On Screen/In Person film series allows for student interaction with film directors

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This year, Zoellner Arts Center wanted to shift away from the same old commercial films that ran in theaters throughout the summer. They followed through, and the result was the opening of the On Screen/In Person Film series Tuesday night with the world premiere of Chithra Jeyaram’s documentary “Foreign Puzzle.”

The On Screen/In Person Film series provides Lehigh students with the opportunity to watch seven documentaries on a variety of topics and speak directly with each film’s director. The free screening was open to the general public, yet garnered much first-year student enthusiasm as a 5×10 event.

Zoellner is one of seven hosts — a mix of arts centers and colleges — to screen the On Screen/In Person film series, which is sponsored by the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.

“A point that I find very compelling is that the filmmakers travel with the films for the screenings,” said Kevin Kirner, manger of ticket services and information systems in the box office at Zoellner Arts Center. “Somehow the schedule works that the film maker only has to take a week, a week and a half and then goes around to these seven places and gets to tour their film.” 

Of the film screening process, Kirner said it’s more than just creating the final product.

“We’ve seen time and time again. It’s not just making the art. They’ve made this piece, but then they’ve got to get it out there,” said Kirner of the screening process. “To have the opportunity to pick these people’s brains, to sit there and watch their work and then say okay, there’s people out there that have made things that we’ve never seen, why is it that we’re seeing yours?”

Along with Kirner, Deborah Sacarakis, artistic director at Zoellner Arts Center, said that she liked that the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation had the host sites directly vote and participate in the process of picking the winning films to screen for the series.

“Its a great opportunity to be introduced to a lot of interesting worlds that we don’t have access to a lot of times,” Sacarakis said. “So the nice thing about this is that its realized through film.”

To screen the movies for On Screen/In Person film series, Zoellner went through a three round screening process, according to Kirner. Zoellner, along with the six other hosts sites participating in the screening, kept ranking the films to narrow down the selections until the seven films were chosen. Kirner said that this year’s focus was on documentaries.

“There were a number of films that were narrative in structure,” she said. “There were experimental films, there were some that were a collection of shorts that included animation in them, but as it turned out…through the ranking process, it bore out that the documentaries rose to the top. And there was a conscious or unconscious decision to feature documentaries as the sort of entire season.”

Sacarakis said she wanted to bring the film series to Zoellner to support the filmmaking discipline.

“It’s a really wonderful artistic mode of expression,” she said. “It was a great opportunity because we’re familiar with South Side film festival and the proliferation of film in the Lehigh Valley. So it’s certainly for the Lehigh University community but also for the general public and, topically, these particular films are tremendously interesting.”

As an added incentive to students and the Bethlehem community, anyone that attends five out of the seven screenings will receive 50 percent off all-access passes to the South Side Film Festival as part of a partnership with the South Side Film Institute. This partnership attempts to bridge the gap between Lehigh Students and the Bethlehem Community through a love of film.

The first film featured in this film series was “Foreign Puzzle,” a documentary that focuses on a recently divorced mother who is a dancer and choreographer during her second year of treating her cancer.

“Foreign Puzzle” director Chithra Jeyaram said she wanted to explore breast cancer from the perspective of someone who wasn’t 50 years old. 

“I wanted to look at Breast Cancer without pink ribbons,” Jeyaram, who had a lump removed at age 19, said, “There were no pink ribbons in the film.

“I don’t want to say my problem with it, but I feel like the pink ribbon movement wants to sugar coat everything and just talk about winning and losing or ‘I beat cancer.’ I feel like that’s not the paradigm of cancer.”

Jeyaram, originally from India, felt she had a lot in common and understood Sharon, the subject of “Foreign Puzzle.”

“I like that Sharon allowed me to frame the question without pink ribbons,” Jeyaram said. “She was brave in talking about some of her fears, that I’m afraid of dying.

“American culture is not very happy about talking about death. Like the conversation that she had had with her son, when I showed it in focus groups people were like ‘Really? That is so painful. Why is doing that? She’s not a good parent.’”

Jeyaram said she was never interested in the first year of cancer, instead choosing to focus on the second year. She said that everybody knows what happens the first year, but since it is a chronic illness you have it for a while.

Jeyaram  first applied to many of the top film festivals, but then sought out community screenings, such as the On Screen/In Person Film series. She said that she’d been told that community screenings were where the most meaningful audience-filmmaker engagements occurred.

“What happens is the community screenings are organized by universities and most universities have departments that are engaged with the issues,” she said. “I feel like the film goes to the people for whom its most relevant. So the community screenings get you to that audience.

Jeyaram also mentioned the teaching element of community screenings, and said she enjoyed meeting students and sharing her storytelling.

The On Screen/In Person film series continues with the bonus screening of Academy Award winner “20 Feet from Stardom” by director Morgan Neville, Tuesday  Sept. 15 at 4:15pm and 7pm in Zoellners Baker Hall.

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