CMC senior Kiubon Kokko scores finalist nod at Study Abroad Film Festival

A man in a red shirt sits outside and smiles at the camera.
Kiubon Kokko CM ’21 discusses the short film he made while studying abroad in Nantes, France, which has earned him a spot as a finalist in the IES Study Abroad Film Festival. (Courtesy: Abby Baric)

Update: Kiubon Kokko was crowned the Grand Prize Winner during the Seventh Annual Study Abroad Film Festival live virtual event on Oct. 15. Held via YouTube, the recorded event also featured a screening of the three finalists’ films and a Q&A. 

In a “Special Messages to Our Filmmakers” section of the ending credits, Nicolas Stefani, center director for IES Nantes, praised Kokko’s film. “Congratulations and thank you for your beautiful and touching tribute to your study abroad experience in Nantes and for showing that travel is not just about the destination: it is about the friends you meet and the crêpes you eat,” Stefani wrote.

“Super excited,” Kokko reiterated his thanks to his friends and host family, to whom he dedicated his film.

“Please lean into the people around you because they are going to change your life,” he said.  

The first time Kiubon Kokko CM ’21 saw “La La Land,” it clicked: he was going to pursue filmmaking. 

“I was like, ‘I have to,’” Kokko said. “Before that, I had an interest in it. But … when I watched that movie, I was like, ‘You know what, this has to be real.’”

Majoring in media studies with a concentration in film, Kokko has worked for a production company in Lisbon, Portugal, taught English through filmmaking in Tunisia and started his own wedding film company, 12:10 Films. 

With these experiences under his belt, Kokko took off for a semester in Nantes, France, in September 2019 through IES Abroad, bringing his camera to create a film for the company’s Study Abroad Film Festival.

“I had to learn so much before [filming a] wedding, and, especially on the job, I learned so much,” he said. “And because of that, I think going into making this film I was super prepared.”

Of the 51 films entered into the festival, Kokko’s film “If I Could Put into Words” became one of three finalists, according to Abby Baric, IES Abroad’s senior communications manager. 

While judges — including directors, producers, educators, critics and past festival winners — select the finalists, public voting from Oct. 5-14 chooses the Grand Prize Winner, who earns $1,500. 

Because of the pandemic, the live Film Festival event, in which the winner is announced, will be held virtually on Oct. 15. But Amy Ruhter McMillan, founder of the Study Abroad Film Festival, said, “It is, in a way, going back to our roots,” because the festival began as an online event. 

“We get such a wide variety of films — there was even one this year that was made out of paper stop motion — so you get such a wide variety of ways people interpret how to use film or moving pictures to tell a story,” she said. 

Ruhter McMillan said Kokko’s film stands out because of its “unique blend of words and emotion.” In fact, she said she cries every time she watches “If I Could Put into Words.”

“It’s just such a beautiful representation of some of the universal truths about study abroad,” she said. “The people that you meet, what you learn and what you see is something that probably won’t ever happen again in that same way in your life. But it also starts this spark that will always be a part of his life. So I think his film captured that in a really beautiful way.”

“If I Could Put into Words” highlights Kokko’s relationships with his study abroad friends and host family, especially his little host brother. 

“I didn’t want to spend a lot of my time in France focusing on something that would have led me to not enjoy France or, like, would have put me in a corner where I’m just working all the time,” he said. “So I thought, ‘What can I make that while at the same time enjoying France?’ And I’m like, ‘Something about my friends.’ So I just got all the footage I could about my friends and my host family. I really just wanted to make it for them so they would have something to look back on in the future.”

Filming these moments added to Kokko’s experience studying abroad. 

“Whenever something was happening in which I wasn’t a big part of it, like if I was more so on the sidelines, that’s when I would take my camera out,” he said. “And it led me to enjoy that time a little bit more because I was looking [at] it through the lens of a camera.”

Deciding on a storyline for the film proved a challenge, though. “Montages are great, but you always need a story,” Kokko said. “Stories are really compelling. Just the process of thinking of a story was super tough.”

He was unable to go through the footage until June, when he started spending about eight hours per day editing. 

“I loved, loved, loved, loved going through the footage,” Kokko said. “It was so fun to see all my friends and just reminisce and feel nostalgic for them. I just remember laughing all the time, like laughing at the little things that they would do.”

Watching the videos, Kokko felt transported from his home in Dublin, Ohio, back to Nantes.

“There’s footage of me talking to my friend in a train, and you could hear the little train jingle in the background,” he said. “And that little jingle just brought me back.”

Ruhter McMillan said this feeling of being transported back into the past is one of the powerful aspects of the festival. 

“So many students, even if [they’re] not a filmmaker, say, ‘It made me put into motion what I was experiencing and really thinking about how to synthesize it for my family or for the friends that I made,’” she said. “And it’s a great way to always go back and remember what probably will be an extraordinary time in your life.”

Ruhter McMillan appreciated Kokko’s documentation of a study abroad location “that’s off the beaten path.”

“It’s cool to see a glimpse into a place that’s not one of the top tourist destinations and what a unique experience that gave him,” she said.

Initially, Kokko was actually on the fence about studying abroad.

“I’m super glad that I did do it, just because I definitely think that the person that boarded the airplane toward France and the person that left France is just so different,” he said. “It’s so cool that I can see the growth that I had because of time in a foreign country.”

The most important change was a new appreciation for the ordinary.

“What surprised me was there is so much beauty in the ordinary things,” Kokko said. “Like my little host brother — just a nine-year-old boy. And he isn’t exactly like a supermodel or a superstar. Yet everybody when they watched it, they said, like, ‘Oh my gosh, like, you’re like his best friend, and he was so cool.’ And something as ordinary as that — a little boy — was able to bring a lot of connection to other people.”

This revelation sparked an optimistic perspective on life. 

“Before France, when I looked at something, I would see the thing in my mind, and I would, like, punch it a couple times and see it for its bruises and its cuts and kind of how ugly it was, and then I would examine it and judge it and proceed on what to do with it,” Kokko said. 

“Post-France, I was able to see everything for how beautiful it is just because of the way it is — and to be grateful for the things that I have.”

Online voting for the IES Study Abroad Film Festival runs through Oct. 14 on the IES Study Abroad Film Festival website. Watch Kokko’s film here.

This story was last updated on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020 at 5:50 p.m..

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