When Hao Zhou logged on to a Zoom call with Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences representatives in September, he wasn’t expecting to be told he’d won an Academy Award, and couldn’t have predicted the news would come from an Oscar-winning director.
“I received an e-mail from the academy saying that they wanted to do an interview with me (and all of the finalists),” said Zhou, a graduate student studying filmmaking at the University of Iowa. “They also invited a really famous Iranian filmmaker (Asghar Farhadi) to give the award to me. … I really love his films and he popped up in the Zoom and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ and he was like, ‘I have great news for you.’ ”
The news Farhadi — director of “A Separation” and “The Salesman” — shared was announced publicly this week as Zhou’s short film “Frozen Out” was named a Student Academy Award winner in the Alternative/Experimental category.
The Student Academy Awards are an annual film competition open to college and university students across the globe. Since the creation of the awards in 1972, more than 60 Student Academy Award winners have gone on to receive Oscar nominations, including luminaries such as Spike Lee.
The award comes with a $5,000 grant for Zhou, who made the film with collaborator Tyler Hill, an Iowa City filmmaker. It marks the first Student Academy Award win for the University of Iowa, and the film can be considered for a 2022 Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short Film.
In “Frozen Out,” the protagonist — played by Zhou — is shown wandering eastern Iowa landscapes, camera in hand. Over the five-minute runtime, the rural Midwest winter setting is contrasted with images of the Nanchuan District in southern China, where Zhou is from, as Zhou’s character reflects on familial relationships.
“I was interested in this cinematic tradition called a ‘film letter,'” Zhou explained. “Those short films were like, a director addresses a person through a voice-over or through images rather than writing a letter on paper to whomever the person is.”
The short film came into being after Zhou submitted a proposal in late 2020 to the non-profit group Art With Impact and received a Voices With Impact production grant. It funded the filming of the movie, completed in January and February of this year.
The film has been scheduled for showings at 35 film festivals — including the 24th Guanajuato International Film Festival in Mexico and the 33rd NewFest in New York — and is slated to be part of sixth season of “The Film Lounge” on Iowa PBS, airing in January alongside other Iowa films.
“It’s such an Iowa-based film, it’s really cool to share it with all the people that can tune into that here,” said Hill, the film’s producer. “As far as what’s next, we’re both working on a feature-length project that we’re shooting in Iowa City here in 2022. … That’s taking up all of our time basically.”
That forthcoming feature-length film, titled “Happy to Have You,” was the recipient of a $50,000 Green Light Grant earlier this year from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.
Liz Gilman, the executive producer at Produce Iowa, the office of media production at the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, described Zhou and Hill coming onto her radar as “kind of a one-two punch” when the pair submitted “Frozen Out” to “The Film Lounge” and a grant proposal for “Happy to Have You,” both in the first half of this year.
Gilman also expressed excitement not only about Zhou’s award but other films by Iowa directors or focused on the state, including the documentaries “Hockeyland” and “Storm Lake,” that are getting national attention. Both will be shown next month at the DOC NYC film festival.
As “Frozen Out” gains viewers over the next several months, Zhou said he hopes they will take time to think about the place where they’re living, especially if it’s Iowa.
“I really want the audience appreciating their environment because this film is deeply connected to nature,” said Zhou. “The snowy landscape looks really nice and it’s really healing. That made me think I should appreciate my environment here in the Midwest, even though I’m not from here.”