How Students from Uruguay made an Award-Winning Short Film for $2000

Clara Lezama’s short film ‘Emma’ screened at a host of South American festivals, including Festival Internacional de Escuelas de Cine & Festival Piriápolis de Película, winning best Uruguayan Short Film at both. ‘Emma’ came to Pendance for its North American Premiere on December, 15, 2017 and was awarded the Jury Prize for Best Short Film.

After the screening of ‘Emma’, we introduced Clara to the audience and everyone seemed to have one question — “Was that seriously a micro-budget student film written by a 19-year old?” Have you ever heard 420 people audibly gasp in unison? It was chilling. After years of spinning our own theories on how Clara, her cinematographer Karen Antunes, and fellow students from Escuela de Cine del Uruguay managed to pull this off, we decided to just ask her.

If you haven’t seen Emma, you can watch the full film for free on The Pendance Library here.



Thanks so much for doing this. Firstly, how are you and how is the situation with the COVID-19 pandemic in Uruguay?

The situation here was under control until December when the number of cases started to rise and we reached ‘Level 4’. I work at the cinema and my job was interrupted for six months. Now we’re back –with preventive sanitary measures- but things are very unpredictable (like everywhere I guess).

What advice would you give to any filmmaker who can’t decide whether or not they want to go to film school? Pros? Cons?

I think it depends on the school, its approach, teachers, and what it can offer to you. Personally, I think it was nice to have the guidance of my teachers (most of them actively work in movies). Then I think it’s up to the student to make the best of it.

You wrote ‘Emma’ when you were 19 years old. And yet it feels ‘mature’. It doesn’t suffer from excessive dialogue or rushed pacing. Where did this story come from and how were you (at 19-22) able to tell it?

I think it all came from what was going on in my mind those days. The idea of isolation, mental states and altered reality was very attractive to me. I guess my anxiety was my inspiration. My goal was to create a certain atmosphere and I thought that dialogue wasn’t the way to achieve that. I was interested in letting the audience create its idea of what exactly is happening, I focused on the feeling.

We’ve had a lot of people mention the visual and narrative similarities between ‘Emma’ and Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ and David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’… In that they take place in these immaculate locations, warmly lit, as a paranoid character quietly seems to lose their mind. Was ‘Emma’ visually or narratively inspired by those films, or other films?

Wow, those are big great films. Lynch’s work is very inspirational to me all the time. For ‘Emma’ my primary inspiration was Polanski’s apartment trilogy but of course other films inspired me in other ways like Zulawski’s Possession, Suspiria (Dario Argento), Barton Fink (Cohen Brothers) or 3 Women (Robert Altman).

There’s a very warm colour palette with reds and yellows contrasted by greens and occasional blues. How much attention to detail went into production design and colour theory?

I wanted to create an enclosed, saturated atmosphere with lots of textures. I wanted it to look like the hotel had no time. The story could be happening today or 30 years ago. It was important for me and I always saw the hotel as a character that is alive and not living at the same time. My first idea was more brown with yellow, green and blue but more low-contrasted. When we got our location confirmed things changed a little. I had several references of film frames and paintings that I showed to the production designer and things came intuitively.

If you had to be trapped on an island and could bring only 3 books and 3 films with you, to watch and read for a whole year, what are you bringing?

I can’t answer this!

Given the gender disparity between men and women behind the camera as both directors and cinematographers, how important was it on ‘Emma’ to work with your cinematographer Karen Antunes?

Well, we were like 15 people in my class and more women than men, we worked equally. Karen is a great editor and cinematographer, it was great working with her. I feel the most important thing is to have fluent communication where both understand the particular needs of the narration.

You shot this film on $2000 if I recall correctly?  How were you able to achieve such a result, between the lighting, locations, set design, wardrobe, feeding people, gear, crew?

We shot it at an incredible place that used to be the countryside mansion of a wealthy family and now is the National Anthropology Museum. We had other places in mind but this location was perfect and cost-free because it’s municipal. The director of the place allowed us to shoot for four days, five hours each day and we had to adjust our schedule to that and it was enough to tell the story. That reduced feeding and transportation costs. Most of the set design was already there, we only rented a few things. The crew were my classmates and some people who collaborated as volunteers with us. Most of the gear was from school, we only rented the camera and a few other things.

Q: How did you approach casting your characters? Were they known to you? Did you hold big auditions?

A: We made an open audition in school but it wasn’t very successful for me. I contacted some casting agencies and asked for help from friends from the acting world. I’d seen Chiara and Hugo (man next door) acting in other films so I called them. Then for the extras I called my aunt and my little cousin.

Q: What’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to you about ‘Emma’?

A: I don’t know!

Q: What’s the worst comment you’ve ever received about the film?

A: None!

