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MFA Documentary Media Alumni Film Shortlisted for Oscar

For filmmakers, there is no prize bigger than an Academy Award.

And for a collection of recent School of Communication alumni, that prize is closer than ever.

Stay Close, an award-winning short documentary created by MFA Documentary Media graduates, was shortlisted for an Oscar—the announcement for which came on December 17. The film was directed by Shuhan Fan (G16) and Luther Clement (GC17), produced by Nevo Shinaar (GC17) and co-produced by Ashley Brandon (GC17), and featured music and sound mixing by MA in Sound Arts and Industries graduates Xiameng Summer Lin (GC17) and Lianna Squillance (GC19), respectively. Nominations will be selected from the shortlist and will be announced on January 13. The 92nd Annual Academy Awards will take place on February 9 and air live on ABC.

“We are humbled, excited, thrilled,” says Shinaar, who is based in Chicago. “Though my job is to be the worried one. I gave myself about 30 minutes of dedicated ‘excited time’ and then it was back to work.”

Filmmakers at Sundance. Left, Northwestern partners in a budding production company: Nevo Shinaar, Luther Clement, Shuhan Fan, Timothy Fryett (GC17), Sebastian Pinzon Silva GC17), and Mina Fitzpatrick (GC17); Right, three of the filmmakers of Stay Close: Shuhan Fan, Luther Clement, and Nevo Shinaar

Making the shortlist is in and of itself a significant honor, as Stay Close is only one of 10 films selected in the Documentary Short Subject category; only five of the 10 will receive a nomination. Yet Shinaar pointed out that a majority of those films have significant corporate backing from such outfits as Netflix and MTV Documentary Films.

“They have endless resources,” he adds, “and then there’s us.”

Being the underdog is a great story, but a challenge in the Academy Awards game, in which films require frequent screenings and consistent buzz to catch the attention, and affection, of voting Academy members. Shinaar now must mobilize their existing partners for support, hire a publicist, schedule screenings in major metropolitan areas, and get people to attend the screenings. Add to the mix an extremely tight deadline—voting goes from January 2 to 7—and its filmmakers who are spread around the country. It’s an uphill climb, but one well worth the effort.

“This is so significant for us, and great for the MFA program,” Shinaar says.

The filmmakers began work on Stay Close as Northwestern students. Using animation, home movie footage, and narrative voiceover, the 18-minute film tells the story of Brooklyn-based fencer Keeth Smart and his rise to international prominence amid heartbreak and health challenges. The film premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, funded in part by the Tribeca Film Institute, was selected to be part of the New York Times Op-Docs film series, and is among PBS’ POV Shorts, in addition to other honors. Clement himself was an elite fencer before injury redirected him toward filmmaking. He had been working on a film about his experience, but his encounter with fellow MFA candidate Fan and her storytelling vision proved to be a creative masterstroke. They instead focused on Smart and his unconventional story, which is equal parts heartbreaking and inspirational.

“The success of Stay Close further validates the collaborative values we emphasize, and hope for, in our MFA in Doc Media program,” says Debra Tolchinsky, associate professor of radio/television/film and the doc media program’s founder and former director. “Luther, Nevo, and Ashley graduated in 2017, Shuhan in, 2016—all brilliant, creative people who forged friendships at Northwestern that contributed to their individual and collective success. We are glad these students heeded our advice: Stay Close, indeed!”

Shinaar concurs. The connections made at Northwestern have yielded not only this film’s success, but the creation of a budding production company, a network of supporters, and even the legal help necessary in incorporating a business.

“This film could not have happened without Northwestern,” Shinaar says. “It gave us everything—a life, friends, a career. Everything we couldn’t dare to dream of.”

Shinaar and Brandon will be headed back to Sundance this winter for the world premiere of the new short film, Dia de la Madre. Radio/Television/Film lecturer Calum Walter’s film Meridian will also be featured at the festival.

Check listings in your area for screenings. View the Stay Close trailer.