By Madison Hu
Pupin 428. 4 p.m. Green chalkboards peek out from behind a large projector screen. Popcorn sits precariously in my lap. My eyeline is focused on the screen in front of me so as to not become disoriented by the surprisingly steep audience chairs. To my left, a can of Coke balances on the thin, dark oak of the armrest. To my right is my friend Maya Castronovo, CC ’23, director, editor, and producer of the short mockumentary What is Weecha, premiering sometime in the next five hours (the 2022 Columbia Undergraduate Film Festival is scheduled to go from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.; the film is #17 in the 18 film line up).
The lights dim and the festival screening commences. After the 16th film finishes, the screen fades to black. A beat. Then, that cliché, copyright-free music featured in, like, every investigative documentary begins to play. The dark fades into a beauty shot of Weecha, the big blue DNA sculpture that sat at the base of the grassy steps of Diana during the 2021–2022 school year in all her beautifully vague, unexplained glory.
We then hear an unseen woman’s voice: “I woke up—I remember it was a Thursday morning—I felt so sick to my stomach … ”
In vague prose she continues, “I guess it’s been most shocking discovering that there’s …” A beat (or an ‘investigative pause’ as Castronovo describes it). “... So much more to discover.”
Over the course of the mockumentary, the viewer is presented with hilariously ironic clips of Weecha and the investigation of the investigation behind its presence, a movement sown by the (very real) Instagram account @whatisweecha. The audience finds particular amusement in a photoshopped image of Weecha hidden on the grounds of an old black-and-white photo of Barnard. Fabricated found footage comes off as impressively convincing, complete with heavy breathing, blurry shots, and images of scurrying feet. I catch myself regularly forgetting the irony of the investigation, helmed by the creators of the account, Delaney Wellington, BC ’23, and Epiphany Larmey, BC ’23. The interview with the purported creator of the sculpture, in which he eventually admits he’s “said too much,” has the room laughing, but also wondering if there is any truth to what we are watching. At the end of the documentary, Delaney asserts: “I don’t believe, at the end of the day, it really matters what’s real, versus what’s constructed.”
At the end of the festival, the process of determining awards commences (a Google Form is sent out to vote for our favorite film). Then, all of a sudden, the projector breaks down and goes black. Someone in the audience calls out, “It was Weecha!” and the rest of the crowd laughs. After the points are tallied up, Castronovo’s film is announced as the audience’s favorite of the festival. She descends the steep stairs for her photo op and bouquet of roses, and we finish the night off with a celebratory dinner at Ferris.
Over a mountain of rainbow cookies at Hungarian almost a year later, I ask Castronovo how she remembers the event and how she felt about winning the film festival. She explains that her favorite moment of the night was when the projector momentarily broke down. “That meant people got it—they too were in on the whole Weecha conspiracy. The joke landed, and it stuck. As a filmmaker, it’s rewarding when your message comes across.”
When I ask Castronovo if she considers herself a funny person, she says no, at least not in the way a comedian is. I beg to differ. Castronovo sees the absurdity that exists in the ordinary, and she does well to imbue her filmmaking with this vision.
Another of Castronovo’s films, The Subway Challenge, is more earnest in tone. The project’s original goal was to record her friends attempting to get off at every subway stop in the city, but the venture was cut short by the pandemic. Now, the film exists as a work that considers what it means to accomplish a task. It ends with a piece of wisdom: “If you think too much about finishing something, you often lose sight of why you started it in the first place.”
As Castronovo’s undergraduate career comes to a close, I inquire about her latest film, Eating Chinese. Through cuisine, it tackles white America’s post-colonial notions of the “other” and Chinese-American identity. Though the piece is somewhat satirical, it still remains a departure from much of her other work. Castronovo felt this shift to be a bit anxiety-inducing; she explains that it’s one thing for a joke not to land and another for a piece’s satire to go over a viewer’s head.
Eating Chinese takes two shapes: One features an eerie cooking show, with its performative, racist host offering lines like “Visiting Chinatown is like stepping back in time to a distant and primitive land,” and “Have you always wanted to consume another culture?” over camcorder footage of Chinatown as an exhibit. Other moments are anchored in a suggested reality, signaled by fourth-wall breaks and cuts to a man holding a boom mic.
It’s clear in the way she describes her work—“the punchline,” “the twist,” “the performance”—that Castronovo enjoys playing with what is real, what is not, and the inherent humor that exists along the border between the two. Eating Chinese serves as evidence that even when she is not explicitly working with the comedic form, she doesn’t take herself too seriously.
When I quiz her on her favorite movie, Castronovo takes a beat to gather her thoughts: “As a film major, there’s some internal pressure to pick a movie that’s niche and not too mainstream.” She takes another pause. “It’s Twilight. I like Twilight.” After we both dissolve into giggles of agreement, I ask why. “It’s campy. It’s enjoyable. It has a sense of humor.”
Later Castronovo tells me about a published paper she wrote on the genre of mockumentary. She briefly summarizes her thesis: “Mockumentaries laugh at the very form of documentaries. In that way, truth can sometimes be playful. It can be entertaining to laugh at our own conventions of factual representation.”
We quickly find ourselves consumed in the spiraling debate surrounding what is the truth even anyways, especially in constructed mediums like film, and how documentary is really just as fictional as a traditional narrative piece. Understanding that such conundrums are at the root of Castronovo’s work, I admit to her that I’m afraid it might be impossible to fully encapsulate her persona in writing. If the truth is constructed, how do you even begin to go about reconstructing fact in an honest way, much less a compelling one?
She aptly provides me with advice to quell my anxieties about reassembling her on the page—meta, I know.
“I mean, there is no way. Just try to do something entertaining.”