Bringing fresh perspectives to the Freep Film Festival

April 3, 2024

Students in a new course designed by CASL Assistant Professor Adam Sekuler helped curate the all-documentary event, now in its 11th year.

Assistant Professor Adam Sekuler and his students discuss one of their Freep Film Festival selections
Assistant Professor Adam Sekuler and his students discuss "Chasing Chasing Amy," one of their Freep Film Festival selections. Photo/Max Parham

Growing up queer in a conservative Kansas town, filmmaker Sav Rodgers didn’t realize that the 1997 indie hit “Chasing Amy” was controversial. He regarded the Kevin Smith film, with its lesbian lead character, as lifesaving. It played an important role in Rodgers’ coming out as a trans man.

Filmmaker Sav Rogers, center
Filmmaker Sav Rodgers, center, with actor Joey Lauren Adams, left, and director Kevin Smith, right. Photo courtesy/Freep Film Festival

Rodgers has turned his personal experiences with the film, along with some of the difficult feelings around and behind it, into a documentary, which was submitted for consideration for this year’s Freep Film Festival, an all-documentary festival produced by the Detroit Free Press. It was selected by a panel of first-time reviewers who festival organizers say bring a new and welcome perspective to the festival: UM-Dearborn students. 

The partnership is part of Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Production Adam Sekuler’s new “Film Festival Programming” course. Working closely with Freep Festival organizers, students reviewed numerous submissions, assessing each for its artistic merit, storytelling prowess and thematic relevance. In addition to “Chasing Chasing Amy,” the group selected “The Herricanes,” the story of the first women’s full tackle football league in the 1970s.

The effort was an exercise in consensus-building, says Natalie Albrecht, a senior majoring in journalism and screen studies. While “Chasing Chasing Amy” was a shoo-in for many students, sentiments about “The Herricanes” were a bit more varied. “It was on a lot of people’s lists, but it wasn't at the top,” Albrecht explains. But broad appeal is a key consideration in curation, so that made the film a strong contender. Also, both films got the students talking, which Albrecht sees as a harbinger of how festival audiences will respond. “I feel like the ones that we chose were ones that we felt we had the most dialogue about,” she says.

Kathy Kieliszewski, the festival’s artistic director and co-founder, says the students’ involvement brought viewpoints she and her colleagues have been seeking for some time. “We've had diversity in the programming pool as a mission, because obviously different people have different perspectives. And so (with the students) we had a different demographic. It was incredibly diverse,” she explains, noting that even the festival’s interns have been a bit older than Sekuler’s students and also that the UM-Dearborn crew brought a range of cultural backgrounds into the mix. The students “came at it with all of their own history and all of their own perspectives,” Kieliszewski observes. 

That said, Kieliszewski says she’s thrilled that the two films selected by the students were two of her favorites as well: “Ultimately, a good film is a good film, you know? Is it relating to you on a very human basic level? And in this instance, ‘Chasing Chasing Amy,’ and ‘The Herricanes’ do that very well.”

Aaron Vensko in Adam Sekuler's filmmaking course. He's filming local rapper Esa Mighty
As a part of a film course, UM-Dearborn student Aaron Vensko, left, records local rapper Esa Mighty for the documentary "Becoming Mighty." The short film was selected to be shown in the Freep Film Festival.

Curation is only one aspect of Sekuler’s course — the students are also learning about event planning, festival logistics, marketing and publicity, and fundraising. Through regular Zoom visits with film industry professionals and filmmakers, including Rodgers, the students are hearing firsthand about filmmaker experiences, compensation and other labor practices, organizational structures, and the often difficult realities of making a living as a film programmer, a job Sekuler himself held for many years.

Sekuler was intentional in exposing his students to the nitty gritty of the industry, even convincing a guest programmer to pull up her budget spreadsheet and share it with the class. Such practical skills have wide application, Sekuler points out. “I mean, the dream job is obviously going into film programming,” he says. “The immediate job is you could work in any sort of event production whatsoever. There are skills that you learn from this that are just about how does a cultural organization work, which is really different than, say, a corporate organization.”

While Albrecht has found much of what she has learned sobering, she is glad to have gained a realistic view of the arts industry as she prepares to enter the job market. Practice-based learning, after all, is not just about acquiring the skills related to a potential career choice, but discovering whether that choice aligns with a student’s goals, financial and otherwise. 

As her graduation approaches, Albrecht — who has also been a teaching assistant for the Art & Agency project on campus as well as co-editor of the literary journal, Lyceum — says she is considering communications work, where she envisions stability while applying the skills she’s gained in her courses and extracurricular projects. She plans to continue to pursue her creative interests on the side. “What I think I'm figuring out is that I still feel more complete when I am involved in creative work,” she says. “But I am very much aware of the realism now that, like every creative industry, it is kind of a struggle.”

The Freep Film Festival runs April 10-14 at locations in Midtown Detroit and Birmingham, with some streaming options. In addition to the student-selected films, UM-Dearborn’s involvement includes a panel discussion following ‘Chasing Chasing Amy’ moderated by Associate Professor of Women's and Gender Studies Amy Brainard. “Becoming Mighty,” a short film produced by students in Sekuler’s "Arab American Perspectives" documentary filmmaking course last semester, screens as part of the festival’s Real Fresh University Showcase

Story by Kristin Palm