It’s safe to say, that the road to a possible Oscar can begin with winning a Student Academy Award®. It’s an impressive win. In 1983, Spike Lee won his Student Academy Award® for his short film “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads” and we all know how it’s turned out for the prolific, Oscar-winning director.

This year two women — Phumi Morare and De’Onna “Tree” Young-Stephens— captured a Student Academy Award® and the competition was stiff with the Academy receiving a total of 1,404 submissions but The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences only voted 17 students as winners. 17 from 1,404.  

Established in 1972, the international student film competition opens for college and university film students from all over the world. The talent is wonderfully diverse as thousands of gifted storytellers compete for awards and cash grants, with their films being judged in the following categories: Animation, Documentary, Live Action Narrative, and Alternative/Experimental. Past Student Academy Award winners have gone on to win 11 Oscars, and receive 63 Oscar nominations. Past SAA winners include Pete Docter, Robert Zemeckis, Patricia Riggen, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Patricia Cardoso, and the aforementioned Spike Lee. Because of COVID-19, last year’s 47th Student Academy Awards Ceremony took place online on October 21, 2020. 

Keeping an eye on the next generation of storytellers, allow me to introduce you to Student Academy Award® winner De’Onna “Tree” Young-Stephens who won for her short doc “Not Just A Name,” and South African writer/director Phumi Morare for her short narrative “When The Sun Sets.”

“Not Just A Name” by DeOnna Tree” Young-Stephens

De’Onna “Tree” Young-Stephens is a writer, director, and producer based in Los Angeles, California. She is currently a member of Women in Film Los Angeles (WIFLA), The International Documentary Association, The Black Women’s Film Network (BWFN), and the African American Women in Cinema Society (AAWC).

 Born and raised in Walkertown, North Carolina, Tree’s interest in film started at the tender age of eight when she was enrolled as a dancer at North Carolina School of the Arts. Her artistic vision expanded when she was scouted by Larry Leon Hamlin, the founder of the National Black Theater Festival, and asked to join the Winston-Salem Black Repertory Theater. After performing in numerous plays and television films, Tree slowly started to realize her passion was located behind the scenes. Graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Public Relations and Marketing from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Tree officially moved to Atlanta and got her first behind-the-scenes professional job working as a day player on the film 42. She later went on to work as a personal assistant for Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe on Hidden Figures and as a second assistant director on numerous films and television shows in the Atlanta area.

 Currently, Tree works for the Wondaland Arts Society as a producer and helped to produce the Grammy-nominated emotion picture Dirty Computer. She most recently received her MFA from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and received a Student Academy Award for her latest short film documentary Not Just a Name.

“When The Sun Sets” by writer/director Phumi Morare

Phumi Morare (“When The Sun Sets”) is a South African writer/director who is passionate about redeeming the African and feminine identity through cinema. She’s interested in using the Black female gaze to tell personal, human stories of everyday Africans. She also loves exploring African history, mythology, and folktales in her storytelling. Phumi’s short films have played at prestigious international film festivals including Telluride Film Festival, Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival, and Pan African Film Festival. Phumi’s upcoming short film, Why The Cattle Wait, was selected for the 2021 Berlinale Talents Durban program. Phumi completed her MFA in Film Directing at Dodge College at Chapman University. She has a background in investment banking at Goldman Sachs in London and management consulting at McKinsey & Company in Johannesburg. She currently freelances as a strategist at Statement Films, a company that incubates African women content creators.

She was just a recipient of the 2021 Production Funds awarded by Tribeca and Chanel’s 7th annual THROUGH HER LENS: THE TRIBECA CHANEL WOMEN’S FILMMAKER PROGRAM. A total of $100,000 in filmmaker grants was awarded amongst the five projects of which Morare for “Why the Cattle Wait” was a part. 

Here is what Student Academy Award® winners De’Onna “Tree” Young-Stephens (“Not Just A Name” ) and Phumi Morare (“When The Sun Sets” ) had to share about winning this prestigious award. 

Q: What does it feel like to win a Student Academy Award, De’Onna “Tree” Young-Stephens?

DE’ONNA “TREE” YOUNG-STEPHENS: Thank you. You can call me “Tree” and it feels, amazing.

Q: Tree, why did you decide to make “Not Just A Name”?

TREE: I think it touches upon a rare form of discrimination in America, and all around the world, and I also have a personal connection with name shaming. I suffered from it as a child, and I thought it would be cool to reach out, to a few people, that have gone through this and kind of bring awareness to the topic. 

Q: What do you do for your day job when you aren’t making documentaries and winning awards — shameless plug arriving — like The Student Academy Award?

TREE: My technical term is Lord of Productions and the art stunt gangster for Wondaland Productions. 

Q: Tree, you need an African drum to introduce your job title. 

TREE: That’s hilarious. 

Q: So what do you actually do?

TREE: I do a lot of creative development for the company. A lot of research, and reading. What I like about the company ( Janelle Monáe Wondaland Arts Society and Wondaland Production company) is that they like two tell Black stories, specifically that will change the world. 

Q: Congratulations, it’s a big deal to win a Student Academy Award. Tell us, how did it feel to know that “When The Sun Sets” accomplished this?

PHUMI MORARE: It was surreal. I could not believe it because it’s already an honor being a finalist. I am so honored and I was so surprised and excited. 

Q: Where did the idea for this short film come from?

PM: It’s inspired by something that happened to my mother, in the 1980s in South Africa. She saw her baby brother being abducted by apartheid Police, and she had to figure out what to do about it. 

Q: It moved you?

PM: Yes, I was just so moved by [my mothers’] courage and my mom is very reserved and soft-spoken and I could not wrap my mind around how she had the courage to confront [South African] apartheid Police who are known to be very violent, and aggressive and it made me think a lot about the quiet heroism of ordinary, African women and how that often that goes unnoticed and unseen. I wanted to take a moment to honor it and acknowledge it.   It made me think about how women who are in those kinds of circumstances are not heroes by choice but by necessity, and that was really interesting to me.  

Q: Your background is in investment banking at Goldman Sachs in London and your experience as a management consulting at McKinsey & Company, in Johannesburg, is impressive. I mean, Phumi Morare, you can count. 

PM: (laughing) Yes, I can. I always think about how I have a left and right brain, and I am always thinking about how to balance the two. 

To learn more about the Student Academy Awards visit:

Student Academy Awards

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