London Calling: Through an Internship Abroad, a Senior “Storyteller” Furthers Her Growth as a Writer and Film Student

When a high school English teacher who also happens to be an alumna of a university nationally recognized for creative writing realizes that one of her students has a passion and talent for the craft, the mission she undertakes isn’t surprising.

“She was always asking me, ‘Have you checked out Hollins?’,” Carly Lewis ’21 recalled, laughing. “She got me the Hollins Creative Writing Scholarship as sort of a final ‘Please look at Hollins’ creative writing program, it’s really good.’”

So, the native of Richmond, Virginia, did just that. “Since I liked going to an all-women’s high school, attending a historically women’s college sounded right up my alley. But I mostly wanted to come here because I found that the writing program was indeed very good. I’m a big storyteller, a storyteller in all regards, and I wanted to become a better writer and learn with other like-minded writers.”

From the beginning, Lewis thrived. The first class she took “was with a phenomenal graduate assistant who tossed a lot of rules out of the window. In high school, I was already breaking the rules of writing a little bit. But then I got to Hollins and that graduate student told me, ‘Just write what you want and do what you want. It’ll all come together in the end and we’ll help you.’ Having that freedom right off the bat was such a gift. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of what I could write and how to hone my craft before I even knew what honing my craft meant.”

Three members of Hollins’ English and creative writing faculty subsequently had a profound impact on Lewis. Professor of English and Creative Writing T.J. Anderson III showed her she could blend music with writing and it could be “heartbreaking and lovely and moving,” she said.

Lewis remembers feeling both excitement and trepidation when she enrolled in her first advanced creative writing workshop, which was taught by her advisor, Professor of English and Creative Writing Cathryn Hankla. “I was scared to read something from one of our random writing exercises during class because I thought it wasn’t going to be good. She told me, ‘No first draft is good. Just read it and you can fix it later. It’s not meant to be good at first.’ That’s always stuck with me. Even if you think it’s good, there’s always work to do. She’s always encouraged me to have confidence and trust in my writing.”

This semester, Lewis is taking her fourth and final advanced writing workshop, and her second with Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing Jessie van Eerden, who is “always cheering me on. She’s a comforting good source of critique and support.”

While Lewis came to Hollins to study creative writing, she also considered herself a visual person (one of her hobbies is photography) and enjoyed an interest in film. “I don’t know why, but it wasn’t something I’d entertained in studying until I had the opportunity to take an Introduction to Film class. I realized it’s not unlike analyzing or critiquing a book. So I thought, ‘A writer who can talk about movies, too. It’s a good pairing,’ and I ended up adding a film major.”

Lewis said the film classes that she has particularly loved are the ones she’s taken with Professor of English and Creative Writing R.H.W. Dillard. “He’s a great film critic. I’m in my third of his Film as a Narrative Art classes. He does a great job of connecting the filmmakers to their work and getting to know them, their techniques, and the history of the time when the film was made that might have impacted it.”

Another of Lewis’ aspirations when she came to Hollins was international study. Trips to Italy and Spain during high school sparked her interest in spending a semester abroad, so during one of her visits to Hollins as a prospective student, she attended a meeting about the Hollins Abroad – London program.

“I was immediately hooked. Going to London became a big part of why I wanted to come here. You take classes, but the most important thing is that you actually get to immerse yourself in life in another country.”

Carly Lewis '21 WMA
Lewis (left) at London’s Weller Media Agency. “I loved my internship and being around a bunch of crazy creatives every day.”

As Lewis prepared to travel to London to spend the 2019 fall term, she decided that completing an internship there would enrich her experience. Hollins’ Office of International Programs works through CAPA to provide international internship opportunities for students based on their areas of interest, and Lewis was placed with Weller Media Agency (WMA), a global digital creative and marketing company specializing in promoting talent in the music and entertainment industries, especially up-and-coming artists.

“It was a dream come true, it was like they read my mind almost about what I wanted to do,” Lewis said. “I’ve always been a big music person but I’d never done anything before in the music industry. I loved my internship and being around a bunch of crazy creatives all day, every day. They were just so nice and encouraging.”

Lewis did everything from graphic design and social media content to writing for Spindle (a magazine affiliated with WMA), engaging in public relations activities, and assisting with film and photography production. “It was fun because everyone is working in the same room and all I had to do was walk from one table to the next to see if there was anything they needed. They were very gracious and excited to have me help out on a bunch of projects such as shooting music videos and meeting and interviewing talent. Interacting with the artists I listened to or wrote about was really cool.”

Carly Lewis '21 Arlette House London
“Going to London became a big part of why I wanted to come [to Hollins]. You get to immerse yourself in life in another country.”
The Hollins senior believes her WMA internship has opened a door for her. “I never really entertained the thought of working in the music industry in terms of film and photography or even as a writer, but this showed me I could do it and how it could happen. And Weller was such a great place for networking.”

