“How do you think the young people have been amusing themselves lately, Sir Thomas? They have been acting. We have been all alive with acting.”
—Mansfield Park (211)
Picture, if you will:
- All of Jane Austen’s strong female characters coming to life doing what they wanted and lip-synching Ariana Grande’s song “thank u, next.”
- A scene in Captain Harville’s spare bedroom, where we glimpse Louisa’s convalescence and her budding relationship with Captain Benwick, presented in animation.
- Elinor Dashwood, driven to desperation, becoming a Marvel-style avenger and threatening the John Dashwoods at knifepoint to relinquish the family home to its rightful owners.
- A somber female Darcy delivering a letter to Lizzie’s doorstep, in a completely silent queer drama filmed in contemporary Southern California.
- Dramatic vistas captured on drone camera, while a young woman reads our collective Thank You note to Jane for all she has given us.
All of these and many other creative undertakings formed the entries for what is quite possibly the first film contest dedicated to Jane Austen-inspired themes. Short, amateur films made by young people between the ages of fifteen and thirty reveal an astonishing variety of plots, genres, and perspectives. They are often silly, fragmented, or puzzling. The best ones end long before you want them to, and the others are just long enough. The entries to date in the Young Filmmakers Contest, launched by JASNA’s Southwest Region in 2017, defy any kind of tidy categorization. What they do, collectively, is provide their audience with a window into the future. Here are the sparks of a second and even a third generation of creators, who in many cases have little prior knowledge of Jane Austen. The contest marries entertainment with education, inviting high-level judges from the book and film industry to provide critique, comment, and suggestions for improvement to these budding filmmakers.
Much has been said about the impact film adaptation and fan fiction have had on Austen’s popularity as a novelist. We know little, however, about what new forms of expression she will influence in the next generations. An amateur film contest, running alongside JASNA’s annual Essay Contest, serves as an incubator of Austenian themes and a preview of how they will thrive and morph in the years ahead. In an age of diminishing long-form reading, optional teaching of the classics, and increased interest in transmedia and alternative learning, the visual arts become ever more important as companion to the literary arts. This nascent contest provides encouragement and structure through which to support short-form video-making, a place where students and non-students can ponder and play with Jane Austen.
It is no accident that Austen’s works, themes, and characters have been adapted, borrowed, twisted, modernized, extracted, and interpreted over and over again. Austen, Shakespeare, and a very few other classic writers live in the pantheon of what Juliette Wells, quoting Abigail Derecho, refers to as archontic (or ruling) texts.
“Archontic texts are not delimited properties with definite borders that can be transgressed. . . . An archontic text allows, or even invites, writers to enter it, select specific items they find useful, make new artifacts using those found objects, and deposit the newly made work back into the source text’s archive.” (24)
Wells’s book, published in 2011, was followed by others that continue to measure the proliferation of media centered around Jane Austen. Devoney Looser, for example, describes the vast, largely unknown cast of people who ultimately made Jane Austen the famous novelist she is today.
Whoever we say Austen is, or whatever we suspect she would or wouldn’t have liked, we’re writing inferior literary and cultural histories if we leave out the incredible range of people, practices, texts, and images that contributed to her complicated and unlikely trek to becoming an icon. (11)
Since Austen left precious little for such a voracious audience, it is a relief to note that what she did leave provides much scope for imagination and virtually no dead ends. Programs like the Young Filmmakers Contest and JASNA’s Essay Contest offer a critical structure in which to capture and disseminate material coming regularly from her newly hatched admirers.
The parameters for the contest were created deliberately to be as simple and fluid as possible. A non-specific prompt, no fee or membership required, and a five-minute limit made it possible to produce an entry in a reasonable amount of time and with next-to-no budget. Time limit was perhaps one of the most important decisions in creating the contest. The brevity is doable and digestible; it challenges and does not intimidate. Makers are accustomed to artistic time limits; Instagram and TikTok content is limited for the most part to ten minutes or less. The limit itself becomes a part of the art form.
In essence, Jane Austen herself began her career as a short-form experimenter. Entertaining her family with sometimes outrageous novellas, a twelve-year-old Austen wrote The Beautifull Cassandra, featuring a bonneted Cassandra who ransacks a confectionary shop, knocks down the chef and runs away. Just as young Austen tested her audience with short stories and comic plays, entrants to the Young Filmmakers Contest exhibit their own budding talents as imaginers and storytellers.
Moreover, just as Jane Austen’s youthful works provided a glimpse of the mature artist she would become, these short films reveal their makers as newcomers grappling with the nuances of visual storytelling, of comic timing and artistic restraint. No doubt inexperience as well as budgetary restrictions results in the uneven finish of many of the entries, with costuming being a vivid example. Filmmakers struggle valiantly with period dress, and while some—the costumes in A Letter to Jane (2020) and The Jane Austen Virtual Book Club (2020), for example—reach an advanced level of period appropriateness, others show real effort interspersed with glaring (and sometimes hilarious) bits of slouchy modern dress.
