The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.
– Mark Twain
This week, the 13th annual Woodstock Film Festival takes place, with more than 150 events happening between October 10 and 14. But to me, it’s all about two films: The Symbol of Peace and The Hidden. Zev Vel and Lucas Handwerker, the respective filmmakers, are talented, motivated and inspiring. They’re both local. And they’re both teens! I can’t wait for you to meet each of them and to get to know their work.
Zev Vel and The Symbol of Peace
I posted the Mark Twain quote at the top of this week’s column because it reminds me so much of Zev Vel. I figured that if he’s 17 years old and making films that get accepted into the Woodstock and Austin Film Festivals, he must have been passionate about film since he can remember. Nope. That “Aha” moment happened just a few years ago. During his freshman year of high school, Vel participated in a FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics team competition. He happened to bring along his digital camera and took photos throughout the three-day event. He made a video montage of the experience and posted it on YouTube.
Vel had so much fun making it and got such positive feedback that he was asked to make a second video, to help attract sponsors to the team. Vel says, “This drove me to really throw myself in, and since then I haven’t looked back.” I’ll say. When I talk to him, he sounds grounded and present, yet filled with limitless energy.
Vel started the first film club at the Woodstock Day School. After three years of high school, he now attends Bard College at Simon’s Rock, where he worked with students to start a film production club there as well. Vel says, “I aspire to become a director of photography [DP], as cinematography has always been the part of filmmaking that has really entranced me. I have worked on everything from short student films to featurelength films such as In Our Nature, which premiered at the well-known SXSW Film Festival and will also be screening at the Woodstock Film Festival. In the last two years I have gotten experience as a director, director of photography, technical director, gaffer, key grip and editor on around 50 different film sets.”
I asked Vel what it is that matters so much to him about photography and film. “Film and television play a part in so many people’s lives today, and have led the way for change in the past and will continue to do so in the future. I believe strongly that films make a huge difference in society… Films raise awareness of issues, sometimes through fiction and sometimes through non-fiction; but in both of these cases, they bring an important part to society’s future.” Vel’s own film, The Symbol of Peace, is a look at the power of the iconic peace symbol in people’s lives and the different ways in which it has impacted both individuals and society over the past 50 years.
Who inspires Vel? “It is hard to pick a single individual that really has inspired me, as so many people have inspired me in different ways. Some of the greatest filmmakers – Alfred Hitchcock, for example – brought new ways of telling a story through cinema. However, on a more personal level, I would have to give a shout-out to John Hudak, a DP based in New York City, who I have learned so much from through working on numerous sets with.”
Throughout our conversations, I’m struck by how much Vel values the relationships that he makes with the people whom he meets through his work, and I wondered how Vel’s parents have helped him walk along this life path. “My parents have been large supporters of my goal. Although uncertain of how to best help at times, they have done everything in their power to help me achieve my dreams. My Mom and her husband have especially had a huge impact on my life: Without their countless hours of driving me to film sets, and working with my school and me to make my ambitions possible, I would not have achieved even half as much as I have.”
What else should we know about this vegetarian who likes spicy food, “though not too spicy”? “Being a part of the film world at any level takes dedication and love for the art. Because film is an art, it requires this to really push forward and enjoy what you create. For me, I found this out through robotics; but I think it is important to know that finding what you love is not always as easy as looking for it. Sometimes it is easiest to find what you love by doing something completely different.”
To learn more about Zev Vel, visit http://www.zevimages.com, http://www.facebook.com/zevimages or find him on IMDb at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm4613845. For more information about Vel’s film, visit http://thesymbolofpeace.com.
Lucas Handwerker and The Hidden
We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.
– Pablo Picasso
During one of my conversations with Lucas Handwerker, he explained his work to me, referencing that Picasso quote that I highlighted above. I love it, because to me, that’s exactly what Handwerker does: He challenges us, as well as himself, to go beyond self-imposed limitations. He essentially expands our understanding of truth.
To Handwerker, anyone is capable of anything, and the techniques that he uses – such as hypnosis, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and psychological persuasion – help us get there. He continues, “An immense amount of thought and planning goes into what I do. I really enjoy the process of creating the films and shows, but getting to see my thoughts and ideas come to life and be a reality is something that I find amazingly rewarding. If my ideas within my works can affect someone on a level I couldn’t think possible, or inspire them, or just make them think a little differently, then the feeling is indescribable for me. This work has become something very close to me, and trying to preserve the vision as I have seen it has brought with it one lesson after another. But I’m just getting started with everything; I have so many ideas bubbling around in my head – it’s just a matter of getting them out and into reality.”
But what does this work look like? Since it’s hard to describe how moving and powerful a live performance by Lucas Handwerker can be, he made a movie of a live show. He explained, “People will leave a live show excited about what they saw and tell all of their friends, but they can’t satisfactorily describe what happened. They say things like, ‘I can’t explain it – just go!’ The Hidden is a way to demonstrate what I do, but also show what the mind is capable of doing.”
I asked how he got started down this road. Always interested in science fiction and portals, Handwerker became intrigued by sleight-of-hand tricks when he was 6 years old. He performed for several years, enjoying the entertainment value and developing his skills and stage presence. Then one day he was suddenly asked to extend his 30-minute performance by 15 minutes, and he had absolutely no material. He had to wing it, and played around with stage hypnosis techniques. It was a successful experiment, and he delved in, prompting an inner shift from tricks intended to deceive the eye to a quest toward deeper truth, fascinated by the possibilities of what the mind could do.
Through trial-and-error, he found systems that enabled people to experience breakthroughs: “After one of my shows, this big football player approached me. I asked what he was afraid of, what scared him. He said, ‘Cockroaches.’ I did some hypnosis with him, and after we finished, he was shocked that he was no longer afraid. I just wanted to keep exploring this with people.”
I asked for some of the best advice that he has received. “My grandfather would always say, ‘Concern yourself with life, not the things of life.’ My Dad has been telling me since I was a toddler, ‘Persistence and determination; water absolutely wears away stone.’ And Da Vinci: ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.’” Handwerker works hard to stay true to his vision, and seems to have taken all of that wisdom to heart and carried it through into his work.
I asked Handwerker who inspires him: “There are so many: Christopher Nolan, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Milton Erickson, my mentor Brad Barton, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Mozart, Beethoven, George Harrison, Aaron Sorkin, David Fincher, Henry David Thoreau, Pablo Picasso. Even bigger things that aren’t people inspire me: nature, architecture, traveling, philosophy, modern art. Great artists inspire my art: writers, philosophers, directors, inventors, visionaries.” My sense is that Handwerker values limitless truth and authenticity, whatever the medium.
I hear and appreciate Handwerker’s awe about the transformations he helps to facilitate and witness. How does his family support this journey? “They gave me a lot of space, a lot of freedom, and trusted that I would take advantage of it in a productive and meaningful way.” He also makes time to cook, considering it meditative and rewarding.
To learn more about Lucas Handwerker, visit http://www.lucashandwerker.com, http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lucas-Handwerker, or connect with his publicist at http://www.abbedoesit.com. The Hidden can also be seen on http://vimeo.com/47086783. Both The Symbol of Peace and The Hidden will be screened during Teen Shorts, which will be shown on Friday, October 12 at 5:45 p.m. at the Kleinert/James Art Center, located at 34 Tinker Street in Woodstock. Admission costs $7. Seating is limited, and advance reservations are recommended. For more information, call (845) 679-4265 or visit http://www.woodstockfilmfestival.com. See you there!