The WMA experience mirrored what Lewis encountered throughout her semester in London. “The people are so kind and giving, and so imaginative,” she said. One of her favorite parts of the city is Brick Lane, located in the East End. “There are loads of little thrift shops and it’s really artistic. They do graffiti tours down there so there’s always artists spray painting the walls with these giant murals. I really liked their music scene, too. I went to a lot of concerts there.”

Carly Lewis '21 Brick Lane Graffiti Tour
Lewis was captivated by Brick Lane on London’s East End with its graffiti tours, thrift shops, and vibrant music scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lewis praises the host family with whom she lived. “I loved them so much. My host mom was interested in what was doing, very supportive, and recommended what to see and where to eat. She made sure I knew how to get to those places, too, whether it was on the Tube or taking a bus. She was always looking out for me, and it was nice to have someone who was already living there be a guide. I can’t recommend enough living with a host family.”

Carly Lewis '21 Stratford Upon Avon
A jaunt through Stratford-Upon-Avon in the county of Warwickshire, England.

Lewis’ final semester is a busy one. She’s wrapping up her third year as a CA (Community Assistant), a position that has offered her the chance to draw upon her experience as the oldest sister in her own family to mentor first-year students. “I get to watch them when they first come to college and see how they change. It’s crazy how much they grow into themselves, even in the first semester. It’s just great to be a part of that.”

But perhaps the most ambitious project on Lewis’ plate at the moment is her first novel, which she began a couple of years ago and draws upon her study abroad experience. “It’s realistic fiction and it involves music, it’s about a band, and it’s set in London,” she explained. “It’s combining all of my favorite things and in the genre that I think is the most ‘me.’ It’s very hard but it is fun.” She noted that Hankla and van Eerden have both been very supportive, reading parts of the novel and offering suggestions as the work progresses.

Carly Lewis '21 Hampstead Heath
Lewis at London’s Hampstead Heath: “Eventually I think I will go back. I felt like I was leaving behind a home, and one day it will be time to go back home.”

 

 

 

 

Following graduation this spring, Lewis hopes to secure a music editorial internship with NPR. She’s also been in touch with Hollins alumnae in Richmond about possible opportunities within the area’s robust film production industry. “I also want to look at music studios to intern or just come in and see what they are all about, partly because I’m interested in getting to know the music industry better, but also to gather research for my novel.”

Even though her future plans are still coming together, Lewis has little doubt a particular city will figure prominently whatever she pursues. “After I returned here following my London experience, it seemed like I should be back there. Eventually I think I will go back, possibly for grad school in a couple of years. I felt like I was leaving behind a home,
and one day it will be time to go back home.”


Balancing Act: Hollins Professor Deftly Juggles Filmmaking with Teaching

Pursuing scholarly or creative work while ensuring a meaningful experience for students in the classroom is a daily challenge for every college professor. Associate Professor of Film Amy Gerber-Stroh, who chairs the film department at Hollins and codirects the university’s graduate programs in screenwriting and film studies, has accrued 40 years as a professional filmmaker and nearly three decades teaching film in higher education. For her, immersion in both vocations is the key to success and fulfillment.

“Teaching learners of all ages and abilities has been really rewarding. It has made me a better filmmaker, much more so than if I were balancing filmmaking and [the demands of] Hollywood,” she said.

Gerber-Stroh laid her foundations at Los Angeles’ CalArts (California Institute of the Arts), which was founded by Walt Disney. Alumni including directors Tim Burton and Sofia Coppola set high standards. “It’s a school that shaped me in terms of experimental directing and trying different things from an artist’s point of view rather than a consumer point of view. A lot of the other film schools in L.A. are really more geared toward the Hollywood box office.”

After CalArts, Gerber-Stroh admits she “got sucked into Hollywood and worked on a lot of strange stuff, mostly as a casting associate.” Her mainstream movie credits range from City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold (1994), Angels in the Outfield (1994), and Tank Girl (1995) to Goldeneye (1995), The Craft (1996), and The Mask of Zorro (1998). Fortunately for Gerber-Stroh, casting work was just a day job. “At the same time, I was making a lot of experimental art films, and I was also working at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. That was a great gig because I was able to make films about painters and sculptors. It honed my sensibilities and drove me artistically.”

In 2000, Gerber-Stroh launched her own production company, FlatCoatFilms, and began producing her own short films, documentary features, and animation projects. After joining the Hollins faculty in 2007, her task was to balance filmmaking with her new passion for teaching.