A (not so) short history of the YFC
The year 2017 marked the two hundredth anniversary of Austen’s death. When members of the Southwest Region’s AGM steering committee gathered to discuss possible themes for this important year, they came up with “Jane Austen in Paradise: Intimations of Immortality.” What does Jane Austen look like in her immortal state? How is she preserved, resurrected, and reincarnated? Why and how do her works continue to engage new generations? The study of Austen’s “afterlife” offered a wide array of topics for breakouts, plenaries, and events.
Southern California’s behemoth entertainment industry permeates daily life and is the birthplace for many of the significant Austen film adaptations made to date. The committee knew from experience that Hollywood, both real and imagined, was a draw that would entice far-flung members to attend.
With the discontinuation of JASNA’s Young Writers Workshop the year before, members also sought alternatives for acquainting local students with Jane Austen. Perhaps, they reasoned, shooting video from a smartphone was easier to accomplish as an independent project for students and would still offer valuable connective tissue between JASNA and the world at large. What’s more, a video competition would remove from teachers the nearly impossible task of taking a full day out of their schedule to teach a workshop.
Susan Wampler, part of the Southwest’s AGM steering committee and avowed film enthusiast, and AGM Coordinator Nancy Gallagher had the initial idea for a film contest. Geared to students, the contest would accept films of five minutes or less in length and a topic that could be anything “inspired by Jane Austen.” Separate prizes for high school entrants and college/graduate student entrants would be awarded, depending on the number of entries received. The winning films would be shown during the AGM on the hotel’s in-room channel, so that anyone could watch. That year, Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship was released, and he was to be a special guest at the AGM. He met with the YFC winners who attended as part of the prize package.
Time was short, yet Wampler’s efforts to promote the fledgling contest resulted in a handful of entries. Rivkah Penarelli, a graduate student from Northern California, won first place for her riveting documentary-style story, An Accomplished Woman, about how Jane Austen helped her learn to read. She has since uploaded her work (co-directed by husband Jason Penarelli) to IMDb.
By 2020 the film contest had expanded in two critical ways: an outside judging panel consisting of well-known names within literature and film and the raising of the maximum age limit. Six judges agreed to score the entries that year: Robin Swicord (screenwriter of The Jane Austen Book Club); Ken Turan (former Los Angeles Times film critic); Laurie Viera Rigler (author, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict); Thomas Rigler (Emmy-winning producer and showrunner); Aydrea Walden (writer/actress, Black Girl in a Big Dress); and Ashley Clements (actress, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries). Scoresheets urged each judge to provide comments and to score for technical quality, originality, and relevance to theme. JASNA Southwest organized a Zoom event in January 2021, which screened the winning videos and featured a Q&A with some of the judges and winners.
With the opening of the contest to amateurs both inside and outside the classroom, the entry criteria expanded to “any resident of North America under the age of thirty who is not a professional director or filmmaker.” Thus, the film contest grew from a small regional endeavor to a national competition promoted on social media, at college film schools, and at the All American High School Film Festival.
In 2021, the contest reached a new level and was once more part of an AGM. Judges included screenwriter/director Amy Heckerling (Clueless); director/producer Gurinder Chadha (Bride and Prejudice); film/TV producer Laura Rister (Mr. Malcolm’s List); author Sonali Dev (Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors); author/screenwriter Suzanne Allain (Mr. Malcolm’s List); and former Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr.
The judges took their work seriously, and most provided thoughtful criticism intended to help the entrants improve their skills. Equally weighted categories included Creativity of Video, Originality, Artistic/Technical, and Relevance to Theme; they offered a range from “Far Above Average” to “Far Below Average.” Each category also called for comments to further elucidate the judges’ score.
The organizers staged an Academy Awards-style event at the Chicago AGM, complete with emcee, an exciting introductory video with interviews of entrants and judges, and a suspenseful opening of the envelopes to announce the winners. For the first time, the YFC had a popular vote winner, determined by the JASNA members in the audience.
With the addition of high-caliber industry judges, entrants at the finalist level can now expect valuable feedback and critique of their work. The contest is now established as both an entertaining event for the Society’s members and a veritable master class for students of film, literature, multimedia, and theatre.
Genres, themes, and mashups
Using structures that have evolved on YouTube, gaming devices, music video, and TikTok, these films of five minutes or less examine a multitude of topics that are significant in the novels: marriage and relationships, class, female self-determination and oppression, family dynamics, and fashion. They parody or pay homage to vlogs, Zoom, music videos, and modern cinema. A sprinkling of entries are animations.
