Independent streak: Films by Meadows alumni win festival awards

SMU alumni Juan de la Guardia ’10, Bavand Karim ’10 and William Saunders ’01 have been winning awards – and fans – on the film festival circuit this year.

By Shelby Foster
SMU Magazine

SMU alumni Juan de la Guardia ’10, Bavand Karim ’10 and William Saunders ’01 have been winning awards – and fans – on the film festival circuit this year. Each alumnus has been working in the film and video industry since completing cinema studies at Meadows School of the Arts and Communications.

Juan de la Guardia, writer-director, “I Become Gilgamesh”

Juan de la Guardia
Juan de la Guardia
Juan de la Guardia’s Master’s thesis feature, “I Become Gilgamesh,” was named Best Feature at the Tupelo Film Festival in Mississippi in May. Two weeks later the film won a gold medal for Excellence in Original Music at the Park City Film Music Festival in Utah. SMU alumnus Dan Lazarescou ’07 composed the celebrated music for the film.

“I Become Gilgamesh” is a psychological thriller filmed entirely in Dallas. The cast and crew included SMU alumni Lauren Hadaway ’11, Dan Maitland ’11, Sarah Nolen ’09, Abbey Siegworth ’10, Matt Tallman ’10, Rob Thomson ’11, Ben Tully ’10 as well as film students Eric Aceves, Adrian Escobar and Trey Trevino.

The movie follows a biology professor and single father who lectures on cancer while simultaneously fighting a personal battle with the disease.

“Immortality can mean different things in different contexts. It can mean eternal youth, spiritual persistence, being remembered, etc.,” says de la Guardia. “ ‘I Become Gilgamesh’ ties those approaches together in the story of a biologist studying his own cancer. Science shows the potential to stave off the disease, mythology promises to keep him eternally young, and his family guarantees that he will live forever in their hearts.”

De la Guardia brought his work full circle at the Dallas premiere of “I Become Gilgamesh” at Tex Fest in July and credits support from SMU for making the film such a success.

“Aside from the great education I got during my M.F.A., the program provided me with the perfect environment in which to undertake such a massive project,” he says. “My M.F.A. at SMU also landed me my current job as head of development for 12 Forward Entertainment, the company I interned for while still attending school.”

De la Guardia, who also produces television programming for networks like HGTV and CMT, continues to screen the movie at festivals around the world.

Bavand Karim, producer, “Nation of Exiles”

Bavand Karim
Bavand Karim

Bavand Karim has garnered awards and accomplishments since his graduation from SMU in 2010 with an M.F.A. in Cinema and Media Arts. Karim, a first-generation Iranian-American, inherited a passion for political activism from his parents, which inspired his work on the film “Nation of Exiles.”

“Among my earliest memories are recollections of attending meetings where my parents and their friends would discuss how they, as relatively new Americans, could raise awareness for the situation of students in Iran,” says Karim. “My parents’ greatest gift to me was their encouragement to pursue my own intellectual freedom.”

The film, a short documentary examining the emergence of Iran’s Green Movement, has won best documentary and best editing awards, he says. It has been shown at film festivals across the United States. “Nation of Exiles” garnered international attention when it received an award at the Biografilm International Celebration of Lives in Bologna, Italy. The documentary also has been screened in the United Kingdom, Brazil, France, Spain, Turkey and Ukraine.

Apart from his filmmaking endeavors, Karim has worked as a sports reporter for The Dallas Morning News. He also served as a producer for “Mother Earth News Radio,” a nationally syndicated radio program, and “Dig In DFW,” an organic lifestyle program for Fox 4 News in Dallas.

He has relocated to Cincinnati and currently lectures on electronic media and broadcasting at Northern Kentucky University’s College of Informatics. He also is a producer and director for the University’s student media outlet, NorseMedia.

Karim is working on several television programs in Cincinnati, as well as a documentary on college basketball. He continues to develop the “Nation of Exiles” theme to encompass social movements in Europe, Africa and parts of the Middle East.

William J. Saunders, director, “Sweet Little Lies”

William Saunders
William J. Saunders (far right) with cast and crew on the set of "Sweet Little Lies."
William J. Saunders, who earned a Bachelor’s degree in cinema in 2001, says the opportunity to use state-of-the-art technology as an SMU undergraduate gave him an advantage in graduate school.

“The SMU Cinema Department in 2001 actually had better equipment than my graduate school, Columbia University, in 2009,” said Saunders. “I found myself ahead of many of the older producers who weren’t used to editing on computers.”

In the course of his career, Saunders has worn many hats – writer, director, editor and producer – on a variety of feature and documentary projects. Much of his work has been in television for ABC, BBC, CBS, Fox, HBO, ESPN, MTV and the NFL Network.

“Big Charlie’s,” a documentary Saunders produced for the NFL Network, won a 2004 Emmy in the sports category. “Dash Cunning,” a comedic short that was his Master’s thesis film, won the Audience Choice Award at the Columbia University Film Festival.

With “Sweet Little Lies,” his feature-length film about a rebellious teen on a mission to find her father, Saunders puts his stamp on a favorite genre.

“I've been a lifelong fan of kid adventure movies like ‘Goonies,’ ‘E.T.,’ ‘Lord of the Flies,’ ‘Empire of the Sun,’ ‘Stand By Me,’ etc. When I saw these movies as a kid, they really spoke to me, and my imagination ran with the scenarios,” Saunders says. “I think people want to see these kinds of movies again. I certainly do.”

Saunders directed the film, and fellow SMU alumnus Josh Ayers ’01 served as executive producer. The movie premiered in April at the Kansas City Film Fest to a sold-out audience and was shown a few months later at the Big Island Film Festival in Hawaii. “Sweet Litle Lies” also received the Industry Award and the Audience Award at the Dances with Films Film Festival in Los Angeles.

“Sweet Little Lies” was created under Anywhere Films, the production company Saunders founded with five other filmmakers.

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