Attendees fill the auditorium at the SIU Student Center for a viewing during the 2013 Big Muddy Film Festival.

Roger Ebert said, “Art is the closest we can come to understanding how a stranger really feels.” Next week’s Big Muddy Film Festival will give Southern Illinois residents a look into the lives of strangers from all over the world.

Now in its 38th year, the Big Muddy Film Festival stands as one of the oldest student-run film festivals in the country, with both foreign and domestic independent films featured in the categories of narrative, experimental, documentary and animation. The weeklong event puts the spotlight on a diverse array of films from several countries, including Canada, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Taiwan and the United States.

“There aren’t a lot of physical outlets to watch films in traditional theaters in Southern Illinois in general,” said Hassan Pitts, technology coordinator at Southern Illinois University's College of Mass Communication and Media Arts and one of the festival’s directors. “And so I think that just being able to broaden that diversity is really important. But then to really be able to cast an even greater and wider net, to be able to bring in films that are from different areas of the country, different continents, different cultures, I think that it allows a wider swath of perspectives, of stories, of narrative, and hopefully promotes some greater dialogues.”

Danyelle Greene, a master’s student in media theory and research, and Matt Crowell, a doctoral student in mass communication and media art, also serve as directors for this year's festival.

“You get stories from other places, and you get films that are not the blockbusters — the normal, formulaic films — but they tell an interesting story. It’s something that you don’t see often,” Greene said.

The festival runs from Feb. 23-28, beginning with a reception in the SIU Student Center followed by a screening of “Unexpected,” a film by SIU alumna Kris Swanburg. Swanburg, Heather Elliott-Famularo and Rosalind Sibielski will judge the festival’s 70 juried films.

Greene said the prescreening process, which whittled 300 submissions down to the 88 films being screened next week, was eye-opening for the students who participated.

“The experience of being involved in the festival helps you — especially with prescreenings — to understand how festival organizers think, what types of films they choose, what criteria they use to judge the films,” Greene said. “And so, for a future filmmaker submitting to various festivals, you need to know what they’re looking for, how they’re going to judge it, you know, and what kinds of film festivals fit for the films that you want to make.”

Pitts, a visiting artist at SIU with a background in multimedia arts and film, also serves as an adviser for the students involved in the festival. He said helping curate the films pushed the students to think critically.

“These are students who are in love with film, they’re in love with cinema. Some of them are making films, some of them are studying films,” he said. “What they learn in class usually comes from some kind of historical canon, and it’s just really interesting to watch how they’re beginning to reconcile that against things that are actually being made currently.”

For a complete schedule of the festival’s screenings, visit www.bigmuddyfilm.com.

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