Seventh annual Morristown High Film Fest tests students’ imagin-ATION

Scene from 'Spelling Bee,' winner of the 2019 Morristown High School Film Festival.


By Marion Filler

Residents vexed by power outages earlier this month should have tapped into the Morristown High School Film Festival.

The school media center was crackling with energy as students cheered for 15 original short films, at the seventh annual installment of an event that has become a highlight of the MHS spring calendar.

Some of the loudest cheers were for broadcasting teacher and festival producer Michael Butler, guiding light to the young filmmakers and “always a first place winner,” according to a student emcee at the awards presentation that concluded the evening.

Student winners went home with drones and cameras from an anonymous donor. The festival’s freewheeling theme, proposed by junior Sean Tierney, was words ending in “…ation.”

Clever spins ensued. Some students trumpeted the theme in their titles: Trepidation, Imagination, Legislation, Communication. Others revealed an “-ation” word at the end of their films.

Most of the actors were the filmmakers and their friends, although Butler made multiple screen appearances and a couple of other teachers had cameos. Settings included the school and kids’ homes.

Video: First Place: “Spelling Bee,” by Nya Federoff and Jessica Vogel


Seniors Nya Federoff and Jessica Vogel, who had finished second for two years in a row, garnered first place with Spelling Bee.

With familiar sites such as Marty’s Reliable Cycle as backdrops, their story portrays two friends who compete against each other for a $500 prize, enough for a new bike coveted by Federoff’s character. They pore over dictionaries and agonize over unpronounceable words–for Memoriz-ATION–but Federoff faces a moral dilemma when her prize is on the line.

Best friends since 2nd grade, Federoff and Vogel were thrilled to clinch top honors–especially since that was not their aim this year.

“Last time was more to win than to enjoy. This time, we thought it doesn’t matter if we win or not, we just want to really enjoy it,” said Federoff.

They described their first few films as learning experiences, to find their style.

“We had an idea about this film before the ‘word’ idea came up,” Vogel noted, “so we worked around it.”

Federoff will study film at the University of Southern California this fall, while Vogel is bound for Lehigh University.

And Spelling Bee is headed next March to the 2020 Garden State Film Festival in Asbury Park, as an automatic entry, announced actress and filmmaker Heather Brittain O’Scanlon, an MHS alum who is a trustee of the state fest. She served as a judge for the school festival.

Application fees will be waived for the second- and third-place finishers, if they wish to submit their films, O’Scanlon said.

Video: Second Place: “The Next Phase,” by Kylee Strasser:

Second prize went to The Next Phase, a film about Reincarnation by senior Kylee Strasser, last year’s first-place finisher.

An abundance of special effects follows the life of a teen who dies in a car crash. A supreme being tells her she will be reincarnated as a boy living in the Great Depression to discover the meaning of life.

“I made this universe for you,” says the voice. “All people are you.”

Strasser, who will attend Rutgers University, is not sure filmmaking will be her career. “I’ll feel it out in college and see what’s out there for me,” she said. “All I know is that I want to try and make the world a better place by whatever means that may be. Might be film, might not.”

She already has earned a Presidential Service Award for her volunteer work with autistic children, and has created a video for the Morristown National Historical Park.

Video: Third Place: “Right in Front of You,” by Gina Marasco and Nicole Ezell

Right in Front of You by sophomores Gina Marasco and Nicole Ezell took third place with a story about searching for inspiration.

“Nothing, nothing, nothing!” groans the main character, an incessant doodler played by freshman Annette Bradley, clutching her head in desperation for ideas for an essay assignment.

“Where do your thoughts go when there is no direction?” asks her teacher, Matt Daly.

The student finds her subject, and Concentr-ATION, in her sketches of birds.

Ezell films from experience.

“I get writer’s block and I drive myself crazy to the point of total frustration,” she said. But  working with Marasco and the other actors got things going. “We started the film in March and it took us right to the end, just before the contest, to get it done.”


Other films also received recognition.

Impact of Discrimination by Sam Gutkin, Andrew King and Sam Slackman, is a comedy of excuses about why last year’s entry did not win. Funny lines come fast:

“We were too handsome, the ugly people were jealous. Russian hackers were involved. We are ready to sue the pants off anyone who doesn’t vote for us.”

Trepidation by Steven Gronke, another comedy, is about waking up late, running out of the house, and being late to school. “Brendan, you’re late again,” intones his teacher, Butler. “Give up music,” he advises, “read Nostradamus.”

Schizophrenia by Sydney Mihalik, Carly Nicolai, and Christian Rojas, is a surreal interpretation of mental illness, depicting Hallucin-ATIONs. A lone girl, played by Nicolai, runs through the woods, her hands on her temples. She doesn’t speak but is surrounded by a cacophony of voices that torment her.

Three recent MHS grads–all accomplished filmmakers–rounded out the jury.

Mat Mruz, ’18, is studying cinema production at Ithaca College.

Skyler Frost and Matthew Prusso were stars of the Class of ’16. Frost is studying communications at the University of Texas at Austin; Prusso is studying film, television and performing arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

“I discovered my talent here,” said Prusso. “Mr. Butler really created a learning environment, a creative environment, and pushed every student to put out the best product they can.”

Kevin Coughlin contributed to this report.

Video playlist: Click top left icon to scroll through all 15 entries in the 2019 Morristown High School Film Fest:

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