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.