Filmmaker Clara Lezama (b. 1994)

We asked our Instagram followers if they had questions for you. Here are 6 of those questions.
Audience Question from Alex: Who is this film targeting? Who did you make this film for?

A: For me and whoever is interested.

Audience Question from Ethan: What is the arm injury she has supposed to represent? And what happened to her before? Abuse? Accident?

A: It represents something that hurt (her) from the past.

Audience Question from Cassandra: Hey Clara loved Emma. When is your next film coming out and whats it about?

A: I’m glad you liked it! Soon I hope! I’m working on it.


Audience Question from Jessica; What’s with all the creepy men?

A: It’s the feeling of being threatened.

Audience Question from Kamelia: Is this film really happening? There’s naturally something surreal happening, a dream, a nightmare, purgatory?

It’s a subjective reality and a high stage of paranoia she needs to confront to get over.

Audience Question from Filipe: Theres a picture on the wall of the bird? You kept showing it, changing under the light. Does this signify time? And how much of your film is about time and waiting if any?

Those birds belong to a silk tapestry that was hanging in the location and I was mesmerized by it. They were facing each other and I felt there was a connection with what was happening. The first idea was to use them for the credits but the editor used them as transitions and I think it came out better. Time is suspended in the film, it passes but not really. She waits for things to change until she realizes she’s the one that must act for that to happen.



There’s a lot to learn from Clara’s process behind ‘Emma’, but we did a ton of digging to come up with a few tangible lessons we could offer readers trying to create their own success story with micro-budget short films. Consider them the golden rules to planning your next shoot if money is tight.


One thing everyone says when they watch ‘Emma’ is that while the cinematography and editing are indeed commendable, it’s the location which adds significantly to the production value and story. As Clara mentioned, they were able to source the location for free. Locations like this do occasionally become available. Far too many filmmakers give up before trying and resort to shooting in their apartment or in a field.

As Tom Hardy’s character says in Inception “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger darling”. Align yourself with a producer and locations manager who can source good deals for you. You might not find the type of location Clara found for ‘Emma’ for free, but you might find something close to it for almost nothing. It happens all the time. Even here in North America.


If you’re going to be shooting at a break-neck pace, you absolutely need to put some serious emphasis in how well you cast your principal actors. The actors in ‘Emma’ are highly natural. It is difficult to imagine that this film was shot in roughly 20 hours over 4 days given the complex nature of the set design and lighting setups. If time is of the essence, you need actors who are hyper prepared and ready to adapt on the fly when things aren’t working.


It’s apparent from knowing Clara for the past few years that she’s an incredibly humble artist. She served on our short film jury in 2020 alongside some incredible people because we really value her opinion and judgment. And it’s remarkable how often it is these types of directors who are willing to align themselves with the best collaborators.

Clara’s cinematographer Karen Antunes is currently an editor in Mexico City. Just a few years removed from her graduation, she’s been working on high profile projects including some high end brand content and the Netflix series ‘Selena’. She’s really talented. It was genuinely shocking to learn that Karen had literally never been a cinematographer before shooting ‘Emma’ and had never done it again since.

What would ‘Emma’ be without Clara’s deeply personal script, Antunes’ sharp creative eye, or Chiara Hourcade’s compelling performance? It would be incomplete. Filmmaking is never a one man or woman show. The best directors get over themselves early on and really understand that.


This should be a general rule of thumb regardless of budget, but you should especially sincerely consider slashing dialogue to a minimum when time and money are tight. Dialogue is not only one of the hardest things for younger screenwriters to get right, it’s also one of the most difficult things to nail on set. One thing we truly loved about ‘Emma’ was that it felt extremely self-contained and focussed. It was deliberate and well-paced, and each line of dialogue felt absolutely essential.


There’s a line, and it’s a fine one. A lot of films submissions our festival receives each year could have desperately used another shoot day. Which film couldn’t? But when locations are restricted, and the budget constraints are so severe relative to the overall scope of the project, there’s very little wiggle room to lose twenty minutes, much less an hour. To shoot a fourteen minute film which looks as good as ‘Emma’, with a small crew, in roughly 20 hours is almost unfathomable.

This means plan everything when it’s free. Go through all of your blocking rehearsals. Mimic the locations beforehand. Every crew member needs to be prepped and each actor needs to know their lines forward and backwards before arriving to set.


This might be controversial to all the 14-hour-day-minimum people out there worried about spiking rental and location costs, but when people are working for low-pay or volunteering, working shorter days can go a very long way to earning some much needed good will. The downside of course is rentals. But since most rental houses offer a significantly discounted rate on weekly rentals, consider this the trade-off for a more productive and happy cast and crew.

If everyone knows that they’re in and out in less than 7 or 8 hours (or in the case of Clara’s shoot, 5 hours), there’s an intense focus with which everyone moves. 14 hour days feel long for all 14 hours. People are slow to set up because they’re trying to pace themselves, and they’re generally counting down the minutes by hour 9. People simply aren’t meant to work 14 hours productively.


