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Professor's films chosen for two festivals
Feb. 20, 2012
Two films by Community College of Rhode Island Art Professor Nancy Wyllie were selected for film festivals this winter, including the prestigious Tribeca Cinemas Video Art and Experimental Film Festival in New York City.
Her short film “Nothing” was one of 25 international selections chosen from hundreds of submissions and shown at Tribeca Cinemas from Dec. 6 to 8. The festival drew filmmakers from Italy, Israel, France, Ireland and Iran.
Another film, a documentary called “Exit Strategy: Education Behind Bars,” was screened at New York State’s Catskill Film and Video Festival on Jan. 29. This film is about inmate education at the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institutions, where Wyllie has taught an introductory art class since 2010.
“Nothing,” which was honored at London’s Persona Art Festival last year, shows a mattress that Wyllie found on the side of the road. Someone had spray-painted the pun “nothing really mattress” on the side of it, which got Wyllie thinking about syntax and perception,“…and the way it caught the light abstracted its surfaces in a way that was visually arresting,” she said.
Wyllie is always looking for beauty in the commonplace and is frequently interrupting her routine to run home for a camera so she can film something she has found.
As for the mattress: “There was something so pristine and otherworldly about it that I felt I just had to document it,” she said.
With considerable skill as a filmmaker and videographer, Wyllie is able to draw compelling footage from the mundane. “Nothing” is filmed backwards, defying the rules of conventional film-making. It starts with a close-up, followed by medium shots and closes with a long establishing shot.
Wyllie thought that this film’s unusual approach made it her best shot at being accepted into the Tribeca Film Festival, noted for showcasing experimental, groundbreaking films made by independent filmmakers.
Nonetheless, she was still surprised when she was selected, she said, because “part of an artist’s reality is regular rejection from grant panels, exhibition planners and museum curators.”
“We’re in the rejection business,” she added. “You learn to let it slide off your shoulders.”
Wyllie said that the experience of being shown at Tribeca was a thrilling career highlight. “It was my first experience ever with what I would consider a major league festival,” she said. “It was the first time people had to pay to see my work.”
Wyllie met eminent video artists and filmmakers and panel members such as Mark Alpert of Scientific American magazine and Dean Movshovitz, director of film and media at the Office for Cultural Affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York. Wyllie also found time to visit her old SoHo neighborhood, where she lived while attending New York University Film School in the 1980s.
“It was a full-circle experience for me,” she said.
As Wyllie prepared to leave for the Catskill Film and Video Festival, she said she hoped that her documentary “Exit Strategy” would make an impression. The film is mostly a collection of interviews with the students who make up her Introduction to Visual Arts courses. It also features CCRI Department of Corrections Education Unit Coordinator Will Jackson.
In the film, Wyllie’s students talk about the choices they have made and their hopes for the future. Footage of collaged self-portraits stands in for those inmates who chose to remain off camera, pushing the boundaries of the short documentary genre.
Wyllie said that inmate education is a controversial issue in which some people argue that prisoners should not have any kind of enrichment activity while they are incarcerated. However, she added that most prisoners will be released within a few years, and opponents of inmate education should consider what kind of people they want walking out of the prison yard.
Most of Wyllie’s students are associate degree candidates and the art class is one of their liberal arts courses. Much of the philosophy of prisoner education focuses on giving inmates practical skills and some basic education so that they do not return to crime when they are released. However, what they take away from an art class is more abstract: The projects give the inmates a chance to reflect on themselves and their lives, and these are men who have more to reflect on than most.
“What I’ve found is that the study of art and the lives of artists who faced tremendous challenges is a healing experience for these guys,” Wyllie said. “I get a very strong feeling that they are benefitting tremendously.
“People are surprised that the inmate students are so articulate and insightful throughout ‘Exit Strategy,’ which is a testament to the educational opportunities provided by CCRI programming.”
She said that while entering the prison for the first time is a frightening experience, she is not generally in fear for her safety. Nonetheless, she does bear in mind that some of her students are violent offenders. “You hope you’re doing the right thing by helping these men but you keep their victims in mind,” she said.
“Exit Strategy” previously was shown at Brown University during the “Arts in Prison: Global Perspectives and Local Practices” conference held in November. Wyllie’s video was one of three selected and she shared the screen with two filmmakers from the United Kingdom.
Wyllie thanked the ACI and Rhode Island Department of Corrections Director A.T. Wall for supporting her work.
You can watch “Nothing,” “Exit Strategy” and other videos online.