“It takes a long, long time to make films. I sort of rotate between longer and shorter pieces,” she explained. “Shorts can take a couple of years. Feature-length projects for independent filmmakers take anywhere from four to eight years. The reason is, if you’re not backed by a major production company or studio, the money is trickling in. You’re getting grant money, maybe you’re getting people who are investing in your films, or you’re getting GoFundMe campaigns going. Thanks to Hollins, I received seed money for my current project.”

Gerber-Stroh has addressed a variety of subjects in her films. Public Memory (2004) explores the meanings and motivations of American memorials. The Truth About Trees: A Natural and Human History (2015) is a three-part documentary series for PBS made in collaboration with the James Agee Film Project. Do Cell Towers Dream of Morse Code? (2019), which imagines the possibilities if cell towers actually developed consciousness, won the Silver Award for Experimental Works at the 2020 University Film and Video Conference. (“Professors who make films have developed such a great community, and so it was really nice to win an award there.”) Cell Towers also earned awards and acclaim at the Miami International Sci-Fi Film Festival and Chicago’s International Art House Film Festival.

But the greatest source of inspiration and material has come from both sides of Gerber-Stroh’s own family. In My Grandfather Was a Nazi Scientist: Opa, von Braun and Operation Paperclip (2011), she uncovers the secret past of Dr. Eduard Gerber, who was among hundreds of Nazi scientists brought to the United States after World War II through a classified and controversial government program. She’s currently writing, directing, and producing a hybrid documentary called Hope of Escape. It tells the story of how her forebears escaped slavery.

“Some scholars believe Cornelia Read, my great-great-grandmother, and her mother, Diana Williams, were born free in Charleston, South Carolina. But we know that, at some point, they became enslaved. They learned they were about to be sold and separated forever, so they had to get out of there. At the same time, Cornelia had a sweetheart. This is the man who would become my great-great-grandfather, William Benjamin Gould. He was also enslaved and planning his escape from Wilmington, North Carolina.

“Cornelia fled by train in a harrowing journey. William eventually escaped in a skiff on the Cape Fear River and was picked up by the U.S.S. Niagara, a Union steam frigate that was blockading the Wilmington harbor. I detail their escapes, getting into what they both were thinking and feeling, while giving insight into their lives, their times, and the obstacles they faced. Both my great-great-grandparents were literate, highly educated, and wrote beautifully. Literacy for the enslaved was illegal in the South, but someone was definitely teaching them. What it was like to be enslaved and educated, and acknowledging the benefits of having lighter skin, are also aspects of their escape that the film will examine.”

Gerber-Stroh has a compelling primary source, a diary that William Gould kept during his escape and continued to write as a sailor for the Union during the Civil War. “My uncle, named for William Gould, wrote a book about this diary, which is one of just three in existence that depicts such an experience. It’s located in the Massachusetts Historical Society and is a great resource for me, serving as a jumping-off point for how I’m going to approach the story.”

Quite a few boldface names played roles in this epic history. Diana and Cornelia grew up in family circles that included the Ball and Laurens families (of Hamilton fame). “Sometimes you would have to pay what was called ‘ransom money’ to gain your family’s freedom. The famous abolitionists Henry Highland Garnet and Lewis Tappan, along with the Rev. James Crawford, gathered money from as far away as England, where many abolitionist societies were dedicated to helping the enslaved. The Duchess of Sutherland was truly an angel investor in that 19th century GoFundMe!” said Gerber-Stroh.

As the film project has ramped up, meaningful opportunities have arisen for Hollins undergraduates. Film major Anja Holland ’21 served as one of Gerber-Stroh’s research fellows on the project. “Anja really helped me with historical research, finding scholars, developing a production schedule, and looking for locations.” Filming is set to begin this summer in Wilmington on the Cape Fear River and also in Charleston.

Gerber-Stroh is devoting her spring term sabbatical to continuing work on Hope of Escape. “This is a really great time for me to dig into my roots and tell the story. It’s a popular genre in film right now—I’m thinking of Harriet (2019)— but Cornelia, William, and Diana had a unique experience that I think audiences will appreciate. I’m very excited. How many filmmakers get the chance to make ‘profiles in courage’ of family members they’re proudest of in the whole world?!”

Watch Gerber-Stroh’s presentation, “Filmmaker in Academe: Producing Films Large and Small,” part of the Faculty Authors and Achievers series sponsored by the Wyndham Robertson Library.


Hollins Professor R.H.W. Dillard Talks Centennial Of Legendary Italian Director Federico Fellini

Cinephiles around the globe are no doubt celebrating the centennial of famed Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini. The year 2020 marks a century since the birth of one of cinema’s most quirky, creative, and surreal auteurs—Fellini directed more than a dozen projects across a career that spanned nearly five decadesand this month will see the release of Essential Fellini, a new 15-disc Criterion Collection box set of Fellini classics, including Academy Award-winners La Strada, Amarcord, and, perhaps the original hyper-meta film-within-a-film, 8 ½.

