It’s no secret that Western New York has been making its mark as a destination city over the past decade. With exquisite architectural bones and a rich cultural history, the Buffalo/Niagara region has been drawing attention to itself with a continuously expanding waterfront and urban landscape, new and interesting culinary experiences popping up about town, a seemingly endless list of festivals and outdoor events, and a vibrant art scene attracting both young and old.
If you’re inclined to the arts, you’ll not want to miss the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival (BNFF) beginning its 12th run next month, September 2017. The mission of the BNFF is to be a filmmakers’ festival, hosted by filmmakers and screenwriters for filmmakers and screenwriters in a region that loves the arts and has produced many famous industry icons both behind the camera, on the screen, and abroad. The festival runs from September 20th to October 1st and features full-length films, documentaries, shorts and screenplays. A full schedule is available online.
In the Spring of 2017 BNFF Founder and President Bill Cowell along with Executive Director Rocco LaPenna partnered with the Buffalo Board of Education and proposed the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival’s Student Film Project. The project presented an opportunity for high school juniors and seniors to participate in a five-minute short film screenwriting contest. Cowell and LaPenna were interested in understanding the current voice of youth and thought that this contest provided a unique opportunity for kids to experience first-hand what goes into the making of a film. LaPenna adds, “I had started shooting short films when I lived in L.A. When you’re a filmmaker writing shorts is a really good exercise in writing. It teaches you how to write a complete story concisely in five minutes, and there’s a really big challenge to it.” The Board gave the project a green-light in May.
With little time left to the school year LaPenna visited five Buffalo Schools each week; The International Preparatory School, Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, City Honors, Virtual Pathways, and South Park High School, holding Q & A sessions on writing a short five-minute film to anyone interested. The schools, they say, were really excited about this because it was a great educational opportunity for the students that was of no cost to them.
At this point fundraising was necessary to raise the $3,400.00 needed to produce the anticipated winning film. Thanks to the generosity of Dr. Andrew Covey and Rock Doyle who hosted an event at their home, the entirety of production costs was quickly raised in one evening. The next step was to find a winner.
With such a short time-frame, educators were hoping that at least a few kids would rise to the challenge. However, by June 15th the project had received a total of 10 submissions that came from all five schools. Each script was reviewed by a panel of Harvard Fine Arts grads, but one unanimous winner emerged. Sixteen year-old Luqman Muhammad will be entering his senior year at City Honors this September. Among his to-do list on his busy schedule will be an appearance at the premier of his winning short film, Fallout, on September 22nd in Niagara Falls.
Muhammad created the plot of Fallout while playing video games one evening. The next day he brought his idea to school and turned it into a script. The film’s story begins 20 days into a nuclear attack as three strangers are faced with the dilemma of finding food while a further complication presents itself as they learn that a second bomb is soon to hit.
LaPenna did not want Muhammad to write the script and be done; he maintains that it was important that the winner not just submit a script to be taken over for production. Consequently, Muhammad was involved with every aspect of the film’s evolution from start to finish and was on-set throughout the summer. There was editing that had to be done, changes to the script, problems on set that needed to be dealt with and myriad issues involved with the making of the film that ultimately became an 8-minute short instead of a 5 minute.
LaPenna recognizes that this is quite a commitment for a 16 year-old kid, but acknowledges that a fundamental aspect of the contest is for the winner to be involved through completion stating, “I want people to learn how to do this, the whole process. It’s a lot of hard work.” Muhammad couldn’t agree more. He says of the experience, “I got to observe how things work. It was so interesting to see the collaboration involved. I think that this was a great experience, definitely.”
Fallout features Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown in a voiceover as well has his son, Byron III, as an actor along with Kimberly Neal, Jeremy Wells, and Rocco LaPenna and was co-directed and edited by Mark Pasqualotto. Interior shots were filmed in a home in Derby, New York with outdoor scenes filmed at Love Canal on 100th Street in Niagara Falls.
The premier will take place at 7:00 PM on September 22nd at Four Seasons Cinema in Niagara Falls and is a free event. The film will be followed by an open discussion on the making of Fallout with Mayor Byron Brown and filmmakers with a feature film played afterward. It will additionally show on September 26th at 3:00 PM and September 27th at 8:00 PM at the same venue as one of several short films featured in the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival. LaPenna is working with Peggy Barady from the Buffalo Board of Education to coordinate bus transportation for students to the premier, and hopefully city educators and principals to support Muhammad as well as to build interest and momentum leading into the next school year.
That said, with Fallout successfully completed, Cowell and LaPenna plan to open up the competition to all Buffalo public schools with the potential to include all schools in the Western New York and Niagara region that are interested. LaPenna hopes that the program will be of interest to many students this Fall and advises, “If you want to have a career in this very competitive industry you have to be willing to embrace being entrepreneurial. Early on in my career I had no idea how much work went into this. It’s really important to learn all facets of the process and embrace all the parts equally.” Muhammad agrees with LaPenna’s assessment and urges students who are interested in filmmaking to get involved with the program.
LaPenna received his undergraduate degree from NYU and his MFA from Harvard and the Moscow Art Theater and has since worked in both Buffalo and Los Angeles in the film industry. He is currently developing a Community Writing Center to be located in downtown Buffalo where people will be able to learn more about writing and acting in a hands-on environment.
To learn more about the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival you can visit their website or visit their Facebook page. To inquire about the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival Student Film Project or the Community Writing Center, contact Rocco LaPenna directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In his words LaPenna’s journey is constantly evolving, “My story to learn and grow is never-ending. The only way to learn is to be around people who can share. The possibilities are endless if the dedication is behind them.”