Current students Shu Gao and Molly Jiang at the 2019 Portland Comedy Film Festival, image courtesy of the artists

‘First Time' by Current Students Won Best Director at the Portland Comedy Film Festival

BY Gina Hackett, November 18, 2019

First Time, written & directed by current student Shu Gao and produced by current student Molly Jiang, won the Best Director Award at the sixth annual Portland Comedy Film Festival last week.


The short film is a romantic comedy about two college sweethearts who plan to lose their virginities to each other in a hotel room. That is, until the girl admits it’s not her first time.


In making the film, Gao sought to craft a humorous exploration of gender and feminism in the context of first-time intimate experiences.


“I learned a lot about shooting intimate scenes and to keep the sexy part along with the awkwardness,” Gao said. “I originally had the idea of a shy girl and a very experienced boy, and then I decided to change the gender role to play against stereotype.”


First Time is Gao’s first film, conceived in her Screenwriting I class, taught by faculty member Ramin Serry. As she and Jiang prepared to shoot the film, Gao encountered difficulty obtaining location permission from a hotel in Manhattan. So Gao simply decided to make one herself.


“I borrowed an office in Lerner Hall to make into a hotel reception and decorated my newly rented apartment to make the hotel room,” Gao said. “The production design took several days but the room looks very real in the film.”


Many of the comedic parts in the film came from Gao’s discoveries in her Directing Actors class, taught by faculty member Shira-Lee Shalit, where she rehearsed scenes from the film, even temporarily casting one of her Columbia peers to play the boyfriend.


“Watching our film play on a big screen with so much laughter meant a lot to us,” said Jiang. “I actually counted, and the audience laughed 23 times within a 12 minute film, which I think is actually a great achievement.”

The Portland Comedy Film Festival takes place over three days in November at Portland’s 5th Avenue Cinema. Ranked in the Top 100 on FilmFreeway, the festival screened over 150 short comedic films from across the world this year.