“We are freaking out, but also so, so exhausted,” filmmaker Bishal Dutta says with a low and raspy voice about him and his producer, Olivia Shapiro.
The two Santa Monica College (SMC) students (Shapiro is in her last year, Dutta is a recent alum, currently at UC Berkeley) just finished up work on their short film “Life in Color” and recently received their freaking-out-worthy news — their short film is heading to Cannes.
“We found out through a phone call … it was surreal,” Dutta said. “I couldn’t even qualify it. Incredibly surreal. I called Olivia right after, I had a text message ready to go for the crew saying, ‘Does anyone have a spare ticket to France?’”
This is the fourth time an SMC student-made film has been accepted into the 21st American Pavilion Emerging Filmmaker Showcase of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, with SMC being the only U.S. community college represented in the showcase. Dutta and Shapiro join students at the showcase hailing from filmmaker-factory universities such as USC and the Art Center of Design, even contending with the Ivy Leaguers of Yale.
The duo, inspired by classics such as Jaws and modern-day masterpieces like Moonlight, met when Dutta was looking for a producer for the film. A professor eventually led him to Shapiro. She read the script and the two clicked creatively, an emotional transparency immediately born between the two. “Making a film is tough,” Dutta said. “We became a family on this.”
Salvador Carrasco, faculty lead of film production at SMC, says he’s not surprised by the duo’s cohesion and the film’s success.
Carrasco says the duo both have “great instincts for surrounding themselves with great collaborators,” crediting Dutta’s “endlessly curious” cinematic mind, as well as Shapiro’s creative producing which consistently leads to moving, powerful storytelling, a hallmark of “Life in Color”; the film centers around an elderly, closeted gay man and his battle with Alzheimer’s as he recalls a past lover, his daughter dealing with the fallout.
Creating something genuine in regards to the subject matter was important and personal for the duo, with both Dutta and Shapiro having lost loved ones to Alzheimer’s and dementia.
The idea to make an impactful story about Alzheimer’s that wouldn’t just relegate the disease “as a prop” came from experiencing the repercussions memory-loss can have on families, a story the duo felt could help heal if shared.
“A lot of people can relate to it,” Shapiro said. “Whether it’s the loss, the repression … I showed a rough cut to my mom, it brought her to tears. [The film] has a strong message, that’s what brought me to it.”
Dutta, ever the cinematic mind, found catharsis through his creativity while bearing witness to what his family endured throughout his grandfather’s dementia. “I thought that there was a lot to explore from that point of view,” he said. “How do you explore, tell a story that way? In life you’re defined by memories; who are you without the things you remember?”
After nearly a year of writing, two months of pre-production, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shooting schedule of five days, grueling hours worked at a summer job to add additional funding, and five-and-a-half months of post-production, the film was completed.
While Cannes was never the finish line for the film, it’s a milestone the duo are grateful for as they look forward to their futures.
“Everyone believed in this and wanted to do it right,” Shapiro said. “This crew had so much talent. I’m happy everyone’s passion is being recognized.”
“I’ve made things nobody watches, and films are supposed to connect with people,” Dutta said with a laugh. “When people watch your work and feel something, it brings you out of any kind of cynicism. Just the fact that if you love cinema and you’re being recognized by Cannes, even for something small, it makes you think, how can you stop after this?”
The Cannes Film Festival runs May 8 – May 19. “Life in Color” will debut at Cannes Sunday, May 13.