Reprinted with permission from the website of the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication.
Skunk, a 16-minute dramatic narrative written and directed by Annie Silverstein ’01, won first place in the Cannes Film Festival Cinéfondation program. The Cinéfondation Selection consisted of 16 student films, chosen out of 1,631 entries from 457 film schools around the world.
Skunk tells the story of 14-year-old Leila, whose pit bull kills a skunk. She then meets neighborhood boy Marco, forming an unlikely bond until things begin to spin out of control. Leila is then forced to protect what she loves most at the cost of her own innocence.
Silverstein, who majored in history at Macalester, earned an MFA in 2013 from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communications. The winning film was crewed entirely by UT Austin students and alumni. “We feel incredibly honored that our film was selected by the Cinéfondation,” Silverstein says.
Silverstein began writing the film in 2012, refining the script with classmates in a thesis workshop course. The team began pre-production and casting in the fall of 2012, shot the film during a Texas heat wave in the summer of 2013, and edited it last fall. “The ambitious nature of trying to work with non-actor kids and rescued dogs, in 103-degree heat, posed many challenges,” Silverstein says. “It’s a true testament to the strength of our crew and cast that we got through it. We were lucky to have such a committed and talented team.”
Q: What inspired you to create this film?
Silverstein: Before graduate school I was a youth worker for 10 years in rural Washington. My students were Native American, lived on secluded reservations, and many perceived themselves as outsiders. While we mainly made documentaries together, sometimes we would fictionalize experiences from their lives that were too personal to discuss openly. Fictionalizing these stories made it possible to tell them. I became interested in writing and making films based on real people and real communities, drawing on my documentary experience to inform the storytelling approach. Also, I just enjoy working with young people and the creative energy that comes from these collaborations. I’ve always been attracted to telling what I think of as “outer circle stories”—people and places that aren’t often reflected in mainstream media. I’m drawn to life’s more subtle dramas—being an outsider, intersections around race and class, coming of age, humor in hurt, and hope amidst struggle.
Q: What inspired you to work with kids who had little or no experience?
Silverstein: I was looking for naturalistic performances, and for this project I wanted to work with youth who could bring their own life experiences to the film. While I was a youth worker I noticed that kids who are regarded as troublemakers and have a hard time in traditional school settings are often very artistic and natural performers. So we did a lot of outreach in youth groups and schools to connect with young people from all kinds of backgrounds, even if they didn’t see themselves as actors.
Q: What do you hope people take away from the film?
Silverstein: Teenage years are messy, especially for girls. They put themselves in risky situations with boys and men because they want to be desirable. I think this tendency has a ripple effect and can put others at risk, too. I hope to create something that feels truthful. I would love for people to feel as if they had watched an honest, engaging story.
Q: How did you prepare for the Cannes Film Festival?
Silverstein: I developed several feature ideas to pitch while we are at Cannes, including a feature version of Skunk. I reached out to Austin faculty and filmmakers for advice on how to make the most of the opportunity. And of course, I bought some new clothes—I couldn’t show up in my film school uniform of ripped jeans and old hoodie.