BYU students produce award-winning short film

“En Tierra Ajena y Desconocida” is a short film directed and produced by Ricardo Villanueva Avalos and Emi Edwards. The short film has won several awards and has been included in several international film festivals. (Ricardo Villanueva Avalos)

A short film recently produced by several BYU Media Arts students gained national recognition and has been included in several international film festivals throughout the past few months. 

“En Tierra Ajena y Desconocida,” or “In a Foreign and Unknown Land” in the English translation, is a short film written, directed and produced by BYU students. The award-winning short was created as a fiction advanced film production — a project many media arts students participate in as their capstone assignment.

Media arts students who participate in fiction AFP projects work with peer mentors and faculty to bring their classroom learning to life. These advanced projects are generally culminating experiences at the end of a media arts student’s undergraduate work. 

Ricardo Villanueva Avalos, a native of Oaxaca, Mexico who graduated from the BYU Media Arts program in 2022, wrote and directed the film. Emi Edwards, a senior in the BYU Media Arts program from Arcadia, California, worked as the producer. Avery Olsen, a recent graduate of the BYU Media Arts program, worked as the cinematographer. Many other students also contributed to creating the film’s final product. 

Edwards and Avalos at the Georgia Latino International Film Festival. Edwards and Avalos won the award for Best Student Film. (Ricardo Villanueva Avalos)

In the past year, Avalos’s short film has been included in several international film festivals such as the Georgia Latino International Film Festival where they won Best Student Film, NYIFA New York International Film Awards where they also won Best Student Film, Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival, NYCA New York Cinematography Awards and the Red Rock Film Festival

The inspiration behind this short film, Avalos said, was his own personal experience of moving with his family from Mexico to Utah for two years when he was nine to learn English. On his tenth birthday, his first birthday celebrated in Utah, he remembers having two thoughts; “I don’t have a single friend at school — no one I can relate to, no one I can talk to. The second thing was, I don’t care because my family was really supportive,” Avalos said.

It was not until Avalos was an adult that he discovered his parents struggled like he did to adjust to their new environment. When brainstorming for his AFP film, he thought it would be interesting to depict not only his own experiences acclimating to life in the United States but also the experiences of his parents. This desire to share his family’s experience onscreen led to “En Tierra Ajena y Desconocida.”

Through his film, Avalos hopes people realize no matter what circumstances they are in, finding and surrounding themselves with good people can make all the difference.

“In the short film, nothing really changes. School will still be hard for the daughter, work will still be hard for the dad and the mom will still have a hard time adapting. But, they took a break and decided to control what they could control,” Avalos said. 

Edwards also expressed the importance of giving and receiving support for those around us. Building a community where there is love and trust, she said, is like being at one with those around us. For her, the message of the film is simple:

“To be at one with the people around you — that you don’t have to bear your burdens alone,” Edwards said.

The film’s cinematographer, Avery Olsen, played a crucial role in bringing the director’s vision to life. Olsen said his experience working on “En Tierra Ajena y Desconocida” was the highlight of his BYU experience.

“Putting everything I’ve learned throughout my whole major experience into practice and being a part of something so wonderful was so special. So uniquely special to me,” Olsen said.

Working on “En Tierra Ajena y Desconocida” has been a memorable experience for all students involved, and a project very dear to Avalos. Although he is grateful for the short film’s success, Avalos said he is ready to work on his next project and to continue living his dream.

Avalos is currently living in New York City and will be assisting director David Mamet, Academy Award and Tony Award-nominated writer and Pulitzer Prize winner, in his upcoming film.

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