No. We don’t mean you should write a story about being a struggling screenwriter. But do write from something you can draw on from personal experience. Whether that’s a feeling, a fear, a character, a thought, or an idea. Whatever you’re filming should mean something to you. Far too many people get bogged down into making something that they think is relevant or marketable to others. We sincerely believe that writing a script you care about early in your career will attract better people to your project. It’s absolutely lovely to work with a director who actually cares about their script.


It’s not hard to be short-sighted—it’s almost a default setting in the film industry. Once a project is announced, there’s a ton of momentum to get it done. Any filmmaker who has seen the full process behind making a really great film would tell you that there’s a million mini-steps, re-steps, do-overs, and problems that need to be solved. Clara wrote ‘Emma’ in 2013, shot it in 2015, released it in 2016, made her North American Premiere in late 2017, and had the film released to the world in 2021.

Films can have a really long story. Once released, they can go on to have a life of their own, potentially generating cashflow via VOD, or racking up millions of views on streaming platforms. It’s not uncommon that a film made in 2012 nets someone a job in 2021. It happens all the time. So take your time. Take as long as you need to make the best possible film you can.

Then let it go.

#tips #filmindustry #filmfestival #movies #filmfestival


Robert Misovic is a Serbian-Canadian writer and director, the founder of the Pensare Films Studio in Toronto, and the festival director for the Pendance Film Festival. If you’d like to keep up with Rob on social media, you can find him on instagram @pensare.films or reach him directly at robert.misovic@pensarefilms.com 

10 Brilliant Films by Women Now Free to Stream on The Pendance Library

While Hollywood still has a gender disparity problem with women behind the camera, film festivals have usually been marginally better at celebrating female voices. These are some of those voices. Whether it’s Goya-winner Carlota Pereda, Sundance-favourite Eliza Hittman, or a filmmaker you’ve never heard of, this list features some of the best female directors working in the world today. And now you can stream 10 of their films, totally free through the Pendance Library.


Piggy | Carlota Pereda | Spain

Winner of the Best Short Film Jury Award at Pendance 2019, and the recipient of the Goya Award for Best Short film in 2019, Piggy follows an overweight teen, Sara, as she’s bullied by 3 classmates. One part horror, one part social commentary, all parts great cinema, ‘Piggy’ packs a lot of punch into its 15 minute runtime.

Watch Now


Emma | Clara Lezama | Uruguay

Winner of the Best Short Film Prize at Pendance 2017, Emma is a Lynchian nightmare in which a young woman must battle forces beyond her control to stay safe from a series of men at a strange hotel. ‘Emma’ uses sharp cinematography and set design to paint a story far larger than its paltry $2000 budget.

Aria | Myrsini Aristidou | Cyprus/France

Myrsini Aristidou’s ‘Aria’ was a hit at Sundance and Venice before rocking audiences at Pendance in 2019 as part of the Deep Impact Shorts Showcase. On the surface, the story is ridiculously simple. A girl named Aria wishes for her dad to give her driving lessons. Instead, he pawns off a Chinese migrant seeking fake papers for her to look after. Aria isn’t a surface film. There are layers to this story that are captured through the lens choices, frantic movement, brilliant editing and compelling performances from all 3 principal actors.

Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight | Eliza Hittman | United States of America

‘Beach Rats’ director Eliza Hittman has gone on to become one of the most prominent female directors in the world. With multiple features sweeping the ranks at Sundance, it’s hard to remember that one of our first introductions to Hittman was in this humanistic short film about a girl going out for a night on the town with her friends, and encountering a strange and ultimately relatable situation.

Watch Now


Maja | Marijana Jankovic | Serbia

This Tribeca 2019 selection follows a Serbian girl struggling to assimilate in her new Dutch school, battling the constant language barrier and the general awkwardness of being 6-years-old. How does she deal with her isolation from her classmates? She cleans. She cleans the table, mirror, and floors. And no one, including her teachers, can understand why.

Watch Now


Now Streaming on The Pendance Library



Brotherhood | Meryam Joobeur | Canada

When his son returns from an extended absence abroad with a new wife, a father becomes increasingly paranoid that his son has become radicalized by Islamic terrorists in Syria. An Oscar-nominated Canadian film, and arguably one of the three best Canadian short films of the last decade, ‘Brotherhood’ is a double entendre, and a massive showcase of filmmaking superpowers for Meryam Joobeur.

Ambi | Marija Apcevska | Macedonia

This deeply humanistic Hollyshorts and Tallgrass Film Festival selection screened at Pendance 2019. It’s a slow-burning story about Sara and her older brother Deno, and the hellish existence they lead taking care of their alcoholic father. Simplicity lies in the smallest of things, and it’s obvious that whatever they lack in parental guidance, Deno and Sara make up for in the bond they share with one another.