Fellini films also have quite a history at Hollins University. The Italian director is a favorite of Professor of English, Creative Writing, and Film R. H. W. Dillard, award-winning author and editor of The Hollins Critic.

“He’s an extraordinary filmmaker, and he does it with such clarity in his heart,” said Dillard about the enduring popularity of Fellini’s cinematic universe, which was so unique it gave rise to the term “Felliniesque.” (Fellini’s La Dolce Vita also spawned the word “paparazzi” from one of the movie’s characters, an obnoxiously persistent photographer named Paparazzo.) “Fellini’s humanity draws us back to him, as well as his art,” said Dillard about the director’s gifts. “There are lots of artistically competent filmmakers, but Fellini I’m drawn back to again and again. It’s a cliché, but his films have this heart to them.”

To Dillard’s point, Fellini had a gift for depicting all his characters, even some of his most despicable or grotesque, with a kind of forgivability and gentleness. There are no true antagonists or villains in many of Fellini’s films, only flawed but usually likeable and endearing characters against the currents of the larger world. “Amore per tutti (love for all),” one of Fellini’s characters famously declares in the director’s 1965 film Juliet of the Spirits, a movie about a suburban woman who begins seeing visions while grappling with the abandonment of her husband. “Love for all” seems to perfectly sum up the director’s attitude toward not just his own characters but indeed to the larger, messier tapestry that is humanity. In Amarcord, a film about growing up in Fascist Italy under Mussolini, even Fellini’s depiction of the Fascists and their supporters reveals that, for the most part, they are just people, too: neighbors and townsfolk, a high school math teacher, a clerk at a cigarette shop, or—in the case of the semi-autobiographical central character Titta—a freeloading uncle who rats out his own brother-in-law.

Fellini On Set
“One hundred years after his birth, Federico Fellini still stands apart as a giant of the cinema.” – The Criterion Collection

“He was an artist determined to reveal his full vision as vividly and completely as possible, to discover the universal in the particular,” wrote Dillard in a 1994 essay published in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture shortly after the Italian auteur had passed away. “Fellini was an artist who depended upon individual and particular vision and expression rather than politically codified generalities and stereotypes.”

Dillard’s connection to both Fellini and Hollins runs deep. In addition to offering a course on Fellini for many decades at the university (he’s actually teaching Fellini this semester, in honor of the maestro’s 100th, in his Film as a Narrative Art class), Dillard said that Hollins is where he saw his first Fellini film. Ever. “When I was an undergrad at Roanoke College, La Strada was showing at Hollins,” said Dillard, recalling the classic film that fetched Fellini his first Oscar win for Best Foreign Language Film (Fellini would go on to win three more awards in this category, a record). “That was also the first time I ever set foot on the Hollins campus. Eight years later, I came back to work here, and I’ve been teaching Fellini ever since. So I’ve always connected the two.”

That screening at Hollins sparked a decades-long Fellini fascination for Dillard. In a situation somewhat reminiscent of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dillard’s dedication to Fellini cinema even caused him to brave a crowded theater during the H3N2/Hong Kong flu pandemic in the 1960s. “When Hollins was the first college in America to close down with the Hong Kong flu—and the national news reported it—my friend [and film professor] Tom Atkins was teaching 8 ½ in his film class in Babcock,” Dillard recalled. “I thought, ‘I’m not gonna miss 8 ½,’ because back then that was the only way I could see it. And the room was full of people with blankets, all of them were sick. I watched the movie and loved every moment. And I caught the flu for it.” (Dillard is quick to caution current Hollins students not to follow in his footsteps.)

As for Fellini’s future in the pantheon of the world’s great filmmakers, Dillard has no doubt of the Italian director’s place. “I think he’s made it—he’s never going away,” said Dillard. “Post-World War II cinema is one of the great periods of art, like Elizabethan/Jacobean drama in English, and that doesn’t go away. Fellini and Bergman and Antonioni, they’re all gonna last. And thanks to technology, we can see them in Blu-Ray.” Speaking of which, Dillard added that he’s already preordered his copy of the Criterion Collection’s Fellini Essential box set (due out November 24). With a smile, Dillard said he’s just waiting for it to arrive so he can watch Fellini’s masterpieces all over again.

 


Amy Gerber-Stroh’s Latest Film Probes Connectedness and Isolation, Detachment and Engagement, in the Modern World

Cell towers have become a ubiquitous 21st century presence, so common that most people hardly notice them anymore. Amy Gerber-Stroh, associate professor of film at Hollins University, is the observant exception.

“High above they are watching us, listening to us, and digesting us,” she says. “At first you never see them, but once you start actively looking, you realize that they are everywhere.”

