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Reel-World Drama

COM student’s short wins spot at Slamdance festival

Josh Safdie (COM’07), whose film short will play at the Slamdance Film Festival, has caught the eye of festival directors. Photo by Josh Safdie

For most urban apartment dwellers, a minor disturbance out on the street is a forgettable event. For Josh Safdie, it’s grist for a film.

After one such incident, in the alley below his tiny Fenway apartment, Safdie (COM’07) wrote, produced, directed, and acted in a 21-minute movie called The Back of Her Head for his advanced film production course. It will be among the 73 short films — picked from more than 2,000 — to screen at the 2007 Slamdance Film Festival. Billed as the alternative to Sundance, Slamdance runs concurrently with the veteran festival, from January 18 to 27, in Park City, Utah.

The call from Slamdance “was really exciting,” Safdie says. “Just to be showing my film with all these other filmmakers. I was looking at the shorts program, and the films that I’m playing with look like they could be amazing and awesome, and that’s what you hope for.”

Safdie was sitting in his Boylston Street apartment one night when he heard a man ranting in the alley. As he stood at his window, he noticed a neighbor from a unit below had poked his head out to watch as well. “I couldn’t see his face, but it was an amazing moment,” he says. “He didn’t know that I was watching him. We were both quietly observing this person for, like, a minute and a half. It made me see this weird connected relationship that doesn’t normally exist between people.”

He began to think, what if the neighbor had been a woman? And what if he fell in love with her — or rather, with the back of her head, because that’s all he ever saw when there was a commotion in the alley? “I became more obsessed with what was going on outside my apartment than what was going on inside,” says Safdie. “And I started imagining a lot of things that could happen with four people living above one another.” The movie is about a young man, played by Safdie, who’s smitten with the woman living three floors below and about the relationship among the residents in all four apartments.

Safdie, whose previous short We’re Going to the Zoo won the 2006 Redstone East Film Festival at BU and played at the Los Angeles Film Festival last June, says he likes to turn his lens on “small observations that seem mundane, but in context they become poetic. In The Back of Her Head, someone throws a shopping cart off a roof, and there’s a guy down in the alley filming it with a mini TV camera. To me, that represents the entire YouTube generation, but it’s also poetic.”

Sam Kauffmann, a College of Communication associate professor of film, who had Safdie in two classes, says faculty recognized his talent early on. “He’s a terrific actor,” Kauffmann says. “He understands the importance of performance, and he has a really playful sense as a filmmaker.”

Acceptance at Slamdance, which Kauffmann describes as a top-tier festival that has become more competitive over the years, is significant for a young filmmaker. “You’re being chosen from among thousands,” he says, “so you couldn’t ask for more competition, especially in the short film category. There are a lot of features made, but there are 20 or 50 times more shorts.”

Charles Merzbacher, chair of the COM department of film and television, oversaw Safdie’s directed study last fall and says Safdie has caught the eye of film festival directors. “His films tend to be humorous, with a hint of surrealism,” he says. “They almost look like documentaries, and then in the middle of them some incredibly strange thing will happen, and that makes it all the more magical because you’ve bought the world that you’re watching as real. I don’t think there’s anybody else doing exactly what he’s doing. I do think he’s part of a moment that’s happening right now, of young filmmakers who are using the sort of run-and-gun, down-and-dirty techniques of independent filmmaking that have been around for a long time to make these extremely low-budget films that address the condition of being 20-something in the new millennium.”

Cynthia K. Buccini can be reached at cbuccini@bu.edu.