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 Award-winning student film serves as ‘homage’ to friendship and Northeastern’s graduating students

“Backseat Girls” is a docu-narrative film produced thanks to the efforts of two graduating seniors and the Northeastern film community.

For their capstone, Alize Abdelhak and Kelsey Zhen made “Backseat Girls,” a film about friendship and a homage to their fellow graduates. Photo Courtesy of Alex Chang

Many great films focus on romantic relationships. But “Backseat Girls,” a senior capstone film by Alize Abdelhak and Kelsey Zhen, took a different approach.

The docu-narrative film, which was awarded the James ’66 and Jill Gabbe Creative Leadership Scholarship from Northeastern University, is a celebration of friendship and the role it plays in our lives, told through interviews with Northeastern students and found footage interwoven into a narrative about two friends who run a radio station together.

A camera screen showing behind the scenes glimpse of footage from 'Backseat Girls'.
“Backseat Girls” is a docu-narrative following two friends who run a radio show together. There’s also interviews with Northeastern students and young children included in the film. Courtesy Photos

“Originally the project was for our senior capstone and it took off and became much, much bigger than our class,” said Abdelhak, a graduating communications and media major. “Our inspiration was graduation approaching and dealing with (the question of) ‘What am I doing with my life?’ The overall arching message of the story is that it’s not about what you do, but it’s about the relationships that you have, and the people that you touch along the way.”

In the 19-minute film, viewers see Annie and June befriend each other as little girls. They then grow up to run a radio show together, taking calls from listeners with song recommendations. But their friendship is strained when Annie begins to question the value of their show versus other things they could be doing with their lives.

Alize Abdelhak and Kelsey Zhen posing together under cherry blossoms.
Alize Abdelhak and Kelsey Zhen said the leaned on the Northeastern film community and the film community around Boston to create their capstone film. Photo Courtesy of Alex Chang

Interspersed into this storyline are clips from notable shows and movies that play up the theme, as well as interviews with Northeastern students and children the team found, asking them about their dreams in life and their relationships. The pair said they were inspired by other short student films that similarly mixed different media.

“A lot of times we see student films that are a bit darker in terms of theme,” said Zhen, a graduating communications and media and screen studies major. “We knew that we wanted to make something beautiful. At this point in our life, we don’t know we have enough experience to make a dark and all-knowing short film because what do we know as 22-year-olds? Yeah. And so we wanted to write about what we knew and make this a fun and encouraging movie.”

The project was also a way for the duo to bring together the film community in Northeastern and Boston, leaning on former professors and classmates to work on their production.

“Boston in general is actually a very big filming community,” said Michelle Carr, who teaches the production capstone and was the faculty adviser on the film. “There’s a lot of people out there looking for different types of projects and films to work on. It’s just a matter of reaching out. … The independent film market is very collaborative, especially in this area because there’s not a lot of money associated with the film in this area. So just being able to help each other out on certain smaller films is a really great thing to see.” 

Abdelhak and Zhen directed and executive produced the film with help of Carr. Adjunct professor Michael J. Quill was the director of photography, while associate teaching professor Ellen Fontana served as the script supervisor and helped get funding for the film. Visiting assistant teaching professor Dennis Staroselsky lent his home as a filming location.

Abdelhak and Zhen cast Boston-based actors for the narrative thread of the film and included interviews with Northeastern students for the documentary portion. WRBB, Northeastern’s radio station, and Good Dog Licensing, Northeastern’s free music licensing service, also helped with the production. 

“We wanted this to be a homage to our peers graduating with us, as well as a letter to ourselves,” added Zhen. “We really wanted to use the resources and the relationships that we’ve formed over the past four years, working with professors that we’ve had. … It was really cool to bring everyone together and make this feel like a family film almost with the Northeastern community and people that we’ve connected with over the past four years.”

Carr said this film stood out because of how Abdelhak and Zhen branched out with their storytelling. 

The duo also worked with child actors for part of the interviews they conducted for the film. Both are unusual for student films, Carr said.

“The students really did venture out of their comfort zone of filming in their apartments or here on the Boston campus,” she added. “They really dove into this idea and into this piece and looked for alternative locations to fit the storyline.”

The film was shot in different parts of the state, with a good portion filmed at the beach in Salisbury, Massachusetts, about an hour north of Boston. Carr helped them find film locations and served as a location scout. 

Zhen and Abdelhak are holding a premiere of the film on April 26 at the Snell Engineering Center, shortly before commencement on May 5.

“While graduation is something that we’re dealing with right now, I think everyone deals with self doubt,” Abdelhak said. “It’s a story that really does speak to everybody because it’s all about life changes and taking on a new chapter which is something that we never have to stop doing or dealing with. Because of that, it’s sentimental for a lot of people. Even if somebody’s not going through a major life change right now, I think that a lot of people certainly like to remember when they were or know somebody who is.”