Gerber-Stroh is fascinated with the ways in which cell technology has impacted society, and imagines the possibilities if cell towers actually developed consciousness. “What does it mean to have these looming totem poles on our landscape? Knowing that millions of bits of data go through cell towers every day, could they tell us something about ourselves if they could speak? What would they say? These questions creep into my mind whenever I spot the strange, inconspicuous metallic structures that dominate our space much like telegraph poles once did in the 19th century. Today the air is alive with signals from all directions, some clean, some not, both in terms of content and form. Are cell towers nostalgic for their wooden telegraph ancestors who channeled signals that were simple and pure?”

Gerber-Stroh explores these scenarios in her latest film, Do Cell Towers Dream of Morse Code?  Shot in Roanoke, the 27-minute production was honored with the Silver Award for Experimental Works at the 2020 University Film and Video Conference (home of the Journal of Film and Video), and also earned awards and acclaim at the Miami International Sci-Fi Film Festival and Chicago’s International Art House Film Festival. (Please note that the film contains adult language and is intended for mature audiences.)

“In Do Cell Towers Dream of Morse Code?, Gerber-Stroh presents us with a vision of an artificial intelligence that, after being forced to ‘consume’ the suffering and pain of others, wants to have a say in the outcomes it can only witness,” says Vincenzo Mistretta, professor of film production at the University of Southern Mississippi. “The film beautifully captures humanity’s collective cognitive dissonance at the prospect of trying to untangle the borders between real and virtual, connected and alienated, human and non-human. As these categories continue to collapse into one another, our own lives may become increasingly difficult to navigate.”

Do Cell Towers Dream of Morse Code?  begins with a “breaking news” teaser from a fictional TV channel: In an “increasingly disturbing situation,” cell towers are catching fire across the country, inexplicably and at an alarming rate.

The film then shifts to a point of view from above two adjacent city parking lots at night, and eavesdrops on the text conversations of three unrelated characters who are waiting there: “Kate” is picking up her son from music lessons; “Amanda” is looking forward to meeting a date for the evening; and “Daniel” claims he is heading to the nearby Y to work out.UFVA Conference Award Winner

“Amongst the scores of parked cars at night in any town or city, one may find a collection of glowing blue light that shines through the fog and condensation of their windows,” Gerber-Stroh says. “The inhabitants think they are alone as they perform a symphony of chords in gigahertz, willingly offering up their electromagnetic fields of hopes, dreams, and fears. But they are not alone. A cell tower is always nearby.”

Solely through their text messages, the film gradually reveals that each character’s story is far more complex that it initially appears. Kate, a single parent, is struggling with a personal financial crisis. Amanda’s date’s ex-boyfriend is jealous and possibly violent. Daniel is in fact a stalker. The tension grows when three men drive into the lot and begin acting oddly after they step outside their vehicle.

Meanwhile, a technician who arrives at the cell tower to do maintenance starts receiving cryptic messages on his work laptop. Dismissing the communications as the work of hackers, the tech is incredulous when the source claims to be an artificial intelligence that has become sentient – the cell tower itself. Proclaiming it is “ill” from “information fatigue,” the cell tower shares its dilemma: “As you might surmise, the world goes through us. We see everything, yet we can do nothing. It is eating us alive. Like a cancer. Or to be more precise: like consuming multitudes of fast food.”

The tower concludes, “Knowledge is worthless without action,” and sets itself on fire. Climbing back down to street level to escape the danger, the technician receives a final video message from the tower that, as Mistretta explains, “guides the repairman toward noticing the real world. It accomplishes its goal to have a real effect on the physical world.”

At its core, Gerber-Stroh believes Do Cell Towers Dream of Morse Code?  “offers a brief view from an observer at a unique vantage point. We experience a witness’ fixed perspective of events that occur on a supposed benign street corner. Who is the witness? And what is the witness’ connection to the lone souls below, parked in cars and affixed to their smartphones? The film captures a linear moment in time, exploring the ideas of connectedness and isolation, detachment and engagement, that sometimes occur simultaneously in our modern world.”

A member of the Hollins faculty since 2007, Gerber-Stroh chairs the university’s film department and co-directs the M.A. and M.F.A. programs in screenwriting and film studies. Her films have won honors at numerous film festivals and professional venues, including the Edinburgh International Film Festival; Mill Valley Film Festival; Film Forum, Los Angeles; and Women in the Director’s Chair in Chicago.

Gerber-Stroh’s documentary, My Grandfather Was a Nazi Scientist: Opa, von Braun and Operation Paperclip, was shown at the Charles Guggenheim Center for Documentary Film and also received several other film festival and honorary screenings. Amazon describes it as “a very interesting account of events that are rarely covered in our nation’s history. The film chronicles Gerber’s personal journey to discover and uncover her grandfather’s role in post-war America.”

