Students and alumna chosen as finalists for Student Academy Awards

The Student Academy Awards was created by the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences in 1972. (Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan)

Since 1972, the Student Academy Awards has recognized directors like Spike Lee, Robert Zemeckis and John Lasseter before they went on to have successful film careers. Now five USC students announced as finalists for the award may join their ranks.

The Student Academy is a program created by the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences to award innovative student filmmakers for achievement in documentary, animation, alternative and narrative film. The application is free, making it accessible to talent from diverse backgrounds.

Alumna Kelley Kali Chatman made a narrative film called “Lalo’s House,” which examines child sex trafficking on the island of Haiti.

“The cool thing about the Student Academy Awards is that there’s three slots,” Chatman said. “You can win gold, silver or bronze, but nonetheless you’ve won a Student Academy Award. It’s just remarkable.”

Chatman initially came to Haiti to study children’s rights and living conditions as part of her anthropology background. After the 2010 earthquake, she returned to help with relief efforts.

“I caught wind of a Catholic orphanage where the nun was allegedly putting 11- and 12-year-old girls out for prostitution, allowing men to come in and sleep with them for money,” Chatman said.

The discovery prompted eight years of research and film, during which she returned to Haiti periodically.

“What I came to find out was the nun wasn’t officially ordained by anyone,” Chatman said. “There’s a lot of organizations in Haiti and around the world that pose as benevolent organizations to put on a front and allow for sex trafficking to happen to children.”

Chatman’s project didn’t fully take off until after she was accepted into USC. Submitting the trailer in her application, she found the support and funding to realize her vision and get others on board as well.

“They saw my passion,” Chatman said. “They saw that I was backed up by USC and they said, ‘Okay, we have got your back. We’re going to make this movie with you.’”

As a Student Academy finalist, she’s grateful for the support she’s received. In turn, she wants audiences to see her film and realize the extent of trafficking in their own communities.

“I’m writing from a place of experience, but I want it to be known that this isn’t just a Haitian issue, it’s a world issue,” Chatman said. “We all need to wake up and see the signs and learn what the signs are and start to protect our children better.”

Mahaliyah Ayla O’s narrative film “Masks” focuses on mass shootings. As a survivor of a mass shooting at five-years-old and a queer woman, O felt a connection to the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016.  

“One day I was in my room, and the story just came to me in a flash ad I just had to get it out, so I wrote it down,” O said. “Initially, it wasn’t like ‘Oh yeah, I want to make a film, and I want to do this and that.’ It wasn’t really a conscious process.”

The idea didn’t surface into a film until she was asked to rework her master’s thesis after the professor she worked under left in the middle of the semester due to an emergency.

“I shared that story with [my advisor] that I’d written just alone in my room, not intending to share with anyone, and she thought it had potential,” O said. “She encouraged me to start developing it.”

O hopes “Masks” will create further conversation around gun control law and teach people to treat each other with kindness during their limited time on earth.

“Overall the message I hope for them to leave with is to love each other,” O said. “While we’re here, think love first. That’s the most important thing.”

Graduate student Yiying “Nikki” Li’s documentary “Love & Loss” follows two disabled women on their journey to find love and connection. Li immigrated to America when she was 17 years old and befriended a woman with a brain tumor. After she passed away seven years ago, she felt compelled to share her friend’s experience.

“She always told me how she was very lonely,” Li said. “[It] made me want to do something that can shine a light on disabled people or people who have terminal illness that also want to look for love [and] also try the best to live out their life.”

To create her film, Li spent a year building relationships with the two women whose stories she wanted to tell. Afterward, Li pitched the idea to her Advanced Documentary 547 class.

“I was lucky that my film was selected from seven other documentaries at the time,” Li said. “We got funded by the school and got to use the equipment and all the facilities from school.”

After the screening on May 4 this year, Li had a quick turnaround to make the June 1 deadline. Even though her professors encouraged her to submit her piece, she was shocked to even make the semi-finals.

“Student Academy is so legitimate … it’s so prestigious.” Li said. “All the best film schools in the world … submit it. I did not think I would get it.”

With the only animation film of the USC finalists,  alumna Yu Yu wanted to explore what people are willing to do for loved ones who have passed on in her piece “Daisy.”

“Even when people know the loved ones [are] no longer there, the search for them still never ends,” Yu said.

Using stop motion, Yu animated the entire film from her apartment.

“I like to explore characters pursuing their desires, yet in a disturbing manner,” Yu said. “There is nothing wrong with wanting something, but it is important how people go about achieving it.”

No matter who wins on Oct. 11, the finalists gain exposure and networking opportunities through their nominations.

“I’ve not focused on competition,” O said. “I feel really grateful that we’re getting opportunities to be shown, whether that be a small audience [or] large audience — and obviously the Student Academy Awards has a huge platform.”