NEW YORK, February 22, 2007 — Polish immigrant Piotr Kajstura was working on campus when he heard an African folktale from a fellow student at The City College of New York about magic and its uplifting effect on a group of slaves in the antebellum South.
A film major with a strong interest in magical realism, Mr. Kajstura was captivated. The tale became the inspiration for his M.F.A thesis project, “When They Could Fly,” which won the Best Short Film and Best Overall Film awards at the Texas Black Film Festival in Addison this month, beating out entries by Hollywood stars Queen Latifah, Bruce Willis and Vanessa L. Williams.
Set on a cotton plantation before the Civil War, the 28-minute period piece was shot in 18 days on location in South Carolina, and stars Nigerian-born actress Folake Olowofoyeku, a 2006 graduate of City College’s Theatre Program. Other CCNY students were involved in the project as crew members.
As one of the prizes for winning in Addison, Mr. Kajstura’s production qualified for the American Film Institute’s (AFI) Dallas International Festival, one of the biggest in the country, March 22 — April 1.
“When They Could Fly” has also earned acceptance to other leading festivals, including the Independent Black Film Festival (Atlanta), the Zion Independent Film Festival (Utah), the Arizona Black Film Showcase (Phoenix), Buffalo Niagara Film Festival and the Westchester International Film Festival (White Plains), all in March; and the California Independent Film Festival, Bare Bones International Film Festival (Oklahoma) and the 8th Annual Polish Film Festival in Los Angeles, in April.
Mr. Kajstura, who graduated in June 2006, was stunned by his film’s acclaim, which continues the recent success of City College student productions nationally.
“They had several great projects, many with over $1 million budgets and they chose mine with a budget under $50,000 — I was really surprised,” he said, noting a documentary by the rapper turned actress Queen Latifah and “My Brother,” a feature starring Vanessa L. Williams and Tatum O’Neal.
Ms. Olowofoyeku, who plays “Bella,” the female lead, said the film’s success was inspiring.
“A lot of hard work went into it,” said the Manhattan resident, whose credits include The Classical Theater of Harlem’s “Trojan Women” and HBO’s “Sex in the City.” “I for one fasted to get into character because it would be hard for anyone these days to imagine the physical and emotion burden that slaves had to endure.”
Written by Stephen Lindsey, who graduated in 2003 from CCNY’s Media and Communication Arts Department, “When They Could Fly” is about a group of slaves on a plantation. All but crushed by their condition, they find hope in a new arrival who shares a fantastic tale with the group. Can a “flying lie” bring hope and salvation to those who have none? That is the question the film poses.
“The concept of people who could feel completely free by believing in their ability to perform magic caught my attention,” Mr. Kajstura said, explaining his decision to make the film.
“My interest in the story was furthered when I began to study African folklore and came to the realization that belief and fantasy can transcend a person’s mundane existence,” he added. “I then realized that this concept of escape from reality, was not an isolated idea, but was a fundamental component of human existence regardless of race, nationality or religion.”
“When They Could Fly” is Mr. Kajstura’s second award-winning effort at CCNY. Last year, the Westchester and Manhattan resident produced classmate Carmen Vidal Balanzat’s documentary “6AM,” which won a silver medal at the Student Academy Awards in Los Angeles.
Another of Mr. Kajstura’s classmates, Octavio Warnock-Graham, won the Outstanding Documentary Award at the 2006 Angelus Student Film Festival in Los Angeles with his M.F.A. thesis project “Silences.”
Mr. Kajstura credited the high quality of City College’s film program for his success and that of the School’s other student filmmakers.
“I had the support of amazing faculty including my mentor, Professor Andrzej Krakowski, Professor Christine Vachon, who’s a legendary producer and other faculty,” he said, also thanking Professors Andrea Weiss, Campbell Dalglish, Herman Lew, and Jerry Carlson.
Mr. Kajstura, a native of Krakow, Poland, came to the United States in 1992 after winning the green card lottery. Before entering City College in 2000, where he also earned his B.A. in Film in 2004, he worked at a variety of jobs, including factory worker, construction laborer, hotel room cleaner and taxi driver.
For more information on “When They Could Fly,” visit: (www.whentheycouldfly.com).
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