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Denver Film Festival is returning October 31-November 11 and is getting ready to kick off the 2018 fest of the best in regional, national, and international independent cinema. These films have been laborious works of love, with countless hours and sleepless nights full of pre-production meetings and post-production editing. This year, loud and proud queer voices are being both represented and honored amongst the best works of the year. But, what exactly does it take to get a short or feature-length movie made, from inception to celluloid? How does representation of LGBTQ stories transcend from vision to reality, and who is fronting the charge?

Right here in Denver, Sheila Schroeder has a thing or two to say about that and is working side-by-side with the next generation of queer voices, providing opportunities for them to share their stories and speak their truth. Schroeder is a feminist filmmaker who specializes in cinematic activism, film strategizing, and screenwriting. Through a unique combination of her love for storytelling alongside her passion of collaboration and mentorship, she has spearheaded a new program within the University of Denver’s Film Studies department, Project DU F.I.L.M (Film Initiative Linking Mentors).

Sheila Schroeder, Associate Professor University of Denver Department of Media, Film & Journalism Studies, in a self portrait

Before the program at DU was developed and successfully underway, the idea began in the quaint mountain town of Nederland with Schroeder and her partner over Valentine’s Day weekend in 2014.

“It was the first Valentine’s Day after my Dad had passed, and we were just trying to change the mojo a bit because we were pretty deep in grief,” she said.

They went out to eat that morning and decided to buy breakfast for a random group of people in the restaurant. The couple left and had no idea what happened to that group of pleasantly surprised strangers, but that is when the creative juices started flowing, and the screenplay for the short film Happy F*cking Valentine’s Day practically wrote itself.

“We started coming up with a fictitious story of what might have happened once we left, and that became the first Project DU F.I.L.M script.” Schroeder went on, “It’s a short, comedy-drama about unexpected cupids in a small mountain restaurant. Our story features a lesbian couple who are trying to be cupids for a disgruntled waitress.”

Once the screenplay was finished, Schroeder, who had been teaching film for the better part of twenty years, knew she had a good script in her hands. However, next came the biggest obstacle of any independent filmmaker: How do they get this film made?

Cue the entrance of University of Denver’s dynamic and inclusive film department and the development of Project DU F.I.L.M.

Three Lucy’s (L-R): Kathleen Kaplan as Gypsy Lucy, Chelsea Bell as Martian Lucy, and Jessica Anguiano as Classic Lucy.

“It combines a couple of goals that I have as a film professor and as an activist, especially in LGBT rights,” Schroeder explained.

One of those goals was to change the face of filmmaking in front of and behind the camera. She utilizes this program to focus the lens of storytelling towards women, people of color, and LGBTQ people, groups who are vastly underrepresented within the film industry.

Behind the scenes, there is also an intentional placement of diverse, creative contributors. The film crew positions are filled with students and alum who are LGBTQ as well as students from communities of color, who are then paired with mentors from what would be considered mainstream markets.

Happy F*cking Valentine’s Day became the first finalized product to come out of Project DU F.I.L.M, which was released in December 2015 and has gone on to be featured in over 20 film festivals across the country.

The debut short film was met with excitement and success, and while celebrations were in order for the brand-new collaborative adventure, their work was far from done. The sophomore venture for Project DU F.I.L.M  was the 2017 short, Scary Lucy, also written by Schroeder, a fictitious comedy of errors based around the horrifically real-life unveiling of the far-from-flattering I Love Lucy statue in Celeron, New York.

Centered around a lesbian stand-up comedian with severe commitment issues, she bands together with her partner alongside their transgender friend on a mission to destroy the hideous, copper rendition of Lucille Ball.

While considered to be an ambitious endeavor within the limited time and limited budget shorts universe, Scary Lucy was shot over a span of eight days and at one point had more than 100 people on set. The film was wrapped and screened within a six-month time frame and has been just as well received in the LGBTQ film festival circuit as Happy F*cking Valentine’s Day.

Though these two films were specifically made with LGBTQ audiences in mind, has that been a help or a hindrance in giving queer issues visibility within the mainstream festival market? Schroeder says no; in fact, it is important to target one’s audience and play directly to them.

“I recognize what film festivals do,” she said. “They have a specific audience that they are playing to, and LGBT festivals really resonate with these stories.”

These facts of the industry are amid the many lessons that she takes back to the classroom. The majority what Schroeder continues to focus on in her lectures, the thing that she impresses upon most, is the major gap between mainstream audience reach and minority representation.

“A part of my teaching is showing, the playing field is not level. My minority and non-minority students need to know that,” she said. “We talk about the deficit of women in front of and behind the camera, people of color in the writing room, well-rounded LGBT characters.”

From left: Janae Burris, Christie Buchele , and Mitch Marquez of Scary Lucy.

The opportunities that Schroeder has been given through DU are a testament to the mission and values of the institution as a whole. Having been one of the first Universities to have a domestic partner policy developed by faculty in the late 90s, this is another example of how their inclusive policies prioritize funneling resources into progressive and innovative concepts.

Ultimately, Schroeder can’t help but become emotional while discussing what has been the most impactful part to her during this entire process.The growth within students and the connections forged within film, activism, and her community, it’s the spot within that magical pyramid that ultimately acts as a launching pad for successful careers for her students.

“You just don’t know the impact that you are having on them (the students). It is really the best thing I have ever done professionally, to give opportunities and to create stories that are important to me. To reach out to my own community, the LGBT community, to offer up a chance to look at our lives in different ways and connect with people through that storytelling, it’s really a gift.”