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Director Gregg Helvey goes to the Oscars

When Gregg Helvey (Col ’01) traveled to India three and a half years ago to make the film Kavi, he never thought he would end up at the Academy Awards in 2010, rubbing shoulders with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

“Ultimately, I want to make movies that matter, that leave the audience better for having seen them,” Helvey says. “So I was just thinking about getting it finished and doing it as well as I could.”

Helvey at the Student Academy Awards

That goal was Helvey’s singular focus when he spent nearly two and a half years making the 17-minute short, Kavi, which was nominated this year for Best Live Action Short Film. Kavi tells a fictional story of modern-day slavery in India through the eyes of a young boy at a brick kiln. It was the culmination of Helvey’s graduate work in film school at the University of Southern California and went on to win the gold medal at the Student Academy Awards in 2009 and awards and recognition at more than a dozen film festivals across the world.

Helvey on location in India

Determined and passionate, Helvey spent the month leading up to the Oscars campaigning for the cause brought to light by Kavi. At various Oscar parties, he passed out blue ribbons, meant to raise awareness about modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Many of these blue ribbons were seen on celebrities, such as Morgan Freeman and Steve Carrell, at the awards ceremony. Freeman joked with Helvey at one point, saying that every formal jacket he owned must have a blue ribbon on it.

“The ribbons went up [on stage] even though I didn’t go up,” Helvey says, listing Lee Daniels, editor of another politically charged film, Hurt Locker, among the Oscar winners who donned the ribbons.

“I have a lot of peace with not winning the Oscar,” says Helvey. “It leaves me hungry for more. And just the nomination has opened up a lot of doors. I’m trying to walk through all of them.”

Helvey is in the process of securing funding for a feature-length version of Kavi, as well as considering other film projects. He says he is itching to get back in the director’s chair, but the road to his next film may be a long one—creating films that reflect hard realities with verisimilitude can be a very slow process. For Kavi, he spent a month location-scouting at different brick kilns in India, ultimately filming in the small village of Shirwal, and shot all of the dialogue in Hindi.

Sagar Salunke plays the title role in Kavi

Helvey cites a chance trip to a short film festival in France during his study abroad semester at the UVA as his first introduction to the power of the short film, and now knows that films can be tools not just for entertainment, but also for social change.

Of the recent issues of Haitian child slavery revealed in the aftermath of the earthquake, Helvey says, “It’s just a question of do we recognize it, and then what can we do to make a difference? Everyone has a different gift and everyone can put those gifts to use in creative ways. For me, it’s filmmaking.”

However, don’t mistake Helvey for solely a serious auteur. He says The Office is one of his favorite television shows. “I am a huge fan of filmmakers that think laughing is really important,” he says. “Especially in this world today, we can’t forget to laugh.”