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Spling Judges AFDA Graduation Film Festival

Stephen 'Spling' Aspeling has served on the critic's panel at the AFDA Graduation Festival for 9 years running since 2014. The film school bases their final assessment on responses from industry critics, staff and audience members, who participate by attending the festival and completing evaluation forms. Having moved the festival online for assessment during the pandemic years, this year's film festival serves as a return to in-person mode. Having screened the films via the drive-in at Atlantic studios in the in-between years, students have been able to see their work on the big screen and AFDA have done a remarkable job in their change management to deal with issues surrounding the worldwide crisis.

AFDA film school

Held at the Labia Theatre once again, it was refreshing to see a packed cinema as student films were preceded by a trailer earlier in the event and then subsequently screened with a brief Q&A session afterwards. Having attended the two-day examination session alongside SAMDB's Andrew Germishuys to evaluate film and TV productions, this was rounded off with MFA screening evaluations in AFDA's cinema. A leading film school in South Africa and beyond, the event went smoothly in spite of the odd load-shedding blip.

Spling has been a longtime supporter of AFDA and has enjoyed seeing what film students are doing at a grassroots level in South Africa. There are usually 4-5 films that stand out from the rest and this year's selection was no different. To celebrate the best student films, Spling writes an article in which he reviews his favourite films from the year to encourage students, offer specific feedback and hopefully give them some material to leverage their work.

Having delivered a few summations to tie in with the handing over of the critic's award for films at an undergraduate and postgraduate level over the years, Spling was once again invited to offer his thoughts at the awards ceremony.

Here's a transcript of the speech...

Good evening, I'm Stephen "Spling" Aspeling... I served on the critic's panel this year along with Andrew Germishuys.

Andrew wanted me to share this with you... and I completely agree with his sentiment.

Students of the class of 2022. Year on year, one of the more fulfilling bits of film work I get to do, is watch all the new talent, creativity, and leaps forward in filmmaking presented at the AFDA festival, and see the wonderful work showcased here.

You have reached the final scene, weathered a real-life apocalypse “slash” horror “slash” sci-fi world over the last few years, and now as you move on to the next shoot, the next production, the next scene in your story, do so remembering, you made it.

Celebrate the win, and may you grow and learn with each new project. Well done!"

From my side... congratulations to students who have answered the call to adventure and are entering the new world. Thank you to parents and staff who have been preparing the next generation of film talent...

One of the things I'm going to say in this speech is a lie.

[While the pandemic seems like a blip in the rearview mirror, its effects are still being felt on a micro and macro level. There was some déjà vu when it came to returning to the Labia Theatre. Watching films from home has its perks, but there's something to be said for the magic of the cinema experience.

The difference between a glimpse and gaze is essentially what separates the two, persuading us to remain transfixed on one big-screen instead of being constantly distracted by a variety of smaller screens at home. This full immersion invites audiences to sink into the illusion and enter another world rather than skipping along the surface, channel-flipping between devices. The power of cinema is expressed in its ability to enable a multitude of people to experience the same dream simultaneously.]

This is why what you're doing right now is so important, not only sustaining a medium that has spurred a worldwide industry for over a century but continuing to allow your artful expressions to entertain, inspire and provoke thought. Drawing from the material world, pop culture, your memories and your imagination, you have the power to effect change, shape culture, create awareness and play god to audiences in the palm of your hand.

This year's festival selection had a strong focus on relationships, exploring the challenges of community, family, responsibility, romance, morality and trust. Life has put us under duress, forced us to grow in character, inspired us to think outside the box and cultivate resilience... all of which tend to encourage creativity.

Encompassing several different artistic disciplines, this medium can be a form of therapy, an outlet for us to dream and exorcise the negativity to keep moving forward with purpose. This burst of creativity and inspiration was truly evident at this year's festival, showcasing an impressive array of student films.

Films were much more self-aware in terms of limitations, leveraging what resources they had in their fullest expression when it came to locations and production design. Operating with poise, films were smooth, balanced and had a good flow in terms of visuals and pacing - there were very few lulls. Most performances had rhythm, were thoughtful and carefully controlled - delivered with empathy and conviction. Every film had substance, grappling with weighty themes and exploring timely humanistic issues with finesse.

Some advice for you going forward...

Try to allocate your time so that you can apply feedback and final checks. There's a tendency to lock the final cut before it's been properly scrutinised.

This kind of festival is tricky because audiences will automatically get a kick from seeing someone they know on the big screen. While there were a few typical cheers for friends, get an objective opinion so that your film doesn't elicit unintentional laughter.

Then, details are important. When your viewer sees a basic spelling error in the subtitles or even credits, it tarnishes the overall feel and speaks to the level of care taken in composing a film. Spelling errors are unacceptable, unprofessional and subtitles or credits shouldn't be only one person's responsibility.

Our local film industry is preoccupied with visuals and for the most part, we tend to get this right. However, there's a shortfall when it comes to taking the necessary time to craft compelling screenplays.

Don't rush into production, find people who share your vision, give your idea the time to gestate, get help from people who know more than you, embrace the learning curve, be someone that's easy to work with and try to get a sense for every single person's job on set.

It's wonderful to see tomorrow's filmmakers discovering their true calling, essentially learning to solve problems, and I'm sure seeing your films on the big screen at The Labia was nothing short of fantastic.

Congratulations to everyone involved in embracing the learning curve, bringing the magic and committing your stories to film, I wish you every success in the future. Oh, and I was born with antlers.