MENOMONIE — A short film produced by faculty and staff in Millennium Hall garnered two awards at the Nov. 19 Los Angeles International Underground Film Festival.

“Vanità” is the third short film directed by Kevin Pontuti, former UW-Stout program director for entertainment design. It received the Best Slow Cinema and the Audience Award at the film festival.

“It’s rare that a film wins the Slow Cinema category and the Audience Award,” Pontuti said. “We were obviously thrilled to find out about the L.A. awards. I think it says a lot about the quality of the audience and the film.”

Four other UW-Stout faculty and staff contributed to creating the film:

• Peter Galante, associate professor in communication technologies, was the producer, director of photography and set designer.

• Ed Jakober, media specialist in Learning Technology Services, was director of photography and sound designer.

• Keif Oss, an instructor in communications technologies, created visual effects.

• Jennifer Sansfacon, assistant professor in performing arts, did special effects.

This was the third in a series of prequels to a planned motion picture “The Burning Branches,” which is the story of a 15th century pagan artist who seduces a royal prince by killing and impersonating his girlfriend. It follows the interconnected lives of three very different women, a sculptor with witchlike powers, an aging queen and a seductive peasant girl, each who have what the other desires.

The short films have been shown internationally and throughout the United States at film festivals.

“These are like the back stories,” Galante said of “Vanità” and the other two prequels “Pescare” and “Onere.”

“The point of these is to get audience credibility and traction” and to help raise the millions of dollars needed to do a full-length motion picture, Galante said.

Pontuti, who now teaches at the University of the Pacific in California, said there is a possible summer filming for the full-length film, dependent on fundraising.

Vanity and the struggles of humanity

“Vanità,” Italian for vanity, shows a young girl who finds a strange mirror. Partly inspired by the historical tradition of Vanitas paintings, which focus on how beauty and life are fleeting, the short film explores topics related to self-image, obsessive compulsive behavior and destructive behaviors relating to vanity, Pontuti said.

Pontuti said, with a background in studio/​contemporary art, he tends to push the limits while making films. 

“It’s part of my nature,” he said. “I enjoy seeing the audience reactions and hearing their impressions, which to me complete the film.”

As an art film, it deals with the struggles of humanity, Galante said.

The group collaborates well together, led by Pontuti’s vision, Galante said. 

“We have this synchronicity,” he said. “I trust his vision. He is a really good director.”

The Los Angeles film festival celebrates the efforts and accomplishments of underground artists who create memorable and inspiring pieces of work without major budgets, according to the group’s website. The award for Best Slow Cinema recognizes films with subtleties and almost a theater-like feel, Galante said.

Oss said he was impressed by the awards. He started working with the other faculty and staff members on the film because he wanted to be part of a different and memorable project. 

“I was blown away how it came together personally,” he said. “ ‘Vanità’ is emotionally evocative.”

Galante agreed. 

“I think people react to it very viscerally,” he said. “You’re not sure if it is real at the end.”

‘More than just a film’

The website The Art(s) of Slow Cinema,, said the film’s opening could be mistaken for “a Medieval still life, a painting that represents the Dark Ages that have left their indelible marks on our present lives.”

“Vanità” represents the horror and darkness that a viewer might associate with the Medieval Ages, the review of the film said.

“More than perhaps his previous works, ‘Vanità’ asks one to reconsider the idea of film,” the review said. “Pontuti has created a cinematic piece that challenges our belief that films must be seen in cinema by seemingly merging static and moving image art. ‘Vanità’ is more than just a film. With the help of utter simplicity, it creates strength and challenges and poses questions that are not always easy to answer.”

Galante built the set at Millennium Hall in the Green Screen Studio to create the look of a stone-walled room. He plastered wooden walls he built to create the effect. He also used linoleum with a rock pattern to create the floor and added dirt to make it more realistic.

Each little piece of the production is looked at in detail to create the best film possible, Galante said.

The actress in “Vanità,” Alexandra Loreth, who used to live in Menomonie, did an outstanding job in all the films, despite some difficult conditions, Galante said.

In “Pescare” she had to gut many, many fish, for example. That short film focuses on a young woman completing a difficult task.

In “Onere” the young woman bears the burden of carrying an almost humanlike “package” through the woods under extreme efforts. Both use magical realism to explore themes of love, sin, remorse and redemption.