Space Girls | Carys Watford | United Kingdom

Originally made as part of the NASA short film challenge, ‘Space Girls’ went on to have a brilliant run on the festival circuit, playing at almost every festival in the continental United States before being picked up by online streaming giant Dust. The appeal is every bit as simple as the story itself. 4 little girls planning a secret mission to outer space. It’s a tightly edited, touching short about childhood dreams, brought to life by an adult who managed to retain all of her childhood wonder.

Under Darkness | Caroline Friend | United States of America

Under Darkness is based on the true story of a Jewish woman who became a photographer to document the horrific atrocities of the Nazi movement and subsequent occupation. Joining with the Soviet resistance, she finds a way to document the present while speaking to future generations. That old statement rings true. Those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

Catastrophe | Jamille van Wijngaarden | The Netherlands

Catastrophe is the shortest film in Pendance history. But if you ask the people who watched it 3 years ago, they still remember it. All 2 minutes of it. There’s a reason cats and birds should never be friends.



4 Tips for Programming Better Film Festivals

When we launched Pendance in 2017, we had one thing going for us—great mentors. As filmmakers ourselves, we’d had so many opportunities to talk to and connect with programmers at film festivals we respected in order to understand the day-to-day grind of putting on a great festival.

And while there’s so much that we’re still learning in our fourth year about the larger elements of festival productions—press, film market, publicity, distributors, etc, we think we know a thing or two about programming great films.


We see programming holistically as a 4-stage-process; getting submissions, watching submissions, choosing submissions, and finally putting those submissions together in a carefully curated program which maximizes the potential impact and reach of each film. For the sake of keeping this brief, we’ll hone in on one critical stage which we’ve always felt is the most overlooked—watching submissions.

It is becoming increasingly rare that a festival director or programmer watches every film submission. At Pendance, we had over 257 hours worth of submissions last year and it took 4 programmers months of dedicated viewing to get through them twice. We can only imagine how many hours of films larger festivals like TIFF or Sundance receive. It’s not realistic to expect head programmers to watch every film. But whoever is watching these films has a great deal of responsibility.

Whether they’re recent film school graduates or outright random volunteers, here are four things that will help provide more accurate reviewing, and subsequently, better programming. Naturally, anyone being tasked with screening films should have at least an intermediate understanding of film and film theory. Let’s just pretend that one’s a given.

How you Watch

Watch early, watch consistently, watch by genre, and always give a 5 minute break between films. There’s so much psychological research to back this up from studying how people grade tests in college. You’re not you when you’re hungry. You’re also not you when you’ve just had a fight with your partner, are sleep-deprived, or after a long flight. It’s not enough to just watch the films. You have to watch them in the right state of mind.

You’re a part of this film. What happened that day, or five minutes before you sat down impacts how you see the film. The third toxic masculinity film is going to rate differently than the first. So whenever possible, clear your mind and meditate for five minutes before viewing. If you find yourself emotionally impacted, give a longer break before viewing the next submission.

Till the End

Sometimes, it’s obvious that a film is bad. Like really bad. Sound’s off, color’s off, performances are bad. We’ve all seen these. Still, watch it to completion. Because frankly, you don’t have an accurate read two minutes in. And we can prove it.

In 2019, we asked screeners to rate the first 2 minutes of films, and then asked them to rate the full films on a separate viewing. The average deviation between the two scores was 1.3 grade points out of 10. Being 13% inaccurate is probably a bad solution long-term. In fact, one film dropped from a 7.6 to a 3.4, and another rose from 4.5 to 7.9. If it’s a 16 minute film, it’s likely 16 minutes for a reason.

Address Your Biases

Who you are, your experiences, shape what you see on the screen. Whenever possible, try to pick diverse programming teams and pair programmers and screeners from opposite ends. You can address for gender, socio-economic background, cultural backgrounds, political leanings, and even age.

Can 4 22-year-old Caucasian cis men from Vancouver, who attended the same film school, all voted Liberal, and grew up in the same neighbourhood program a great film festival? Yes.

Will they? Likely not.

Keep an Open Mind

Film is subjective. There’s a way to do things, and then someone changes the way to do things and the way we do things becomes the way we used to do things. So dare to imagine. You’re holding people’s work and if you’re programming at a bigger festival, you may even hold the keys to a big career boost. Don’t waste it by picking the same types of films by the same people over and over because it’s safe.

Following these four tips is not going to help you program a lineup of films that rivals Sundance or Berlinale. But that should never be the goal anyway.

#tips #filmindustry #filmfestival #movies #filmfestival #torontofilm #cinema #programming #pendance #StoryOverEverything #Filmfreeway #austin #moviemaker #torontofilm