Russia Was a Woman, Gerber-Stroh’s award-winning screenplay, is gaining some interest at Rooster Teeth and Netflix as a possible limited series. In its review, Fresh Voices calls the work “an interesting revisionist take on Ivan the Terrible’s wife,” and praises Gerber-Stroh for her “ambition, imagination and creation of two lead LGBT characters.”

Gerber-Stroh has had significant professional film experience in Hollywood and New York. She worked on several movie features by Roger Corman and casted 12 major motion pictures including The Mask of Zorro (Columbia Pictures), Goldeneye (MGM), Afterglow (Sony Pictures Classics), Tank Girl (United Artists), and Angels in the Outfield (Disney).


WVTF: Hollins Program Cranks Out Hopeful Filmmakers

WVTF Public Radio aired this profile of Hollins University’s graduate programs in screenwriting and film studies, featuring interviews with students Amy Roskelly –Shiovitz, Christie Collins, and Maisie Deely, and program director Tim Albaugh.

“We bring a piece of LA to the Roanoke area,” Albaugh said, noting, “I get a lot more satisfaction now helping a student launch their career than I do with any of the professional work that I do.”

Deely added, “You’re not only connected to your classmates in the current program, but also creating opportunities for alumni to come back, so it’s really exciting to see folks who did the same the same program of study I did who are now working in the industry.”

 

 

Photo Credit: Jeff Bossert, WVTF Public Radio


Film Major’s LGBT Short Is a YouTube Sensation

A Hollins University student filmmaker is generating impressive online buzz with her unconventional approach to the LGBT movie genre.

Collide, a short film written and directed by Hannah Thompson ’20, has been seen more than 510,000 times since it premiered on YouTube in December 2016.

“I wanted to do something original that I could relate to,” says Thompson, a double-major in film and psychology from Warrenton, Virginia. “A lot of LGBT short films are also geared toward a straight audience by featuring two fem lesbians and portraying sexual situations. They can make more money that way, but it has always made me feel uncomfortable.”

Collide is the story of two young women who dislike one another intensely upon their first meeting in a high school classroom. But when their teacher pairs them on a project that focuses on conquering their individual fears, a friendship blossoms and they ultimately fall in love.

“Coming out is not a main plot point,” Thompson explains. “There’s no tragic story where being gay is their downfall. Their sexuality is never mentioned. It’s just something that happens similar to any straight love story. I wanted people to watch Collide and say, ‘Wow, I’ve had this happen to me.’”

Based on the more than 1,100 comments that have been posted on YouTube since the film’s debut, Collide has clearly touched many. Thompson believes it’s because the story “ends happily. We’re excited for what’s to come, and people understand that the two main characters are going to be together. Often, especially in popular films, it doesn’t happen that way. I wanted something that was easy for people to latch onto, and I’m grateful they did.”

Thompson says she’s been humbled by what people have shared. Feedback has often been along the lines of, “I don’t really see happy lesbian stories. I’m so glad to find something relatable instead of watching a heterosexual romance and hoping I can find something that’s meaningful to me.” Viewers overseas have expressed this common sentiment: “This isn’t legal here, but I’m so glad to see something like this. It makes me feel that maybe one day I can have this life.”

The film has also inspired fan fiction and even prompted Halloween revelers to dress up as the film’s characters. In March, Unite UK: An LGBT+ Blog Uniting the Community Together, interviewed Thompson and members of the film’s cast for a feature story, and last summer, Collide was an official selection as a semi-finalist at Canada’s Our Voices Film Festival.

Thompson’s journey of artistic discovery that ultimately led to filmmaking was by no means pre-determined. She attended art classes and camps from an early age, “but I couldn’t find the thing I was best at. I did theatre, studio art, photography, and I was mediocre at all those things. I never really found what I loved until I took a film class at Hollins.”

Growing up, Thompson was familiar with Hollins because her grandmother is an alumna. In her early teens, at her grandmother’s urging, Thompson attended Hollinsummer, the university’s educational camp for rising ninth through 12th grade girls. “I was scared because it was my first sleepaway camp,” she recalls, “but I loved the campus. It was the first time I’d ever been away from home that I wasn’t homesick. I felt like it was sort of my place.”

That impression still resonated with Thompson when she was applying to colleges a few years later. “Even though I had been at Hollins a lot, I went ahead and did a real campus tour. I remember turning to my mom and saying, ‘This is it.’”

Thompson initially thought she’d major only in psychology, but her artistic drive persisted despite her previous frustrations. Since film was a genre she had not actively pursued previously, she decided to enroll in a video production class her first year. “I was nervous because it was the first film class I had ever taken. I worried, ‘What if this doesn’t go well for me?’ I don’t like not being good at things.”

