Sweet Briar student wins award at NFFTY, world’s top film festival for emerging directors

Catherine McCord
Sweet Briar College first-year and filmmaker Catherine McCord

Sweet Briar College student Catherine McCord ’23 capped an “incredible weekend” at the National Film Festival for Talented Youth in Seattle, Wash., on Oct. 24-27 with the Kathy Reichgerdt Inspiration Award for her documentary “You’re Gonna Be Okay.”

“I feel so honored,” McCord wrote in an email on Monday after returning to campus. And she should be. NFFTY is the world’s largest and most influential film festival for emerging directors, showcasing work by filmmakers 24 and younger from across the globe. The inspiration award is named after NFFTY’s silent co-founder, who died last year from cancer.

NFFTY 2019
Catherine McCord (left) on stage at NFFTY 2019. Photo by David Rzegocki

McCord’s documentary, which was screened on opening night, deals with a similarly life-threatening event. After undergoing open-heart surgery earlier this year to repair a damaged valve due to endocarditis, a rare heart disease, the 18-year-old filmmaker recalls intimate moments in her life, blending vintage home movies and voicemails with the present, recounting her recovery.

“People have asked me why I chose to make the film when I did,” McCord says. “I truly believe that in any art form, who you are when you make a film reflects your thoughts, feelings and perspective of that moment in time. Had I made it later, one or two years after my surgery, the story would be so different. I’m glad I made it when I was still in the early stages of recovery because I know that years down the road, I will be grateful to look back and remember how I felt and the people in my story who made such a difference.”

Film screengrabs
Scenes from “You’re Gonna Be Okay”

Thousands of other young filmmakers attended the 2019 festival, which featured more than 287 films from 24 states and 24 countries. The awards ceremony took place on Sunday night, after McCord had spent the weekend watching nearly 100 short films at 40 separate screenings. The festival also featured a number of panels, workshops, parties and networking opportunities.

It was McCord’s second time at NFFTY and her second award — in 2018, she was crowned Best High School Filmmaker and given a $40,000 scholarship. A graduate of E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg, McCord caught The News & Advance’s attention several years ago when her film “A Dad’s Letter” was screened at The White House Film Festival and South by South Lawn (SXSL) in 2015. The paper’s Emma Schkloven interviewed McCord for another feature article last year when “Come Back to Me,” a narrative short film about gun control, won the Best Young Filmmaker category in Australia’s My Røde Reel competition before it was screened at NFFTY 2018.

“I’ve realized that the stories I feel most fulfilled in are ones that promote empathy and ones that can show someone’s experiences in a way where a viewer can relate to them and see themselves up on the screen or get a new perspective about something,” McCord told Schkloven then — just months before she was diagnosed with a heart condition that nearly ended her young life and career.

McCord behind camera
McCord behind the scenes

McCord had been making films since she was 12 years old and graduated from high school two years early — to focus more fully on her passion, she says. Her illness forced her to take a step back last year. She had wanted to go to film school, she says, but for now, she is staying close to home and her medical team. Enrolling at Sweet Briar this year made a lot of sense because her mother, Rebecca McCord, is a professor emerita, retiring in 2013 after nearly 30 years. Room 127 in the Babcock Fine Arts Center was renovated in her honor in 2012 by alumnae and friends.

“I grew up on the Sweet Briar campus,” McCord says. “[My mother] encouraged my attendance at musical, theatrical, dance and studio arts events on campus, and I know the faculty well.”

Catherine McCord on horse
Young Catherine McCord on horseback, wearing a Sweet Briar T-shirt

While Sweet Briar doesn’t have a film production major, McCord is concentrating on the leadership core curriculum, a modern version of general education requirements. She is a Presidential Scholar, an honors student, a Live Más Scholar through the Taco Bell Foundation and a Leopold Schepp Foundation Scholar. She also serves on Sweet Briar’s Student Advisory Board for the Center for Creativity, Design and the Arts and the Lectures and Events Committee.

“I love the College and have so many wonderful memories here,” she says.

In between classes, McCord continues to focus on her career — and chances are we will hear a lot more from her in the coming years.

Even before NFFTY, “You’re Gonna Be Okay” was selected by Mended Little Hearts as a public relations piece and was a prize winner in the iFootage International Creative Competition in Beijing.

“I made the film as a way to help myself through the recovery process and to thank my incredible medical team and family for being there for me,” McCord explains. “The idea that it could go beyond that and reach others, too, is so fulfilling.”