Maya Neyman’s cousin Nathan in “blink of an eye” (2019). Credit: Courtesy of Melissa Starker

In the blink of an eye, an Ohio State student’s midterm project turned into a winning submission for a film competition. 

Maya Neyman, a first-year in psychology and pre-major in moving-image production, won the Audience Choice Award Sunday at this year’s Ohio Shorts program, a short film contest and exhibition held annually at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

Neyman’s “blink of an eye” was the only Ohio State student submission to make the final program. She said she decided to come to Ohio State because of the moving-image production major, which was introduced in fall 2017.

“I feel like a lot of schools — especially film — it’s super cutthroat. No one is going to really try to help you. You have to be on your own. It’s just you. But in OSU, in that program, it’s completely the opposite. It’s such a supportive environment,” Neyman said.

She credited weekly short film critiques in pre-major foundations classes with making her more comfortable showing her work and teaching her new filmmaking techniques. She said she applied for the Ohio Shorts competition on a whim after seeing the flier in a monthly film studies email. “blink of an eye” was Neyman’s midterm project this past semester.

“It was the first work that I’d ever done that I was actually, really — I was really proud of it. This was a story that I had been trying to tell for a while, but I couldn’t figure out quite how to tell it,” Neyman said. “And I felt like I finally was able to tell it, and finally, I could share my voice.” 

She said the short, starring her seven-year-old cousin Nathan, is about the fleeting nature of youth. Being 18 years old, Neyman looked to younger people for inspiration.

“I really like asking kids questions about life. What is love? What is happiness? What is growing up? Because they have the best answers,” Neyman said. “They’re so genuine in their answers, so I think that’s the kind of genuine feeling of happiness and youth and, ‘I’m going to go change the world,’ I wanted to capture in the beginning. But I think as you grow older, one of my biggest fears — I think a lot of people’s fears — is what happens if you end up in a job you hate, in a life that you hate, and it’s too late?” 

The Ohio Shorts program began 24 years ago as a way to highlight the state’s filmmakers.

“Everyone says, especially with film, if you want to have a career in film you have to move to one of the coasts — New York or LA — but there’s actually this really rich tradition of filmmaking right here in Ohio, and a lot of really active, interesting, awesome artists and filmmakers who live in this state,” Jennifer Lange, curator of the film and video studio program at the Wexner Center, said.

Lange recalled the early years of the program, when submissions were mailed in on VHS tapes. This year, she said there were 147 entries battling for 15 spaces in the finalist program. The program is decided by a rotating pair of jurors — this year’s team was  Rachael Barbash, Wexner projectionist, and Maria Joranko, Wexner community outreach and teens programs coordinator.

“I was very happy with the number of submissions this year, and also the geographical diversity,” Lange said. “Maria and Rachel were very keen to find works that were trying to say something really interesting and not trying to fit into the mold of what’s already been said.”

Submissions came from all across Ohio, from Athens to Atwater, according to the Wexner Center’s website. 

Lange said the 15 finalists each received $50 in screening fees in return for their films making the program. Jury Award recipient Catalina Jordan Alvarez received $500, and Neyman received $300 for the Audience Choice Award, decided by online voting.

“I think it’s important to pay artists for their work and to pay filmmakers for their work. To acknowledge their work with money if you can,” Lange said. “Film is an art form, but it’s also entertainment, and independent filmmakers aren’t necessarily reaping rewards. Even well-known independent filmmakers aren’t; so even if it does feel a little bit like a token, it’s important for us to pay people.”

After moving online due to COVID-19, the event went live April 18. The 95-minute program was made free to stream. Lange said that while there were challenges with working from home, the new medium allowed more than 1,500 people to stream the program in the first week, as opposed to the 295 that the Wexner Center’s theater can seat. More than 750 votes were cast in the Audience Choice category.

“Those views have come from Brazil, from Nigeria, from Finland, from Canada, all across the United States. That’s even more exciting in a way,” Lange said. “I had hoped for this expanded reach, but to see it actually happen is like, ‘Oh, wow. We should do this every year.’ And we may end up trying to do it every year this way.”

Neyman said her family is based in Cleveland and would not have been able to come to the festival in person. They were on a Zoom call with family friends when she found out she had won via Instagram.

“I was in such a state of shock that I started tearing up at the news. And then I told my parents and they started freaking out, and then I had so much adrenaline, I ran to Nathan’s house and told him, and he was super pumped and it was really cool,” Neyman said. “I called all of my friends and they were so happy; I was sky high. I started saying, ‘I’m so thankful for your support,’ like I was at the Oscars.”

The 2020 Ohio Shorts program will be available to stream until Saturday on the Wexner Center for the Arts website.