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Project Twenty1- Not Just a Film Festival

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Project Twenty1 logo It all started as a way to help out a friend.

Like many graduates of Philadelphia-area arts colleges, Stephanie Yuhas found herself facing a decidedly unpromising job market when she received her B.A. in animation from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in 2004. Her friends from school were in the same boat, including a student she describes as “the most talented person I know.”

After the energy and excitement of school life, the friend, Adam Cusack, landed in a post-collegiate purgatory of dead-end, minimum-wage jobs with no incentive to continue the work that so energized him in school.

“He needed a deadline to get things done,” Yuhas says. So she gave him one, and thus was born Project Twenty 1, whose signature event, the 21-Day Film Festival, took place October 1-4 in Philadelphia. In addition to the 21-Day Film Festival, in which teams of filmmakers compete with each other to write, shoot and edit a short film in 21 days, the non-profit arts organization is hosting a festival of feature films, shorts, and animation from around the world, as well as workshops and networking events for aspiring filmmakers.

The event kicked off with a party and a screening of one of the features on the festival’s bill, the Canadian comedy “You Might As Well Live,” which mines the same vein of raunchy, slyly subversive humor as the 2004 indie smash “Napoleon Dynamite.”

But it’s the 21-Day Film Festival that remains the event’s centerpiece. It began in 2006 with 21 competing teams. It’s grown larger each year since, and this year features almost 50 teams from as far away as Greece and the United Kingdom. At a kick-off event in August, each team was given a common element that had to be included in each film (this year, that element was a key), and the teams spent the remainder of the month committing their cinematic visions to film.

The ones that made it in, under the deadline were screened over the course of the four-day festival, with the winning team receiving a trophy and about $2,500 worth of editing and graphic arts software. The entries are judged by a panel of Philadelphia-area film professionals.

Yuhas says she’s consistently amazed by the quality of work that comes out of these festivals.

“Every single year we have it, the bar is raised,” she says. “There’s stuff in some of these films that I don’t even know how they did it.”

Participant Chris Labree says her team rose to the challenge by creating a period film, called “8 Minutes,” set in 1890.

“We really wanted to do a history piece,” she says. “We had access to awesome locations, awesome wardrobe, and we really wanted to incorporate that.”

In addition to giving the area’s burgeoning ranks of filmmakers an incentive to complete their work and a forum in which to show it, the event is a way to bring together filmmakers of diverse talents in a way that benefits everyone, Yuhas says.

Labree agrees that the opportunity to network is a primary strength of the Project Twenty 1 events.

“I ended up meeting my screenwriter through the meet-and-greet,” she says. “It’s a really interesting process and I think they really thought it through as far as networking and getting people together,” she says.

Animator Vera Lui’s film “Lui in Amelica!” was entered into the animation competition through the Asian-American Film Festival, one of several festivals with which Project Twenty 1 is affiliated.

“It’s a really good, local festival for Philadelphia,” Lui says.

According to Yuhas, it takes grassroots efforts like Project Twenty 1 to offset the lack of support for the film community shown by local and state governments. This is especially true now that the Pennsylvania legislature is considering a measure to slash a tax credit meant to encourage productions big and small to shoot in the state. This measure is blamed for sending Philly native son M. Night Shaymalan to Canada to film his latest project.

She says community support is essential for the all-volunteer organization, which Yuhas says aids more than 10,000 artists in Philadelphia and beyond.

“This will go away if people do not reach out to help us,” she says.

As for the festival’s original purpose, to give Yuhas’ friend an incentive to complete his projects, has it been successful? Yes and no.

While Cusack participated in the past three 21-Day Film Festivals, he missed the deadline for the 2009 festival by a scant two minutes.

“I really, really wanted to let him in,” she says. “But the cut-off is the cut-off.”