Produce Iowa
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Produce Iowa

Iowa Short Film Wins Student Academy Award

A still shot from “Frozen Out” (Hillfire Films)

Two Iowa City filmmakers won a Student Academy Award and a $5,000 grant during the 48th annual ceremony presented virtually on Oct. 21 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The 5-minute experimental film, called “Frozen Out,” reflects on an immigrant’s struggles with mental health. It was written and directed by its star, Hao Zhou, a graduate student in film and video production at the University of Iowa, and produced by Iowa City filmmaker Tyler Hill.

“This is probably the most prestigious competitive prize for student-made films in the world,” Zhou said. “It’s the first Student Academy Award win from the University of Iowa, and it’s an honor to win this award representing the State of Iowa!”

Zhou and Hill’s work has already attracted attention here in Iowa. “Frozen Out” was selected for the sixth season of “The Film Lounge,” which will air statewide on Iowa PBS in January 2022. “The Film Lounge” is an annual series that showcases Iowa films and is produced in partnership with the Iowa Arts Council and Produce Iowa, both divisions of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.

Earlier this year, the department awarded a $50,000 Greenlight Grant to Zhou and Hill’s forthcoming feature film, “Happy to Have You,” which also stars Zhou and spotlights an immigrant’s experience.

Iowa’s landscapes have inspired both filmmakers from the start. When Zhou moved to Iowa from a warmer part of China, he marveled at winter and the natural “special effects” of snow. He and Hill shot most of “Frozen Out” in Johnson County and then mixed in scenes featuring Zhou’s sister and grandmother from his home in the Nanchuan District of southern China.

“We tried to make a film that visualizes many inner experiences — seeking meaning in a new mysterious place while constantly thinking of a distant home and family,” Zhou said.

Three images from “Frozen Out” (Hillfire Films)

“What I really love about this film project is how authentic it is to Iowa and our storytellers,’’ said Liz Gilman, executive producer of Produce Iowa. “Our office is really focused on Iowans and building a film-friendly ecosystem that creates homegrown, quality content for the industry.”

“Frozen Out” has already been selected for more than 35 film festivals around the world.

The Student Academy Award for “Frozen Out” puts it in the running to win an Oscar for the year’s Best Live Action Short Film during the ceremony scheduled for March 27, 2022. Since the student awards were established in 1972, student award-winning films have gone on to win 63 Oscar nominations and 11 Oscar trophies for filmmakers such as Robert Zemeckis, Patricia Riggen and Spike Lee.

Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs



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