Rory Kennedy, Gregory Nava Celebrate Films Creating Social Change at 2019 Student Academy Awards

Student Academy Awards
Valerie Durant / ©A.M.P.A.S.

“I think storytelling is really our hope because there is such divisiveness right now in the world. And, I think that stories enable us to hear each other and see different sides of an experience,” documentarian Rory Kennedy told Variety at the 2019 Student Academy Awards on Thursday at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.

Kennedy was one of the five presenters for this year’s Student Academy Awards — along with Melina Matsoukas, Gregory Nava, Phil Lord and Chris Miller — which honored 16 student winners from colleges and universities around the world.

While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has existed since 1929, the student academy wasn’t founded until 1972 in an effort to encourage student filmmakers while acknowledging them for telling stories that do more than just entertain. Robert Zemeckis, Spike Lee and Patricia Riggen were past Student Academy Award recipients.

Kennedy praised this year’s “extraordinary winners,” saying, “They represent such a range of talent and ability and filmmaking styles and subject matters. These are the next generation of filmmakers.”

“I recently founded the climate emergency fund with Aileen Getty and Trevor Neilson with the idea we wanted to create a fund that would support activists,” Kennedy continued. “These activists, these young people who are striking, walking out of their schools, taking to the streets are really our greatest hope to actually affect [climate] change and to get the message to policy makers that they actually need to do something about it.”

Nava’s “El Norte” promoted social change by aiding activists’ in their fight to help refugees from Central America after its release in 1984.  In honor of both the 35th film’s anniversary as well as Hispanic Heritage Month, the Academy restored the film for a one-day screening in September.

“‘El Norte’ helped change the laws of the country in terms of the United States granting protected status for refugees from Central America,” Nava recalled. “The Academy was part of all that. It changed my life. So I have to say that the Academy was very very important to me when I was a young filmmaker. So it is a great honor for me to give back and to be here.”

Even though “El Norte” was made 35 years ago, the issues surrounding citizenship and obtaining protected status are still relevant today, when films, such as student director Eva Rendle’s “All That Remains,” provide a different perspective on the immigrant experience. Rendle’s film tells the story of undocumented immigrants who live in a state of insecurity a year after Northern California’s wine country was ravaged by wildfires, earning her the bronze medal for the documentary at the awards.

“It’s necessary, and it does have impact, and it does make a difference,” Nava said of the importance of making films that lead to social change.

Director Princess Garrett’s documentary “Sankofa” is also a social change story that examines the loss of identity for black males while exploring the complexities of mental slavery. It won the gold in the documentary category.

“’Sankofa’ will always be about the art of storytelling, using the art of film to breakdown cultural barriers, challenging our own preconceived notions of the world,” Garrett said. “It is meant to invoke everyone to think about their positions in these systems of oppression that continue to infest our country today and to act to make concrete structural change.”

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Todd Wawrychuk / ©A.M.P.A.S.

See the full list of winners from the Student Academy Awards below:

Alternative (Domestic Film Schools)
Gold: Georden West, “Patron Saint,” Emerson College

Animation (Domestic Film Schools)
Gold:  Kalee McCollaum, “Grendel,” Brigham Young University
Silver: Aviv Mano, “Game Changer,” Ringling College of Art and Design
Bronze: Emre Okten, “Two,” University of Southern California

Animation (International Film Schools)
Gold: Daria Kashcheeva, “Daughter,” Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU)

Documentary (Domestic Film Schools)
Gold: Princess Garrett, “Sankofa,” Villanova University
Silver: Abby Lieberman and Joshua Lucas, “Something to Say,” Columbia University
Bronze: Eva Rendle, “All That Remains,” University of California, Berkeley

Documentary (International Film Schools)
Gold: Yifan Sun, “Family Squared,” The Polish National Film, Television and Theatre School in Lodz

Narrative (Domestic Film Schools)
Gold: Asher Jelinsky, “Miller & Son,” American Film Institute
Silver: Hao Zheng, “The Chef,” America Film Institute.
Bronze: Omer Ben-Shachar, “Tree #3,” American Film Institute

Narrative (International Film Schools)
Gold: Zoel Aeschbacher, “Bonobo,” Ecole Cantonale D’Art De Lausanne (ECAL)
Silver: Rikke Gregersen, “Dog Eat Dog,” Westerdals Kristiania University College
Bronze:Charlie Manton, “November 1st,” National Film and Television School