On April 28, second-year PennDesign student Michael Marfione worked past midnight in the attic of the Duhring Wing splicing Federico Fellini’s 1963 film 8 1/2 with his own present day footage from Mumbai.
Un Harem in India, starring Bollywood actress Krishniah Chetty, takes place in a Mumbai household with a local dance troupe, a tribute to the dreamlike sequences of cinematic giant Fellini.
Marfione’s film project — an 11-minute remake of Fellini’s 8 1/2 harem scene — won this year’s $10,000 Toby Devan Lewis Fellowship prize, which is given to 10 students at 10 schools in the country.
“When I went to India, I knew I could not make an authentic statement about Mumbai, so I imposed my own culture instead,” Marfione said. “This film is a fantasy in my head about a foreigner mimicking Fellini from abroad.”
In a time where the narrow stakes of the art world discourage big risks, Marfione’s time at Penn is marked by an “acceleration of ideas” and a chance “to explore video as a medium and also to make a lot of mistakes.”
This year’s PennDesign Class of 2011 is a unique group in that it is the first graduating class to consist of professional artists like Marfione who have worked abroad on various projects and residencies.
According to Acting Chairman of Fine Arts Joshua Mosley, 2011 Design graduates are the first class at Penn to also be unified across the curriculum — so that students who came in working in photography, film or studio work in multiple mediums at the same time under the guidance of a common pool of experts.
For Marfione, a professional photographer from Brooklyn, spending the last two years at PennDesign has given him a “compressed energy” which channeled into Un Harem in India.
“The film is a dream within a dream,” said Marfione, who first saw Fellini’s La Dolce Vita at an after-school club at age 13 and soon recognized Fellini as an artistic father figure.
Marfione’s “48-hour mission” to film his thesis in Mumbai also exemplifies the high-pressure world of filmmaking: the film came about only after two all-nighters spent in a Bollywood studio, firing three producers and dealing with a mistranslated request for a “smoke effect” — which the cast interpreted as “fire” and soon lit a metal pot to produce flames — all of which amounted to a “head-spinning process,” Marfione said.
Harem will join other MFA projects on exhibit in the Crane Building at 1400 N. American St, where visual projects range from sculptures to paintings to Jayson Musson’s 12 videos of “Art Thoughtz,” which have netted over 60,000 views on YouTube. The exhibit will be open until May 29.
As PennDesign graduates now look to New York or Philadelphia to set up studio, the $10,000 Lewis Fellowship prize will help Marfione travel to Rome, where he will look for promotional opportunities and attend the Venice Biennale Art Festival.
Calling his life as one “split between boredom and artistic intensity,” Marfione hopes to unwind the “compressed energy” he harnessed at Penn for a new international film.