Williston alum Rafael Cortina wins Student Academy Award

Last modified: Thursday, July 11, 2013
EASTHAMPTON — A 2009 graduate of The Williston Northampton School was one of 16 students in the world to win a 2013 Student Academy Award, a version of the Oscars for college students.

Rafael Cortina, a native of New York City, will accept his award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences June 8 in Beverly Hills for his short film “Bottled Up.”

“I was genuinely surprised,” Cortina said Wednesday in a phone interview from California. He graduated Sunday from Occidental College in Los Angeles.

“When you make a film, you want to make a film you’ll enjoy. And then to find out that the judges in the academy enjoyed it as well is really sobering,” he said. “It’s a real privilege.”

He wrote, directed and produced the fantasy film as his senior project. It’s about a recycling depot worker named Amos, who Cortina said gets “tired of being a cog in the wheel” at his job and tries to break free from the monotony. It also features Katrina, a perfectly content bakery worker, and Amos’ pet robot, Bass.

Cortina said he wanted to explore the ideas of “upward mobility” as well as why people are content to stay put while their dreams go unrealized.

The academy announced May 14 that he and two other filmmakers will receive awards in the “alternative” category, but they won’t know who wins gold, silver or bronze until the ceremony June 8.

Cortina said his four years at The Williston Northampton School in Easthampton were critical in starting his career in filmmaking. “That’s where I found my passion,” he said.

He said he grew up in a low-income family in Spanish Harlem and spent his afternoons at the Boys’ Club of New York, a nonprofit that offers after-school and other supportive programming for inner city boys.

After elementary school, he won scholarships from the nonprofit that allowed him to attend grades seven through nine at the Hillside School, a private boys’ boarding school in Marlborough, and then grades 10 through 12 at Williston.

He said he had been interested in photography since he was 7, but he discovered filmmaking at Williston. It started when he came up with the idea for the Williston One News, a student-created news program.

“The activities committee was looking for a more exciting way to publicize activities,” he said. “I proposed to the group doing a bi-weekly video broadcast at our weekly school assembly; something akin to a comedic news program.” He and other film club students created the programs and it was his first experience writing and directing video.

As a junior, he founded the Williston Northampton Film Festival, now in its sixth year, and he helped Edward Hing, his photography instructor and mentor, in teaching the school’s first film course in his senior year.

He started a small production company, Flavor Films, out of his dorm in 2007. He said his first two “professional gigs” were a commercial for an orthodontist in Northampton and an annual fund campaign video for Williston.

He’s come a long way since those videos, producing numerous short films before “Bottled Up.” That film will make the circuit of independent film festivals this year, he said. Cortina said he hopes to network at events in the week of events that lead up to the Student Academy Awards to find work in the industry he is so passionate about. “Maybe an opportunity will surface,” he said.

For more information about Flavor Films or “Bottled Up,” visit www.raffycortina.com.