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Student's Dedication Leads to Zaki Gordon Screenwriting Award

By Kristin Sterling

Dan Kleinman, Maura Smith and Dan Gordon

As a young college graduate in the 1970s, Maura Smith (SoA '02) set out to build a career in the film industry. Within six years she directed her first feature film, "Towing," starring the prominent television actors Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz.

However, Smith later made the decision to focus on her family instead of her film career. She left show business for many years until her own child started looking at colleges. While going through brochures with him, she realized it was time to get back into film, but she knew she first had to return to the classroom.

Now in her fifth year in Columbia's graduate film program, Smith was recently presented the Zaki Gordon Award for Excellence in Screenwriting for her screenplay, "Cocktails at Castallano." Set in the Vietnam-war era, "Cocktails at Castallano" is the story of two young girls who do not fit in with the revolutionary environment in the United States and instead go off to Europe in search of love and adventure. The girls find themselves in a fascist society where freedom of speech does not exist.

"It is a story about finding yourself, your soul, and values away from home," said Smith. "When you go away it is easier to reflect, to see yourself more clearly."

Screenwriter Dan Gordon ("The Hurricane," "Passenger 57") established the Zaki Gordon Awards in honor of his son, Zaki, a young screenwriter who tragically died in a car accident. The awards recognize both student and professional screenwriters.

Smith's $4,500 award was accompanied by an inscribed hurricane lamp. "In order to read the glory on the outside, one first has to light the flame within," Gordon explained at the awards ceremony in Dodge Hall.

"Maura's energy and dedication to writing are awesome," said Dan Kleinman, chair of the film division. "She was a student in one of my writing classes and would sometimes commute from her home in Chicago just to attend the class. This award is well-deserved, and especially apt because Zaki Gordon shared that same special energy and commitment to filmmaking."

In reviewing submissions for this year's Zaki Gordon Award, Gordon said the Columbia screenplays were "head and shoulders above anyone in the country." Given this, Gordon also extended $1,000 awards to three Columbia finalists: Eilis Kirwan for "The New Mary," Stephen Padilla for "Street of Dreams" and Ashley Rudden for "Echo Queen."

With only a few weeks remaining until graduation, Smith has already been contacted by a producer who saw her scripts in the film division's "script bank." She has been hired to write and direct an independent feature film and hopes the Zaki Gordon Award will spur additional opportunities. For now, Smith is relishing the honor.

"I feel like I won an Academy Award," said Smith.

Published: Apr 03, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002


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