Celebrated Rowan film profs bring festival experience into the classroom

Celebrated Rowan film profs bring festival experience into the classroom

Film profs Mason (left) and Olshefski (credit Erika Tsuchiya)

Practice what you teach.

For filmmaking professors Jonathan Olshefski and Jonathan Mason in Rowan’s Department of Radio, Television & Film, that isn’t so much a mantra as a way of life.

Olshefski spent ten years filming and bonding with a North Philadelphia family in the making of his documentary Quest, which recently screened at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, the True/False Film Fest in Missouri and the New Directors/New Films Festival, where it was shown at the Museum of Modern Art and at Lincoln Center in New York City.

Set during the presidency of Barack Obama, Quest is the story of Christopher “Quest” Rainey, his wife, their family and their home music studio, a creative sanctuary amid the strife of their inner city neighborhood, and it's become popular with festival audiences and reviewers alike.

Writing in Variety, film critic Guy Lodge called the 90-minute work a “living, breathing, stunning documentary.”

Duane Byrge of the Hollywood Reporter, singling out a scene that follows the Raineys’ young daughter getting hit by a stray bullet in their neighborhood – she survived but lost an eye – wrote, “devoid of any political posturing or editorial agenda, Quest is a jarring and gentle testament to the powers of family and individual kindness."

After Olshefski's done screening it at festivals, his film will be shown on PBS through the Independent Television Service, which funds, presents, and promotes films on public television. He also held a special Rowan screening on campus April 24.

“We’re having a great festival run but that wasn’t really the plan,” Olshefski said recently. “My plan was to make the best film I could, a great film with a great life in Philadelphia, in the community.”

Still, he said, screening at Sundance, one of the best known film festivals in the world, was incredible.

“There was an outpouring of love after every screening, and that’s continued with the other festivals,” he said.

Olshefski, who brought two former students with him to help document his Sundance experience, said classroom lessons are naturally born of such opportunities.

“For me the most fulfilling part is the journey, making the film,” he said. “But the festival experience, especially screening at a place like Sundance, is great. It’s incredible interacting with audiences but it’s also about the network. A big lesson for students is, unless you’re independently wealthy, you need to network.”



Mason, who grew up in and around Paris, wrote and directed l’Échappée, an Arabic language short film shot in Algiers, the capital of Algeria. It is the story of Hocine, a taxi driver who dreams of leaving his beautiful but tough Mediterranean city to become a photographer in Italy, and he’s torn between chasing that dream and living a life in a difficult home that he ultimately loves.

Mason recently screened l’Échappée at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in France, at Cinemed, a hugely prestigious international film festival and the second largest in France after Cannes, at the Miami International Film Festival, at Trinity College's Silk Road International Film Festival in Dublin, Ireland, and at the International Oriental Film Festival Geneva in Switzerland.

At Cinemed, the 19-minute long l’Échappée won the Canal+ Prize – an award named for the French International cable TV giant Canal+ -- and the company purchased the rights to show the film in France and 13 African countries.

The film this spring was also selected for the prestigious African Film Festival New York, which is co-presented  by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Maysles Cinema Institute Harlem.

A narrative filmmaker who has worked on numerous films, including Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon starring Frank Langella, Mason said making l’Échappée with a very small budget, cast and crew was in many ways similar to working on larger productions but also more personal, and personally significant.

Writing the story about three years ago, he said he wanted to create a narrative that people would relate to – the struggle between chasing one’s dreams and staying safe in one’s home – but he also wanted to address misconceptions about the Arab world that are often common among Westerners.

“I was interested in showing an everyday slice of life story in a part of the world that people often don’t understand,” he said.


Coming back to the classroom

Shot in five days in the summer of 2015, Mason said his experience in both making the film and showing it at festivals has provided rich material for lessons.

“In the independent film world, after you make a film you show it, and try to sell it, at festivals,” he said.

Mason said short films are much easier for his students to make over a semester or two than feature length films so that is what they concentrate on.

“You take that film and start showing it at festivals,” he said. “You meet people, get your name out there, and often that leads to the next film or the next collaboration.”


A homegrown festival

Sundance and Clermont-Ferrand are notoriously difficult venues for budding filmmakers to show their work – Sundance this year screened just 113 films of nearly 14,000 submissions and Clermont, considered the most important dedicated short film festival in the world, received some 8,000 submissions but screened just 163.

Of course, there are smaller, more accessible festivals for would-be filmmakers and to ease students into the practice of showing at them, Rowan Radio, Television & Film faculty (College of Communication & Creative Arts) created RTF Media Fest, this year held on March 24, as a venue at which to screen their creations and gain experience with the juried process.

This year’s program featured screenings of more than a dozen films by Rowan students, alumni and aspiring high school filmmakers as well as audio-only programs, screenplays and new media productions.


For more information about Olshefski’s and Mason’s films, check them out on IMDB:

Quest: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6149818/

L'Échappée: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3839156/combined