Despite the wide variety within the entries, a few dominant genres can be identified. Literal adaptation is the exception, and a more common approach is that of superimposing modern-day relationships, social situations, and even paranormal and fantasy onto the source text. Dream sequences (Morland and Mishaps , Old English , and Timeless ) effectively create a bridge between the imaginary world of Austen’s novels and real life two hundred-plus years later. Young women of today explore dating (Lizzy’s Adventures in Online Dating ), maternal meddling (Mrs. Bennet’s Plan ), and righting societal wrongs (The Austen Avenger ) through this medium. Mrs. Bennet’s Plan, for example, was a smash hit with JASNA Southwest audiences when it premiered at a regional event at Sony Pictures Studio. Ellyn Cardon, an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, enlisted her entire family of sisters and mother to create a re-telling of the meddlesome matriarch’s efforts to get her daughters married. Cardon’s camera work, humorous script, and exceptional acting by mother Dana Cardon, resulted in an unusually polished work that belied the filmmaker’s inexperience.
Online dating is another theme ripe with potential. Meghan Hanet grabbed it and ran, with her critical and popular favorite Lizzy’s Adventures in Online Dating (2021). Using a single-camera setup, Hanet filmed herself creating a new episode about her recent online dating exploits on her YouTube channel called “Obstinate, Headstrong Girl.” She proceeded to describe in, by turns, skeptical and hopeful tones the three guys who indicated interest in her profile. Hanet’s comical script includes vocalized doubts that they were using their real names because “His name is Wicks, like the candle wicks, so that can’t be his real name, but he seems like a really solid guy. He was even in the Air Force, for a while.”
Young filmmakers on shoestring budgets often develop their films as a visual essay: “What Jane Austen Means to Me.” One of the winning films in 2017, tellingly titled I Am Jane Austen, depicted an aspiring contemporary writer facing rejection for her novels, while still finding solace in her dreams of the author. The production value was notable, including Franz Schubert’s “Serenade” score, clever cinematography, and an original storyline. Juliette Wells ends her book with that exact question—“What does Jane Austen mean to you?” (221), and it is the classic place to start for interpreting Austen in the public imagination.
The Young Filmmakers Contest has become a place where young people can respond to this question without feeling unworthy or too inexperienced in the world of Jane Austen fandom. Results thus far indicate a rich blend of non-informed Austen adaptation and more polished offerings from film and English literature majors. Two standouts from the 2020 contest illustrate this spectrum.
The Jane Austen Virtual Book Club was created by Jillian Davis and Yolanda Rodriguez, two women in their late twenties who launched The Pemberley Podcast in 2016. Judges were delighted by the film’s comic depiction of Austen characters on Zoom discussing the “horrid” book that left them hanging, which turned out to be Sanditon. In a comic interlude, Mr. Collins attempts to crash the club. Judge Aydrea Walden conveyed her appreciation of the film’s multiple layers:
What a great way to get a bunch of (Austen) characters on screen, have fun with the conventions of the day (I trust everyone’s families are in good health!), get in some fun jokes and jabs about the various JA stories, and discuss a cool theme (where should love stories end?). Well done!
Thomas Fitzgerald, a sixteen-year-old student from Warwick, Rhode Island, won over nearly all the judges with his clever borrowings from Clueless, Emma, and Mansfield Park. His film, Handsome, Clever, and Rich, follows Emily, a modern-day young woman whose life appears to be foretold in the abovementioned novels. The twist at the end shows the filmmaker’s grasp of timing, editing, and camera work. Author Laurie Viera Rigler’s encapsulating comment sums it up:
The chill-inducing meta-ness of Emily being Emma and acting out her literary life before she even reads the scene and most of all, being Fanny Price before her cash-strapped mother sends her off to Aunt Norris in New Hampshire, the snappy dialogue, the contemporary adaptation of scenes, the actress whose performance expresses sauciness and confidence and vulnerability and who is thoroughly delightful—all makes for a mind-opening, dizzying contemplation of art imitating life imitating art.
Fitzgerald admitted that he hadn’t read the novels, although he had been to a few stage performances of Pride and Prejudice. “One was a gender bender that was great fun, and one was a high school production,” Fitzgerald says. “There was something about [Elizabeth Bennet] that is a really strong story.” His film is clearly influenced by Clueless, which he and his lead actress watched on a projector as they created their entry.
Elliot Cagle, who directed and produced A Certain Step Towards Falling in Love (2020), says she entered the contest at the urging of her film teacher in high school. She didn’t have any particular awareness of Jane Austen but developed an interest after her film was made. “I had never read an Austen book before this competition,” Cagle admits. “My film teacher pushed me to do this because I wanted to dip my toes into directing. Once I started brainstorming, though, I fell in love with Jane Austen and own all of the books now.”
