hamelin and Kiran Alvi started the film as a project in a multimedia story-telling workshop at Columbia, taught by Professor Duy Linh Tu. “We paid attention to all the feedback,” said Hamelin.  “If someone [in class] felt something was missing, we’d go back and shoot more. It was extremely challenging, and yet exciting that our story was unfolding before our eyes.”

The first cut of the film was finished by the end of the school year, in May 2012. It was shown for the first time at the “511c Film Festival 2012,”  the day before Hamelin and Alvi graduated. Although they had essentially produced a feature-length documentary in two months, the filmmakers wanted to re-edit it into a tighter film and make it as professional-looking as possible.

They edited a trailer and launched a successful Kickstarter campaign the following September, which raised $6,000 for post-production. “It was a very boosting and exhilarating experience,” said Hamelin. “When so many people support you and believe in your project, you feel committed to deliver.”

Co-director Eléonore Hamelin answered a few questions about taking “Forever Queens” from a student project to a professional feature-length documentary.

How many rounds of edits did it take to getting to this final stage?

I have almost 50 different Final Cut Pro project files on my hard-drive. I would say a dozen of those were full rough cuts ranging between 45 and 65 minutes. Only four were “decisive” cuts, meaning they have a different structure and required a full new storyboard.

How far or how different do you think the final cut is from what you did as a student?

Little by little, what started off as a student project, and was made with no money and extremely basic equipment (Canon Rebel t21, an Olympus recorder, and a $20 shoulder pad) morphed into a professional and cinematic-looking film.

And I truly believe that each project born in Journalism School deserves such treatment.

How long was the editing process?

A little bit more than a year. I never edited full-time, but I definitely put in a minimum of 10 hours of work per week.

You showed a rough cut a film collective, what is the value in showing your work in progress to multiple people in the film industry?

I joined the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective in January 2013. I had already submitted the film to a festival, and thought I was really close to locking the cut and hitting “export” for good.

The collective is full of extremely talented and successful filmmakers that I truly respect. When they pitched in with a bunch of criticisms and ways to make the film better, it was tough.

Showing my film to professionals was painful. But it paid off. As much as I wanted to be done, I wasn’t.

After a week, I could tell that all the feedback had hit me in two very positive ways:

1- Criticism that I decided to ignore, because I felt more strongly about my own decisions as a director.

2- Criticism that I wish I could ignore but that I could not ignore anymore. The film needed more work, and I knew it deep inside, but had been burying my head in the sand because I was too attached to it, and because I was too exhausted to restructure it.

It also made me realize that I couldn’t do it alone anymore. Not only did I need fresh eyes to look at the footage, but also fresh hands to experiment with it on the timeline. That’s when we decided to hire an editor, Natacha Giler, for two weeks. It was extremely helpful, she had not seen the film or footage before, nor had she met the characters. She restructured the film and tightened it, and we worked together towards the final product.

How did you balance advice from multiple people?

Obviously, when you show a rough cut to someone you think is a “legitimate professional” in your field, you tend to take their input very seriously. Trouble is: one person might tell you to “show more of the this” so you rush back to make the change and you feel great, and then two weeks later, someone as important will advise you to “show less” of the same thing.

I fell in that trap, and it’s very frustrating. In reality, making important changes to your film according to one person’s feelings is quite immature. I did it myself at a time when I was not confident in what my film was, what I wanted to say with it.

Once you figure the backbone of your film, it’s easier to ponder outside advice and at least question it before rushing back to the edit suite.

In the end, you should be in control

But don’t shy away from screenings and keep in mind is that you should not show your film to professionals only. There’s so much (if not more) value in showing it to a non-professional audience. Just observe their reaction: Are they laughing? Do they seem confused? Anyone checking their phone?

What advice do you have for students or young filmmakers?

Don’t give up!

There is no such thing as student work, but there is incredible value to a “first film.”

Please do not let your promising films die in an external hard drive once class is over.

If it’s not good enough, or not worth showing — find out why. Show your work in progress to friends, professionals, professors. Go back and shoot more interviews, more scenes. Edit, Re-Edit, Re-Re-Edit.

Forever Queens is my first film. Sure, a lot of things could have been better. But that’s not what matters to me. What matters is that I made the most out of it. I gave it time and energy, juggling with a full-time job, freelance work on the side, and very little money. But I learned so much along the way.

And a year and a half later, I made a film! So I confidently call myself a filmmaker now, right?

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