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North Haven filmmaker Ashley Brandon is making her second trip to the Sundance Film Festival as an exhibitor later this month. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Brandon )
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Since arriving in North Haven in 2017 after taking a position as assistant professor of film, television, and media arts at Quinnipiac University, Ashley Brandon quickly cast her filmmaker’s eye around her new environs and found a local music and culture program that inspired her to co-direct a short documentary, which was recently selected to make its world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, which runs Thursday, Jan. 23 to Sunday, Feb. 2 in Utah.
The six-minute documentary, Día de Madre, was co-directed by Quinnipiac adjunct film professor Dennis Höhne and produced by Nevo Shinaar, Brandon’s classmate at Northwestern University. It was filmed on Mother’s Day 2019 with a budget of just $300 and features the talented young students of the Mariachi Academy of New England in Hartford.
“When I moved to Connecticut, I had no idea what to expect,” Ashley says. “I am always working on films and searching for new and exciting subject matter. In the past, most of my films have been centered around sports, so this time, I was looking for something musical, which is when I found out about the Mariachi Academy.”
The academy, a non-profit arts program, provides lessons in guitar, violin, trumpet, harp, and voice to students aged 6 to 18 from economically challenged and middle-class homes. Participants learn to read music, play their instrument, and sing in Spanish in the academy’s Hartford, New Haven, and New Britain classrooms.
“I thought ‘This is so cool’ and when I found out it was kids, I knew it was a very unique and interesting subject, so I got in touch with them, let them know what I wanted to do, and we got together,” she says. “How could we go wrong with talented kids making music together [and] learning about culture?”
Initially Ashley was filming the students from the academy as part of a longer film, but once in the editing room, she realized that this section of filming had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and could probably stand on its own, so she decided to make it into a short and submit it to the festival in late August.
“I was so excited when I found out it was accepted and it has been nominated for Best Short at the Sundance Festival,” says Ashley, who co-produced a film, Stay Close, that appeared at Sundance last year.
“Honestly, I feel like I have already won. All I really wanted to do was share an awesome story about some really cool people and I am so excited to be in a festival I have dreamed of,” Ashley says.
Now, she’s counting down the days until the end of the month when she can see the audience’s reaction to her film in Utah.
Día de la Madre will be shown as a short documentary prior to a full-length documentary, an arrangement that Ashley says will help her film gain exposure.
“Typically, they show all the shorts together at once and only few are chosen to precede full length films, so I am excited to be part of that. I think more people will get to see the film this way and it will be more memorable,” Ashley says.
Ashley grew up in Ohio and is a graduate of Wright State University’s motion pictures program. In addition, she has earned a masters of fine arts degree in documentary media from Northwestern University.
In addition to her Sundance accolades, Ashley was nominated as a finalist at the 2014 Student Academy Awards and has screened at Slamdance Film Festival, Rhode Island International Film Festival, Austin Film Festival, Cleveland International Film Festival, Cinequest, Portland (Oregon) Film Festival, Citizen Jane Film Festival, St. Louis International Film Festival, Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, and the American Documentary Film Festival.
In addition, she is a 2016 winner of the Tribeca Film Institute and ESPN Future Filmmaker Prize and was a participant in the Tribeca Film Institute’s If/Then American Midwest 2017 documentary program.
Once Sundance is over, Ashley’s film will be played at several other festivals around the country, opening it up to many new audiences. As for Ashley, she is already working on her next masterpiece. However, she says when she isn’t making films or teaching about them, she does try to squeeze in a walk at Hammonasset Beach State Park with her dog Kaiser.
“Coming from Ohio, I absolutely love the beach and I try to get there as often as I can,” said Brandon. “I am so glad I ended up in Connecticut, it is such a cool place to be a film maker. There is so much going on here, you just have to do some research to find out about all this little state has to offer.”
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