Kass wins international film festival award, meets Dalai Lama

The assistant professor of communications teamed with fellow faculty member Ryan Witt and three cinema and television arts majors to produce “Gull,” a short-subject film that won Best Editing at the 2017 Free Spirit Film Festival in Dharamsala, India.

As a flock of seagulls descended on his film location nearly two years ago, Doug Kass couldn’t help but be struck by the dazzling imagery of the wintry scene.

With a choreographed dancer in the foreground and birds soaring over Falls Lake in the background, the assistant professor of communications fixated on the unexpected moment.

“Sometimes serendipity works in your favor, if you pay attention to it,” Kass recalled. “When we were shooting the climactic shots, these seagulls started flying through the frame. I tapped Ryan (Witt) on the shoulder immediately after we finished the shot and said, 'Did we get that? Did we get the birds?'"

It was this fortuitous episode that stayed with Kass throughout the editing process and what ultimately led to the final version of “Gull,” a short-subject film now earning accolades at film festivals both in the U.S. and abroad.

Two weeks ago, Kass attended the Free Spirit Film Festival in Dharamsala, India, where “Gull” won for Best Editing. The film also captured the Best Performance Art award at the upcoming Avalonia Film Festival in Providence, Rhode Island. To date, “Gull” has been accepted to seven festivals, including the Miami Independent Film Festival, the Sarajevo Fashion Film Festival, and the International Film Festival of Oranjemund, Namibia.

"Gull" is very much an Elon production as Kass (director) enlisted the help of communications lecturer Ryan Witt (cinematographer) and former Elon students – now graduates – Evan McGillivray ’16 and Brian Szymanski ’16 (camera operators).

The primary shoot at Falls Lake, a recreational park just north of Raleigh, was chosen for its wooded location at the edge of the water, noted Kass. The setting was picture perfect to capture the movements of dancer Gini Brown, and Kass commended McGillivray and Szymanski for compiling “tremendous footage” under the guidance of Witt.

However, the director said he was “never quite satisfied” with the film’s initial working. Seeking a new direction, Kass recruited a student from his “Film and Television Aesthetics” course, Mitch Herndon ’17, to re-edit the film.

With guidance from Kass, Herndon – now the School of Communications’ video producer – tied together the movements of the dancer with that of the seagulls, and added additional drone footage to round out the film’s new look.

“Mitch or Commander Herndon as we like to call him piloted some amazing drone footage, and only managed to crash one drone in the process," Kass remarked. "He also did a spectacular edit, and that’s the edit people are seeing now."

As he considered which festivals to attend, Kass was drawn to the Free Spirit Film Festival in northern India for several reasons. “I’ve been to some of the big film festivals and I thought it would be interesting to go to a more remote, more intimate festival and see a different landscape and have a different kind of experience,” Kass said.

The Himalayas offered a serene backdrop which seemed natural for the film, vastly different than traditional festivals in large metropolitan areas. In addition, traveling to India allowed Kass to shoot footage for an upcoming project in and around Delhi. 

As the lone American filmmaker in attendance, Kass said he received a great deal of attention from attendees and media outlets. He was interviewed by Radio Free Asia, as well as the Tibet Times, a Tibetan-language newspaper distributed throughout the Tibetan community in exile.

“I was definitely a novelty there,” Kass said. “They were really surprised that I came that far.”

He added that “Gull” received a warm reception, and a lively Q&A session followed its screening. “The beauty of it is that there are no words in it, it's all visual,” Kass said. “So everybody in the internationally packed audience could understand the film.”

Following the festival, event organizers arranged for Kass and other film directors to meet the Dalai Lama, the renowned Tibetan spiritual leader, at his nearby temple and residence on Nov. 1.

While the interaction was brief, Kass said the experience will stay with him.

“The Dalai Lama really does have an aura, and everyone in our group felt it,” the Elon professor said. “You feel an extraordinary presence. And you do feel his energy.”

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