Student Oscars 2016 “I have to make my own way”

Ocar winner Alex Schaad in September 2016
Ocar winner Alex Schaad in September 2016 | Photo (detail): © HFF Munich

It was a strong showing in Hollywood: three German film students were awarded in September a student Oscar. One of them was the young filmmaker Alex Schaad. Yet the golden trophy is not automatically a means of advancing his career.

There are stars in the international film business who wait for years or even decades to hold in their hands the most coveted film prize in the world. In contrast to Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, Alex Schaad pressed the fast forward button. Schaad, who was born in 1990 and studies directing at the University for Television and Film in Munich, won his first Oscar on 22 September 2016. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him the Student Academy Award in gold in the category of “Foreign Narrative”, that is, best foreign film.

He thus finds himself in the company of greats such as Pixar director Pete Docter (Inside Out, 2015), and Spike Lee (Chi-Raq, 2015), one of the co-founders of the New Black Cinema, whose careers took off after winning the newcomer trophy. Schaad still finds it hard to believe: “I’ve had to decline interviews lately because it became too much. To be honest, I still haven’t got used to the excitement.”

Invention of Trust, the 29-minute social media thriller that gained Schaad his student Oscar, is only the second practice film he has made as part of his studies but was already awarded the prize for the best medium-length film at the 2016 Max Ophüls Film Festival in Saarbrücken. Schaad wrote the script together with his brother Dimitrij Schaad, who also plays the leading role. The film tells the story of a teacher whose personal data are used by a company. Exploiting his digital footprint, the company issues him with an evaluation of various areas of life that can be viewed online by the public. Thus the committed teacher becomes susceptible to extortion; his former life is over from one day to the next.

Contacts to the film business in Los Angeles

Schaad already knew that he would win one of the three trophies in gold, silver or bronze weeks before the award ceremony, but not which one. “No one can go through the excitement surrounding the award for you”, says the young director.

In September Schaad spent five days in Los Angeles for what is called “industry activities”. “That means that we were driven from one lunch to another and met people from the film business: cameramen and women, makeup artists, producers and other members of the Academy.” On the evening of the award ceremony, there was no red carpet rolled out before the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills, but things were still festive. “The winners were of course called to the stage and I made a thank-you speech. Very traditional, like at the big Oscars”, recalls Schaad.

The Oscar in silver also went to a German film student: Felix Ahrens received the award for his drama Am Ende der Wald (Where the Woods End), produced at the Konrad Wolf Film University in Babelsberg. Among the other winners was Ahmad Saleh, a graduate of the Academy for Media Arts in Cologne. His short film Ayny, a German-Jordanian co-production, received the prize in the newly created category of “Best Foreign Animation Film”. For German film schools and their graduates this is an overall good result. 1,749 films by young directors from the United States and around the world were submitted for the 2016 Student Oscars; five German film schools made it onto the shortlist and three could take home a prize. An impressive number, which makes clear how great the competition is among young filmmakers.

The price opens doors

Since 1981 the Academy has awarded a prize for the best foreign work. It has been won by a total of 21 times by German film students, including Wolfgang Becker, Katja von Garnier and Florian Baxmeyer, all of whom later made their names in Germany as directors. Yet coveted and recognized as the trophy is, it doesn’t necessarily advance careers. Schaad therefore stresses how proud he is to call himself an Oscar winner, but also says: “On the other hand, the prize doesn’t mean anything. It opens doors, but you really have to make your own way.” The award also increases the weight of expectation: “Now a lot more eyes are on me; the bar has been set much higher.”

Two out of ten film school graduates are able to make a livelihood from the profession of film director, says Schaad. Perhaps that is why his plans for the future sound modest. Where does he see himself in five years? “On a film set, I hope”, he answers, “Whether cinema, television or YouTube clips – I want to work as a director”.

At heart he feels himself a European

And Hollywood? Can he imagine the dream factory as a possible future place of work? Absolutely not, says Schaad. In California he realized, he says, how privileged he is to be able to live and work in Germany. “Here I can be more creative and artistic because I don’t work in a huge system dominated by studios. In Germany there are film promotion systems that practically don’t exist in the States.” At heart he feels himself a European: “I’d rather make smaller films with smaller budgets here and with more heart”.

That Alex Schaad is aiming high in his profession may be seen in Invention of Trust. The film ends with a courageous, very long tracking shot, showing the main character floating through the air while he improvises a passionate monologue about privacy, human dignity and freedom. Great cinema, worthy of an Oscar.