Name: Laurel Jaffe
Hometown: New Canaan, CT.
Major: Cinema and media studies
Activities: PennQuest pre–orientation program leader, producer and Project Director at NEXO Productions, Kinoki Senior Society, Delta Delta Delta, Co–Vice President of Penn FilmAid
Street: Why did you decide to become a cinema and media studies major?
Laurel Jaffe: FilmAid was one of the biggest parts of my Penn experience. It completely changed my future trajectory. It was a group of us that founded it together that went on the trip with [cinema and media studies and English professor] Peter Decherney. I came to Penn with no major decided, I was really just excited to be here. My freshman year I took classes in all different fields—psychology, intro to acting, anthropology—really all over. I just wanted to explore, meet different professors, and just learn different things. My freshman spring I took a virtual reality class with Peter Decherney, the head of the Cinema and Media Department. He is an incredible professor. And it was through that class that we went to the Tribeca Film Festival. There were just so many doors opened from that one experience. It was in that class that he mentioned to us that he had gotten a grant through the school to work with FilmAid International and United Nations to create short video projects about this new refugee camp called Kalobeyei in Kenya. This refugee camp is a new style and structure than any of the ones in the past and in Africa, especially in Kenya. There's a movie theater, and there are sports teams. We would go out and have this interview with one person, like the Commissioner of firewood for that location, but then we ended up stumbling upon a soccer field at all these students who had formed their own soccer league within the refugee camp and had this whole big soccer competition. More times than not in the news, there can be such a dark and violent portrayal of everything that's going on, and this was an incredible project that let us talk to people human–to–human. It's crazy that one random class that I signed up for ended up being this experience that I would then take to become my passion for the rest of my life.
Street: In what ways has this experience continued to shape your life?
LJ: On the last day there was a group of Penn students, our professor, the FilmAid students, and the rest of the FilmAid organization. They had this projector where we showed all of our videos, and after we had dinner and this closing ceremony to show everyone our final products, we had just this amazing dance party literally in the middle of Kalobeyei, in the middle of this United Nations compound. They were just blasting music, and we had a dance–off with the other students and it was so much fun. And I am such an awkward dancer, but I love dancing and it was just a blast. I still remember that to this day. I had no idea we would become so close to the FilmAid students. When we came back to Penn, we had a reception at Perry World house where we were able to show the film. We got not only a great response from the Penn community, but also the greater Philadelphia community.
Street: What was your experience like studying abroad?
LJ: I was honestly very surprised at how difficult it was to study abroad at the program I wanted to pursue, but that's another example of how I'm so grateful to my cinema professors, especially professor Decherney. I really wanted to go to a film production focused school for more hands–on experience. I'm also a big scuba diver. So with him I was able to find this art school called the Hellenic International Studies in the Arts, based on the island of Paros in Greece. The first time I petitioned Penn about it was my sophomore spring, and I had spent months researching it, went in to the abroad office, and was like I am dying to go to the school, It has the film program that I really would love to study. It has amazing equipment and the teachers. And I can scuba dive every day. It sounds perfect. But they just wanted to make sure that the study abroad program that you are doing is worthwhile, so they said no. And I was crushed. So I spent the summer thinking about it, I was going to apply to different programs, but at the end of the day I'm not just going abroad to travel. I wanted to go abroad to go to this program. So, round two: I went back into the office. I had a PowerPoint presentation, I had research from past students at the school, and past projects and what they had gone on to do. It took months of meeting with different professors, the College office, and everything, but I finally convinced them a week before the deadline. It was so cool to be so immersed on the small little island and to not know anyone and just spend six months writing my screenplay, which is what I went there to write, and that's what led to my thesis.
Street: What is your thesis project? How are you taking that beyond Penn?
Penn has been super transformative and eye–opening for me, but I feel like there is a lot of really scary, difficult things that go on. I wouldn't say it's about Penn per se but I would say it's about what it's like to go to an elite university, a place where it's very much work–hard play–hard, where everyone is so so smart and we all just make such dumb decisions sometimes. I was able to write a script for that show, and I'm just spending my thesis throughout the whole year really fine–tuning my pitch packet and bible. Then I'm going to go out to [Los Angeles] and pitch for it post–college. Sophomore summer I interned at NBC Universal, and scripted television for casting. Then I did talent and casting for Walt Disney television this summer, and I was always really interested in casting just because I think I'm very aware of the diversity, or lack thereof, in many shows and streaming platforms, so I wanted to learn more about the process and I really wanted to work with the people who are the ones making these decisions.
Street: What is your favorite film?
LJ: I have to say it really depends on my mood. I definitely have a solid top eight, but I would say right now I love the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Street: If you were a building on Penn's campus which one would you be and why?
LJ: I would be Moelis. I love studying there.
Street: What is your Halloween costume going to be?
LJ: My housemates and I always do a house costume and we're dressing up as the green toy soldiers from Toy Story. Green face paint, morph–suit—yeah, it'll be intense.
Street: Song on repeat right now?
LJ: This is definitely so sappy but "Graduation" by Benny Blanco and Juice WRLD.
Street: Where is the coolest place you’ve traveled?
LJ: Definitely Antarctica just because it was such an incredible opportunity.
Street: There two types of people at Penn…
LJ: Those who walk the Locust Bridge or people who go a block out of the way to avoid it.
Street: And which one are you?
LJ: Oh, I definitely take it. And all of my friends are people who avoid it so it's a huge contention.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.