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On-the-Job Training

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Will Zavala was a kid when he made his first film, a stop-action animation about dinosaurs who get wiped out by a volcano. He shot it with classmates in a San Diego summer-school program.

 

 

If this were a typical filmmaker's story, you could hum the rest: Addicted to movies, he commandeered his parent's camcorder, joined the video club, spent high school shooting monster movies and imitation slasher flicks ...

 

In Zavala's case, though, you'd have the wrong tune. That dinosaur epic was his last moving picture for years. In high school, he says, he had "absolutely no interest" in video classes. When he enrolled at UC Santa Cruz, it was to become a psychotherapist.

 

And he might be one today -- except, he says, "I realized I was a terrible therapist."

 

Zavala, now 44, says he doesn't recall why he took an elective in film history, or even what drew him to the filmmaking class he took next. After graduation, though, he kept going, working on instructional videos and other documentary projects. In his early 30s, he enrolled in Stanford's graduate film program.

 

And so the one-off elective (or maybe it was that dinosaur movie after all) has blossomed into a career. Zavala, who moved to Pittsburgh in 2003, will screen a sampling of his short documentaries at the April 11 installment of the Film Kitchen series (co-sponsored by City Paper). The program also features work by Eden McNutt and Nathan Minier.

 

Zavala's shorts include 1997's internationally screened "Roller Derby: Theatre of Pain" -- timely once again as the sport makes a comeback -- and "San Francisco Beledi" (2003), an excerpt of a portrait of the FatChanceBellyDance troupe. While FatChance, with its tattooed and very American dancers, was his client, Zavala's curiosity about the scene is as evident as in his other work, here raising questions about feminism and body image. Similarly probing is "Dealing With the Truth" (1997), an ostensible look at a dishonest used-car dealer that ultimately interrogates Zavala's own cinematic honesty.

 

Zavala will also premiere his newest short, "They Want You," which juxtaposes the slick, exciting imagery from the U.S. military's TV recruitment ads with sobering facts about real life in the military.

 

While he's teaching these days, most recently at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, Zavala plans to continue working on documentaries rather than fiction films. "I just like the uncertainty of it," he says. "I'm not as interested in carefully orchestrating every element in the film. I think it's much more fun to go in with a plan and have these unknown elements thrown in.

 

"There's so much you can do with filmmaking," he says. "Even after a dozen years I still feel like a novice."

 

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It was an artistic blind date, arranged by a Russian, with a match in the Ukraine. In September 2004, Eden McNutt flew from Pittsburgh to the former Soviet republic to work with Yuri Zmorovych, whom he'd never met. Zmorovych, an avant-garde artist, is known in the Ukraine as art director of the "spontaneous moving theater" called A-A-A: His award-winning 1996 film Portrait Without a Face was banned by his own government.

 

The collaboration was arranged by Pittsburgh-based, Russian-born Igor Roussanoff. The artist and costume designer knew Zmorovych and admired McNutt's vocal improvisations, which he performed with musicians including local composer and reedman Ben Opie.

 

McNutt lived in Kiev with Zmorovych's family for 10 days; twice the two men publicly performed their improvised, experimental duets. But while McNutt, 34, considered the older man a kindred spirit, they didn't talk about much, since neither spoke the other's language.

 

The pregnant silence gave birth on the final day of McNutt's visit, when Zmorovych took him to a small recording studio outfitted with a video camera. The "Spontaneous Improvisation" captured in a single take by the unmoving camera was just that: unpremeditated, with the two performers shaping the claustrophobic space with movement, gesture and wordless vocalizations.

 

"The drama that unfolds in the video to me is reflective of my experience there," says McNutt. "It was a chance to work with a teacher, [who] I feel was a master improviser. He really inspired me to go into some uncomfortable places."

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