Cagle’s film superimposes the dance at Netherfield over a modern-day evening at a high school prom. Shot during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the film nevertheless captured the youthful awkwardness and import of this ritual. Actors playing Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy sparred with restraint. Judge and writer/director Robin Swicord comments that “the filmmaker paid homage to Pride and Prejudice, and very succinctly, somehow managing to go from ‘hate at first sight’ to ‘falling in love,’ all in one prom dance.” Judge and director/producer Thomas Rigler praised it as well:
Very unique approach to an old theme: Dialogue appears to be all about surface—shall we dance or not—while the acting is full of subtext: in this case couples liking or not liking each other and how to compensate for it with awkwardness and suave micro-aggressions. This is the seed for great moviemaking.
The films and how they scored
The judges had little patience for what they called “typical confessional girl on her bed” though some films moved beyond that trope into interesting and inventive territory. The premise of Chapter Nine (2020)—how two sisters of today might handle the deplorable behavior of Willoughby (“I could kill him, you know,” Elinor offers)—garnered a nod from judge and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries actress Ashley Clements: “The first minute was my favorite, with your effective use of visual storytelling. I also laughed out loud at Elinor’s offer to kill Willoughby.” Old English (2020), by fifteen-year-old Ayden Kostzer, about a young girl who falls asleep reading a Jane Austen novel (which she hates) and wakes up to a world where everyone is speaking like Shakespeare, could have benefited from more creative visuals, according to a few of the judges. Thomas Rigler, however, accentuated the positive with this comment: “Very inventive story development. Amusing and entertaining, made me laugh in all the right places.” Sajween Khan’s Letters to Cassandra (2020) included some requisite bed-sitting, yet it expanded quickly with artistic allusions to letter writing and Austen’s deep connection with her sister. “Over the course of the pandemic we were unable to see our friends in person; it kind of inspired me to connect with people in other ways,” she wrote. Khan, already a letter-writing enthusiast and lover of wax seals, used her interests to solid effect.
Filmmakers referenced cinema and pop culture that is very familiar to their age group, but perhaps not so much to their audience. Jane Austen: Inside the Wardrobe | British Vogue (2017), by twenty-year-old Elizabeth Hayes, parodied the magazine’s popular video series of famous people describing their wardrobe and answering “this . . . or that?” questions at the end. While some of the judges that year didn’t understand the allusion, others considered it a “funny and imaginative” idea. The script did reference various personal details of Austen’s life (such as Tom Lefroy), adding authenticity and relevance to the Austen theme.
A young man in New York City played with the title of Austen’s famous novel in his short I Had Pride I Had Prejudice (2021). Jordan Sartor-Francis, who won second place in 2021, employed voiceover and street scenes in the city to create an artful and heartfelt tribute to his wife on the first anniversary of their marriage. Though in some cases wanting more development of the questions raised, judges commented favorably on the artistic use of black-and-white stills interspersed with the action.
After five years, the Young Filmmakers Contest has viewed and/or awarded a few dozen entries. It is telling to review at this point both what the films are conveying to us, as audience and judges, and what the future holds for the contest itself. First, Jane Austen proves to be a compelling topic for amateur filmmakers, who now mine second- and even third-generation content for ideas that speak to their peers. Second, the film contest is breaking through any perceived barriers of entry (i.e., membership in JASNA or other literary societies) and capturing participation and interest from high-level judges. Third, a repository for the visual arts related to Jane Austen could serve as an important starting point for those who hold the future representation of her novels in their hands—or, rather, in their camera lens.
- An Accomplished Woman. By Rivkah Penarelli. 2017.
- After the Fall. By Shayna Chapman. 2020.
- The Austen Avenger. By Leah Madsen. 2021.
- A Certain Step Towards Falling in Love. By Elliot Cagle. 2020.
- Chapter Nine. By Natalia Soto. 2020.
- Handsome, Clever, and Rich. By Thomas Fitzgerald. 2020.
- I Am Jane Austen. By Margaret Lu. 2017.
- I Had Pride I Had Prejudice. By Jordan Sartor-Francis. 2021.
- Jane Austen: Inside the Wardrobe. British Vogue Parody. By Elizabeth Hayes. 2017.
- The Jane Austen Virtual Book Club. By Jillian Davis and Yolanda Rodriguez. 2020.
- A Letter to Jane. By Lydia Smith. 2020.
- Letters to Cassandra. By Sajween Khan. 2020.
- Lizzy’s Adventure’s in Online Dating. By Meghan Hanet. 2021.
- Morland and Mishaps. By Courtney Birnbaum. 2020.
- Mrs. Bennet’s Plan. By Ellyn Cardon. 2018.
- Old English. By Ayden Kostzer. 2020.
- Pride. By Charlotte Balogh. 2021.
- Strength and Vulnerability. By Talitha Moniz McMillion. 2021.
- Timeless. By Katiana Bennett. 2017.
- To view all of the films, visit http://www.jasnasw.com/young-filmmakers-contest/