UCA film school graduates add diversity to program

I graduated in 2015 from the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Central Arkansas. My class produced three filmmakers that year, all three white, male, and in their thirties. Come to think of it, the previous class also had three white male students. Even the class after mine had the same thing: three white male students. Among Us Nine, the majority of our shorts focused on horror and sci-fi, but I guess when you have such a small group of students, there are only so many stories different that they can tell.

This lack of diversity isn’t necessarily the fault of the film department, as we see this issue crop up quite often in Hollywood. Women, people of color, and minorities of all kinds have always struggled to break into the industry. But over the past few years, we’ve seen a few people break the celluloid ceiling. For example, female Oscar nominations have increased in several categories. In the past two years alone, we’ve seen two women win the Oscar for Best Direction: Chloe Zhao for “Nomadland” and Jane Campion for “The Power of the Dog.” Hollywood still has a long way to go to create equity in its industry, but UCA is making great strides in cultivating large numbers of inclusive students of filmmakers.

This year’s crop of graduates includes a couple of international students, one of whom is a woman. Nathaly Moreno is from Honduras. She ended up in central Arkansas through an exchange student program and earned her bachelor’s degree at UCA, choosing to stay an additional three years to complete her master’s degree. As a filmmaker, his shorts tend to focus on Hispanic characters. His graduation thesis film is no different. It’s called “Strawberry”. The film focuses on the quinceanera of the youngest daughter of a Honduran family, Adela. The family emigrated to the United States before Adela was born, which causes her some identity crisis, where she is not completely Honduran or American. And this internal cultural struggle creates conflicts with the older members of his family. And it’s up to Adela’s cousin, Marta, to help her family bridge the generational and cultural gaps.

DIVERSITY IN CINEMA

“Strawberry” is still in pre-production, but they are already feeling the effects of a project’s ambition. The biggest problem the production has had so far is casting. The film has a mostly Hispanic cast who must be fluent in Spanish, and on top of that they need actors in a variety of different age brackets – from kids to seniors. Unfortunately, in central Arkansas, finding actors who fit these demographics can be difficult, if not impossible. And Moreno and his longtime film partner and producer Daniel Beltram, another UCA alumnus, are up for the challenge.

“Strawberry” isn’t the only graduate thesis film this year that’s having its share of struggles. Sumit Kumar, a student from Nepal, made the decision to abandon his thesis project and start over from scratch. Prior to entering UCA’s graduate program, Kumar had no formal film training. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Mississippi for Women. But when covid-19 hit, he made the decision to switch from information technology to his personal passion, cinema. So, from Nepal to Mississippi to central Arkansas, over 8,000 miles, Kumar wanted to tell personal stories about his culture and about minorities and their experiences.

But he encountered the same problem as Moreno: the casting. There is even less Nepali representation in the Central Arkansas acting community than Hispanics. So Kumar made the decision to change his entire script. Instead of focusing his project on the Nepalese, he focused on the black population in the South. Kumar said that after arriving in America, he was first exposed to the Blaxploitation movement of the 1970s, with films such as “Shaft” and “Superfly”. He says he finds a camaraderie because as a Nepalese he is a minority in the greater Indian region, and since moving to the United States he has become part of an even smaller population. Kumar believes that all minorities have very similar struggles and believes he is able to convey this through his cinema.

“EMPATHY TOWARDS THINGS”

But even this year’s white male graduates are focused on diversity. Arkansas-born CJ Mirch’s thesis film focuses on a strong female cast. The title of his film is “Mono No Aware”, which is a Japanese expression that translates to “an empathy towards things”. The plot revolves around two estranged sisters who discover a mysterious old note hidden in the walls of their recently purchased house. The sisters then go on an adventure to try to find the note’s author and hopefully, in doing so, mend their own relationship.

For Mirch, the phrase “Mono No Aware” is more of a bittersweet realization that everything in existence is temporary. He drew on his own personal experiences as most of his extended family lives on the West Coast, creating a strain on his relationships with loved ones. He hopes to show his audience that no matter how much time has passed or how many conflicts have arisen, most relationships can be rebuilt. This type of film is a bit outside Mirch’s wheelhouse, as it tends to focus on pessimistic narratives with depressing endings. But he wants to end his graduate student term on a more uplifting note.

This year’s cohort of graduating students have ambitious plans ahead of them. But they have the utmost confidence in their abilities. They have spent the past two years studying all facets of filmmaking and developing their abilities just to get to this point in their school careers. They passed all their comprehensive exams and defended their projects in front of their thesis committees.

All that remains is to film their films, edit them and screen them. You can follow Moreno and Mirch’s progress by following their Instagram and crowdfounding pages: @strawberryfilm2022 and @mononoaware_film2023. And their finished products will be screened at UCA at the end of the spring semester.

University of Central Arkansas graduate film student and writer-director CJ Mirch showcases his thesis film “No Mono Aware” in a YouTube video.

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