Amy Ruhter McMillan, senior associate vice president of marketing for IES Abroad, founded the festival in 2014 to highlight students’ study abroad experiences.
“If we always just tell the great stories, it's not a true representation of life or what's powerful about study abroad — to be out of your comfort zone or to see new things that inspire you," McMillan said. "You're with all these people you don't know who become your great friends, or you see injustices around the world that are universal or unique to that country.”
McMillan said Sparks’ film captures what Japan means to him, which was one of his aims in production.
“In my film, I search for what makes Japan truly special,” Sparks said. “By studying abroad, I was able to immerse myself in this culture so utterly different than my own.
"Hopefully, I captured some of the emotions I felt along the way.”
The festival’s jury praised Sparks' work, leading to his selection as a finalist.
“This is a beautifully filmed documentary,” Naomi Seekings, a film educator who served on the jury, said. “The cinema photography meets industry standards and it is evident that huge efforts were made in pre-production planning."
McMillan is excited about the festival’s virtual format, which allows more people to see the films than the usual in-person event in Chicago.
“Once we saw the writing on the wall that the in-person event was not going to happen, we felt like we were going back to our roots,” McMillan said. “The festival started online. Because it became so powerful, we were able to make it an in-person event. We kept the format of what the film festival is and just replicated that online.”
Should he win the $1,500, Sparks would use the money to return to Japan, purchase new camera equipment or pay for hard drive repairs.
Whether he wins or not, having his work recognized in this way has been a rewarding experience.
“A lot of times, I put out work and my friends tell me they liked it or my family likes it,” Sparks said. “It's always great receiving that love and feedback, but it's cool to have something more official to receive it well in a way that makes me feel like I did a good job.
"It makes me feel like I created something that even people who don't know me and my story or experience can enjoy.”