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DU Student Filmmakers Reach Global Audiences with Narrative Capstone Class

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Emma Atkinson

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A still from the "Orchid" set.

“It takes a village to raise a filmmaker,” says University of Denver professor Sheila Schroeder.

And raise filmmakers she does, thanks to a capstone class in DU’s Media, Film & Journalism Studies department. The two-quarter course brings students together to participate in different roles—director, writer, actor, etc.—and produce a short film.

Every year, Schroeder says, she’s proud of the work her students do. She loves to see the progress they make in building out their films, from the script writing to the filming to post-production. But the most special time for Schroeder is when students get to show their friends and families their work at an end-of-the-year screening.

“I, of course, love those moments at the end where they get to stand in front of their peers and their parents, and their friends and their siblings, who see them as one thing and not as this other thing,” she says. “And they grow up in that moment.”

But the fun doesn’t end when the class concludes. Schroeder encourages all her students to submit their work to film festivals around the globe—and this past year, two students in particular experienced some festival glory.

Student directors Haley Rimblas and Débora Rocha may have had different paths that led them to DU, but both women got the chance to show their films at festivals across the U.S. and internationally.

Débora Rocha and David Freyre at AsFF.
Débora Rocha and David Freyre at AsFF.

Rocha’s coming-of-age story about an autistic college student was accepted into an international film festival, Asperger Film Festival (AsFF), which is managed by neurodivergent people.

The main character of “Party Quest” is haunted by the ghost of a deceased friend—a narrative presence who urges the student to come out of his shell and kiss a girl at the party.

Rocha, who is Brazilian, says the plot of “Party Quest” mirrors her own experience as a college student on the autism spectrum.

“I feel like it's a really cool story for anybody who has ever been at a party and was not the life of the party immediately,” she says. “It was this idea of trying to make, like, a realistic, ‘I don't belong here’ kind of party experience, while also having a wholesome ending and comedic effects. It’s funny, it’s a heartwarming story. But it also has some real struggles.”

Rocha was able to attend the screening of her film at AsFF, which took place last fall in Rome, where she and the film’s main actor, David Freyre, accepted the “Reasonably Different” award.

“Party Quest” was also accepted into the Tokyo International Short Film Festival, where it received Best Director and Best Student Film honorable mention awards. In addition, the film was accepted into the Munich New Wave Short Film Festival, where it received an honorable mention in the Best Editing category. “Party Quest” has also been selected for the Japan International Film Festival and was awarded “Best Producer” at the Roma Short Film Festival.

Rimblas’ film, “Orchid,” follows a character whose decision to throw a party brings up memories of her sister’s overdose a year prior and explores intense themes of drug use, loss and guilt. The plot draws inspiration from a story written by DU student Olivia McCann.

“There’s a few heartfelt moments,” she says. “But for the most part, it’s definitely very dramatic—a lot of fighting. But it was a wonderful story to be able to tell.”

Last fall, “Orchid” was accepted into the REEL Recovery Film Festival, which showcases films about substance use, addiction, treatment and recovery.

Haley Rimblas at the REEL Recovery Film Festival.
Haley Rimblas at the REEL Recovery Film Festival.

“Me and my director of photography, Sophie Van Winkle, we got to fly out there for the weekend—it was held in North Hollywood,” Rimblas recalls. “We got to meet a lot of really creative and really cool filmmakers. And then they also had a panel on the night that we screened our film. So, I was able to speak in that, which was super cool—because wow—I felt like I didn't deserve to be up there speaking.”

She says Schroeder’s guidance was key to getting accepted into the REEL festival.

“You want to submit to so many [festivals]—they all have different criteria,” Rimblas says. “But the best advice that Sheila Schroeder gave us is the right festival will find you, and the more specific you are to your film and to the categories that you're submitting to, the more the likelihood of you getting accepted increases. And so that's kind of what we did.”

After graduation, the two women both hope to continue working in the film industry. Rimblas plans to move to Los Angeles and work with former coworkers from a movie internship she completed last summer, while Rocha will be looking to find an internship as a producer or writing assistant.

Schroeder credits DU’s community of professors—both within and outside MJFS—with preparing students to take on the capstone class.

“Whenever we took students out to Hollywood to talk to some of our alumni, they would say, ‘We're interested in students who are double majoring in history, or who have a literature background, or who know a little something about psychology,’” she says. “Because these are things that explore humanity, that give us a perspective on the stories that we want to tell. So, props to my colleagues across our majors in MFJS, and certainly across the university, who are helping to raise this village of filmmakers.”