Flashback on Festival

Origins, Who Can Attend Annual Austin Film Fest


From left to right, senior Skyler Ortiz, 2022 alumnus Kaylee York and seniors Tamara Eslava and Eliana Garza pose for a quick picture as they watch a movie screening at last year’s Austin Film Festival. At the festival, the students listened to screenwriters, watched film screenings and explored the venues scattered across Downtown Austin. “Our group of students got to see exclusive screenings of films in iconic theaters such as the Paramount, for free, all due to the scholarship that accepted us in,” Ortiz said. (Photo Courtesy of Skyler Ortiz)

Iliana Tangarova, Reporter

Picture shaking the calloused hands of Johnny Depp, watching movies and listening to informational panels featuring some of the top film writers in the world. This is what one might experience at the Austin Film Festival.  

For 15 years, English teacher and Film Club Sponsor Michelle Iskra has brought students to the Austin Film Festival, an international film conference hosted in Austin. Texas. The event plays host to the largest screenwriters conference in the world and features over 200 panelists from all over the world whose areas of work span from plays, podcasts and digital series.

“I have met so many amazing people, especially writers, but at times actors, sometimes producers or directors or whomever,” English teacher and Film Club Sponsor Michelle Iskra said. “We’ve met Johnny Depp, we’ve met James Cromwell, we’ve met a wide range of different people who are in the film business. They are really happy to talk to students, but they are also very kind to me as a chaperone. I really enjoy the festival and it’s probably likely that I would not go without this opportunity.”

This year, the Austin Film Festival will take place between Oct. 27 and Nov. 3 in venues across Downtown Austin. Through this experience, students like senior and previous Film Fest attendee, Skyler Ortiz, say they harnessed an innate love for filmmaking, and some even continue in that direction in college.

“There’s nothing quite like it because you can walk into any presentation from any venue and learn something totally out of your field,” Ortiz said. “This is the place to go to ignite a real passion towards filmmaking. Everywhere, from the panels to the theaters, to the one-on-one conversations we had with directors and lead writers, all of it made me excited again for things that had become so mundane, like writing essays and scripts or telling stories.”

There’s nothing quite like it because you can walk into any presentation from any venue and learn something totally out of your field. This is the place to go to ignite a real passion towards filmmaking.”

— Skyler Ortiz

The festival provides opportunities for young filmmakers. Austin Film Festival’s Young Filmmakers Scholarship Program provides over 450 scholarships for students and teachers in middle and high school. Around 15 students are provided with this scholarship per school, and those who receive the scholarship are provided with a Conference Badge. The badge grants access to all four days of conference panels, all eight days of film screenings with priority entry, meets and greets and access to the the exhibit hall. Many of the students Iskra has taken have since studied film at schools like the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Southern California and New York University. 

“I have several students who went to the festival with me over the years who are now in the film industry, as editors, filmmakers, prop masters, script readers,” Iskra said. “All these former students who are in the industry are making a living, most of them living in California.”

Each year, in early September, Iskra receives information about the film festival.

“When I finally found out about the festival, there was another teacher at Leander High School, and then one at Austin High who was doing it and mentioned it, and I thought, ‘Oh, that would be so cool’,” Iskra said. “And then, suddenly, I have an invitation in my inbox. Each student has to individually apply, but it’s open to anyone who is a high school student here at Cedar Park.”

The application requires a short essay about the student’s interest in film, and the deadline for applications was Sept. 16. 

“Film Festival is important and I invite students every year,” Iskra said. “It’s really exclusive. We don’t really have an opportunity to do anything like that, especially for free in the school, in the district, anywhere. It’s an incredible opportunity. Even if the student is not necessarily that interested in film, but just likes to watch movies, there is the chance to be near writers who write for a living, write movies for a living, who write television for a living, who are pursuing these huge projects, and have this life that a lot of us can only imagine.” 

Although the deadline for admissions has passed, Iskra says the impact, importance and success of school students who have attended the festival resonate among the student body. 

“What I’m hopeful is that students who have an opportunity to attend the festival see themselves as empowered to some of their goals,” Iskra said. “That just coming up with a story and fully developing that story as a short film or a feature film, or even if it’s not something that would be recorded, just to get to the point where they realize they have what it takes. It’s part of the culture of my class, and I consider Film Festival important because it can provide long-term career benefits and connection for students’ futures.”