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July 16, 2019
The AFI Conservatory EXPO

Fresh Out Of Film School — New Directors To Watch From the AFI Conservatory EXPO 2019



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Now that the summer season has officially begun, it’s a perfect time to highlight the work of filmmakers who are making the transition from film school student to professional. Many of the best film schools in the country hold their own student showcase or film festival at the end of the school year, to celebrate student work and even dish out awards and prizes.

When it comes MFA filmmaking programs, no other has prepared more A-listers and legendary talent than the American Film Institute Conservatory program. Every year incredible new filmmakers, writers, cinematographers and more become known to the wider film world. Besides its incredible history and running list of alumni, AFI is known for an incredible faculty and perhaps most famously known for their industry awards and Top 100 lists in several key American genres, such as the thriller, romance, musical and more.

Only in its second year, the AFI Expo is an all-day festival showcasing thesis work from the graduating fellows. While no awards are given out per se, everyone screening their film ends up being a winner. Film and television industry people all come to the event, along with many of AFI’s celebrated alumni and current faculty. Each film screens twice a day and allows the opportunity for filmmakers to network with talent and potential producers of future work.

Here are just six of the twenty-nine incredible films on display at this year’s expo.

AFI Expo 2019

“The Chef” — Dir. Hao Zheng

Logline: An old Chinese chef teaches a robot to cook, which places him in a dilemma between artificial intelligence and the human race. This film supported by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The American Film Institute

Hao Zheng looks to have executed an atmospheric and entirely-convincing futuristic premise (which is hard to do on a student film budget). He has plenty of short film experience coming into this, having directed four shorts, some music videos and a TV mini-series before this. Unlike many MFA directors who look to hone in on one particular style or aesthetic, Zheng seems to lean into whatever the genre of the film demands. While The Chef looks to be more introspective and evenly placed, the zany When Magic Stops features highly expressionistic lighting choices and a pulpy premise. This is one versatile director who is ready to break out!

“Haunt” — Dir. Nikki Born

Logline: At a local Halloween Haunt, Nora Flynn has an incredible night of transformation, and the kind of sweet-ass revenge that can only happen on Halloween.

“Haunt” — Dir. Nikki Born

Now being developed into a television series, the pilot episode of Haunt shows a director who knows how to take a horror environment, inject it with dark humor, and ultimately address some heavy real world issues. Nikki Born has been doing this for awhile now, especially with past short films like On The Rocks. Female revenge upon predatory men is a frequent theme, but Nikki knows how to go about it without the usual self-seriousness. By making irony, or gleeful sport, out of the revenge narrative, her work ends up being even more poignant and compelling. We just love the personality she brings to her stories (and her production value is always top-notch).

“Balloon” — Dir. Jeremy Merrifield

Logline: In the brutal battlefield of junior high, Sam has always tried to stay below radar, but all that changes when he discovers he has super powers.


With Balloon, Jeremy Merrifield is looking to use the superhero genre for a higher purpose — he wants to explore toxic masculinity, particularly in the adolescent culture. Stylistically, the short takes its cues from Chronicle, but its an origin story as epic and timeless as anything Marvel can shell out. Merrifield has already directed three shorts before, all more naturalistic in tone but equally charged with purpose. Perhaps Merrifield’s deep social and ethical concerns behind his filmmaking comes from the fact that this isn’t his first career rodeo. He spent years as a Broadway producer and creative for major corporations. With filmmaking, it’s his time to tell seriously personal stories.

“Our Home Here” — Dir. Angela Chen

Logline: Parallel stories of broken relationships interweave between parents and their children striving for the American Dream, all revolving around one explosive night at a fast food joint.

Our Home Here

Angela Chen is following in the footsteps of Paul Haggis (Crash) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, Amores Perros) by weaving together complexly related storylines that all reinforce a similar theme. While this would be a tall feat for most young directors, Chen has over a decade of filmmaking experience under her belt. She currently holds 28 directing credits on IMDb and has premiered at several key film festivals, including Tribeca, SXSW and New Filmmakers. Just from the film’s trailer, one can immediately grasp Chen’s ability (in conjunction with DP Michal Wronski) to mine the human drama inherent in a character’s face. Her prolific and varied filmography on humanistic themes should make her a major director to watch.

“Gummi Bear” — Dir. RJ Dawson

Logline: A brother and sister learn the extent of their autonomy through a series of everyday occurrences on a day when these kids are just trying to be kids.

Gummi Bear

Gummi Bear has perhaps the most evocative yet restrained trailer on this list. Filmmaker RJ Dawson knows how to draw an audience in partly because of his vast experience in the world of film. He started out as a first AD before realizing he wanted to tell his own stories. This led him to SCAD and eventually to AFI. With two highly prestigious programs under his belt, we think he is ready to tell his own lyrical coming of age stories, just as Barry Jenkins did with Moonlight. But don’t worry, Dawson is sure to be clearing out his own path.

“Saint Paul” — Dir. Al Kalyk

Logline: Mason, a young boy, lost and lonely, finds himself in the company of an alt-right group looking for recruits.

Saint Paul

We end our AFI Expo 2019 list with a true stylist who is quickly announcing himself as an auteur in the vein of Lars von Trier and Nicolas Winding Refn. However under the neon-soaked surface, there’s a real message about political identity and hate culture. Like last year’s short film Oscar winner, Skin, Al Kalyk chooses to delve uncomfortably deep into the alt right ideology, seeing how it becomes embodied and the disastrous consequences. Kalyk made a contemplative short documentary (almost in the style of a film-essay) and a Heart of Darkness-esque period piece short. But Saint Paul brings him into bold new territory — we believe he will only get more ambitious and accomplished from here.

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