As radio-television-film graduate students, Annie Silverstein and Monique Walton were advised to stray away from using animals and children as primary subjects in their filmmaking.
“They tell you not to use them because they pose too much of a challenge,” Silverstein said. “Animals especially are the only ones that don’t care that they are on a movie set.”
With a love for nature and working with children, Silverstein accepted this challenge by directing her second fiction film, “Skunk,” as a part of her thesis project, which will have its first international debut at the Festival de Cannes. Silverstein and Walton, producer of the film, along with other crew members will travel to Cannes, France, next month to promote “Skunk,” one of the 16 films selected out of 1,631 film school entries around the world.
“We have been working really hard just as far as getting ourselves together for the festival,” Silverstein said. “It’s a great opportunity to pitch ideas and I’ve been working on developing ‘Skunk’ into a feature film.”
Hoping to expose the desire for human connection and the power dynamics young people face, Silverstein created “Skunk,” a 16-minute short film, about 14-year-old Leila whose pit bull kills a skunk. Leila, a teenager growing up on a failed subdivision in Central Texas, forms a relationship with Marco, an older neighborhood boy. But things begin to spin out of control, forcing Leila to protect what she loves most at the cost of her own innocence.
“I want people to feel that they watched an honest story,” Silverstein said. “It’s pretty simple, I guess. I tried to be sensitive to the boy’s character and how our feelings of shame can create situations that get us in trouble.”
Before attending graduate school, Silverstein lived and worked as a youth worker on Native American reservations in Washington. Through the use of film, Silverstein found a therapeutic tool for youth to express themselves while facing difficult challenges.
“I fell in love with the craft and I always loved storytelling in any form,” Silverstein said. “It was through those experiences as a social worker and youth-driven work that I really became interested in coming to film school.”
Walton’s efforts to recruit actors with little to no experience were based on Silverstein’s comfort in working with children.
“A lot of the times we went from door to door looking for places and people to shoot,” Walton said. “We wanted to feel like you were there, that there wasn’t much done by us but it takes a lot more work to achieve that.”
Radio-television-film professor Stuart Kelban worked closely with Silverstein throughout her graduate career in screenwriting. As her thesis supervisor, Kelban said Silverstein wrote some of the best scripts he has seen in over 20 years of teaching.
“[The film] deals with a kind of cultural set with characters from rural and economically deprived areas but it does so with incredible insight and sensitivity,” Kelban said. “In the end, it’s about Annie’s ability to work with and create this incredible nuance of characters.”
While Silverstein admits to the film’s challenges, she emphasizes the pleasure she was granted from combining all three of her life’s passions. As filmmaker and social worker, Silverstein hopes to combine both professions into one.
“My life path has taken different turns so far,” Silverstein said. “I love fiction filmmaking but I also love documentary and its really important to me to do community work. It’d be a great life to interweave the three of them. I’d be very fulfilled.”