Fortunately, Thompson quickly found an ally in Amy Gerber-Stroh, associate professor of film and chair of Hollins’ film department. An accomplished filmmaker in her own right, Gerber-Stroh helped Thompson build her confidence and realize film making was the artistic outlet she had been seeking.

“Amy has changed my life in so many different ways. Coming into Hollins, I was afraid I wasn’t going to find the thing I could pour my entire heart into. I felt like I had so much to say and I didn’t know where to put it.”

With guidance from Gerber-Stroh and other faculty as well as the support of her fellow film students, Thompson says she “has a home in the film department. It’s this place where I can be myself and share my art. Sometimes you have to do that when your work is incomplete and therefore at its most vulnerable, but I’ve learned that’s okay because students and mentors are always there to help, especially when you’re flustered and your ideas aren’t working out.”

Thompson now has four films available online. Another short, August and the Rain Boots (2017), is similar to Collide in that it tells the story of a friendship that grows into a romantic relationship and ends on a celebratory note. The film boasts more than 192,000 YouTube views and was recently selected to appear at the Oregon Cinema Arts Film Festival.

“Hannah has become such a superstar through our film program,” Gerber-Stroh says. “It’s remarkable how often she gets requests from advertisers, actors, and others from the film industry asking for a chance to work with her. She epitomizes this new era of how students make films and videos and how they show their work.”

Thompson plans to go to Los Angeles after graduating from Hollins. “I want to be a director for the rest of my life, telling my stories and working with amazing people.”

 

Photo caption: Hannah Thompson ’20 shoots a scene for her 2017 short film, August and the Rain Boots. 


Senior Thesis, Film Short Screenings Showcase Student Filmmakers

Over the past four years, senior film majors at Hollins have honed their craft through a variety of hands-on, on-campus opportunities. These students will conclude their undergraduate careers by screening their senior thesis films and screenplays on Wednesday and Thursday, May 2 and 3, from 7 – 8 p.m. in the Wetherill Visual Arts Center’s Niederer Auditorium.

“We teach a comprehensive curriculum for film studies and for film/video production. Other schools don’t always invest in all these disciplines under one roof,” explains Amy Gerber-Stroh, associate professor of film and chair of the Hollins film department. “Very few schools in the nation offer an undergraduate all-woman film program, particularly a program that includes film/video production.”

This year’s senior thesis screenings include:

Wednesday, May 2

Honey Bear’s Big Adventure by Rachel Harris (animation)
A young bear fails at her attempts to talk to a cute bunny who brings the mail every day. It’s not until Honey Bear saves the world that she can summon the courage to ask Bunny-Boo out.

Homeless in Bolivia by Annalise Kiser (documentary)
Shalom, an organization in Bolivia, takes in homeless and neglected children. This film reflects on stories about dedicated volunteers and the children who seek refuge.

Dust Buddies by Allison Moore (scene reading of screenplay pilot)
Maxa Thousand is an anthropomorphic armadillo who enjoys solitude in the Grand Stretch until he meets AcroBat, a girl bat who is trapped at a circus and begs Maxa to break her out.

In These Woods by Nia Orellana (narrative)
Kevin, a young cryptid, is ready to explore the human world, finding allies to help him and those who would like nothing better than to see him dead.

Conspiracy by Seph Reid (scene readings of feature screenplay)
On the anniversary of his sister’s death, an old friend shows up at Mark’s workplace with a shocking secret.

Thursday, May 3

The Souls Within by James Stewart (scene readings of feature screenplay)
Sarah is a new kid in school who is miserable until she meets a boy named Zim. When they discover a strange book in the library, their lives change forever.

Frankie & June by Leiana Valenzuela (narrative)
Amidst a surreal landscape of Los Angeles, flighty June must overcome her fear of love in order to accept herself and her feelings for her best friend Frankie.

Appetite by Delaney Walker (animation)
A boy named Johnny accepts a job as a groundskeeper’s apprentice. All he has to do is assist in routine trimmings, yard work, and orange harvesting. How bad could it be?

We Are Here to Stay by Sydney Williams (documentary)
A film that explores the meaning of transgender and the reasons why transmen students choose to attend single-gendered institutions.

 

In addition, the Hollins film department will present film shorts made by the Spring Term 2018 film production classes on Friday, May 11, from 7 – 8:30 p.m.

Admission to all three screenings is free and open to the public.

 


“Dallas Buyers Club” Screenwriter Craig Borten Visits Hollins

Craig Borten, the Academy Award-nominated co-writer of Dallas Buyers Club, is coming to Hollins University for an intimate screening of the film, a question-and-answer session, and a reception on Friday, June 23, beginning at 7 p.m. in Niederer Auditorium, Wetherill Visual Arts Center.

Admission to this exclusive event is free and open to the public.

Dallas Buyers Club is based on the true story of Ron Woodruff, who worked around the system to help AIDS patients get the medication they needed after he was diagnosed with the disease. The 2013 movie stars Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, and Jared Leto.

“I’m eager to share a firsthand account of the process of screenwriting and my passion for the film industry,” said Borten, who joins the program at the invitation of Tim Albaugh, director of the Hollins graduate screenwriting and film studies program.

After the screening, Borten and Albaugh will discuss the difficult path to production for the film, Borten’s career, and the movie making business.

“Our students’ favorite part of the screenwriting and film studies program is our guest artist visits,” said Albaugh. “We are lucky to hear from Craig about the lessons learned from his experiences in the film industry, and we will pair this real-world advice with our faculty’s academic expertise to help students succeed.”

Each summer, Hollins’ program welcomes guest artists to campus to share their work and experience. Program faculty include professional film and television writers as well as professors from world-renowned film schools such as UCLA and NYU.

Dallas Buyers Club was the first produced screenplay by Borten. The film received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Original Screenplay. He also cowrote The 33, which is based on the true story of 33 Chilean miners trapped in a mine for 69 days. Currently, he is in production on an hour-long drama series for A+E Studios on the opioid epidemic. Borten has been writing scripts for more than 20 years.


Hollins Names Albaugh to Lead Graduate Studies in Screenwriting and Film Studies

albaughHollins University has named writer/producer Tim Albaugh as the new director of Hollins’ master of arts and master of fine arts programs in screenwriting and film studies, beginning in the summer of 2012. He succeeds Professor of Film and Founding Director Klaus Phillips, who passed away suddenly in early October.

Albaugh, who has taught in Hollins’ M.F.A. screenwriting program since 2007, is a graduate of the M.F.A. screenwriting program at UCLA and has taught screenwriting at UCLA, UC Irvine, Pixar Animation Studios, and Walt Disney Feature Animation. He wrote Trading Favors, a film starring Rosanna Arquette and Cuba Gooding, Jr., and his students have sold scripts to numerous studios, producers and production companies, including HBO, Showtime, Lifetime, Nickelodeon Films, the Coen Brothers, and all the major television networks. The film The Machinist, starring Christian Bale, was written by Scott Kosar, a student in Albaugh’s class at UCLA.

“While the campus community continues to miss Klaus’ presence, we know he would like nothing more than for the graduate programs in screenwriting and film studies to continue and to grow,” said Hollins’ Vice President for Academic Affairs Jeanine Stewart. “Tim is the person we believe is best able to take on this challenge. He has been a wonderful asset for the past four years and offers a wealth of experience as well as familiarity with our students and faculty. He will do an excellent job of leading these programs.”

Hollins has offered an M.A. in screenwriting and film studies since 1999 and an M.F.A. in screenwriting since 2005. The summer programs draw instructors from the ranks of Hollins’ permanent faculty as well as visiting screenwriters, filmmakers and distinguished scholars from other institutions. The Summer 2012 session will be held June 18 – July 27.


New Award Pays Homage to the Memory of Film Professor Klaus Phillips

phillipsTwo friends and colleagues of the founding director of Hollins University’s graduate programs in screenwriting and film studies are honoring his memory by establishing a monetary award in his name.

Hal Ackerman, co-chair of the graduate screenwriting program at UCLA, and Tim Albaugh, a member of the UCLA screenwriting faculty who was recently named the new director of Hollins’ master of arts (M.A.) and master of fine arts (M.F.A.) programs in screenwriting and film studies, have created The Klaus Phillips/UCLA Screenwriting Award in tribute to the professor of film and internationally recognized film scholar who passed away in October 2011.

“Each year, a $1,000 award will be made to a student participating in the summer M.A. or M.F.A program in screenwriting and film studies who writes a screenplay that best exemplifies the joyous, courageous, independent spirit that emanated from Klaus Phillips,” said Albaugh, who along with Ackerman has been a member of the screenwriting and film studies faculty at Hollins for several years.

“For nearly three decades, Klaus shared his passion for and vast knowledge of film with countless undergraduate and graduate students,” Albaugh added. “Thanks to his tireless dedication, the summer master’s programs continually feature noted scholars, filmmakers, and screenwriters from around the world.”

Born in Munich, Germany, Phillips joined the Hollins faculty in 1984 and started the university’s M.A. program in screenwriting and film studies in 1999. The M.F.A. program was launched in 2005. The programs offer courses of study in the writing of screenplays and the study of the history, aesthetics, and theory of the art of film.

Classes take place for six weeks each summer and students typically complete their graduate degree in three years.