I couldn’t watch all 130 films that were shown in the 2017 Anchorage International Film Festival, but I watched many of them and was able to sit down with three amazing filmmakers.
Unwelcome: A Short Documentary by Ida Theresa Myklebost
I first met with Ida Theresa Myklebost, a filmmaker who grew up in Norway and Switzerland, and moved to New York two years ago to study documentary film at the New York Film Academy. Her profession was as a TV reporter in Norway, covering international news.
“Unwelcome” is her first film and her thesis film, which premiered at the Norwegian documentary film festival, Dokfilm. With her background in journalism, Myklebost already had experience covering the Syrian War and the refugee crisis. Her documentary highlights the struggle of Syrian refugees through the eyes of a six-year-old boy named Menwar.
“It’s the most important thing that’s happening in the world right now,” said Myklebost when asked how she chose her subject matter. “This is our time’s biggest humanitarian crisis. We’re not dealing very well with it.”
The documentary takes place primarily in an illegal refugee tent camp at a gas station in Greece during the summer of 2016. Food is scarce. There’s no electricity or running water. The setting feels deeply of impermanence, but thousands of Syrian refugees have been living this way for over a year now, being chased from camp to camp as the authorities crack down.
“This isn’t my story. I directed it and I went there with a camera, but it’s Menwar’s story. I basically gave him the microphone and let him take me where he wanted,” said Myklebost. “The people who are the largest victims of this war also have the smallest voice.”
The film crew was on location in Greece filming for six days, but much research and preparation went into knowing where to go and who to contact before they arrived at the camp. I wanted to know more about the filming process – the research that goes into it, hiring a crew, choosing a location. But Myklebost has a singular focus with her film, which is to shine a light on a dark crisis. She has been able to stay in contact with Menwar’s family through an app that enables texting via WiFi.
“They’re in the exact same situation a year later,” she said. “They were moved from that station, then they fled over the border as you saw in the film at the end.”
Menwar and his family are stuck in limbo as they’ve been shuffled from camp to camp. They can’t go back to war-torn Syria. Their home was in Aleppo, the city that was the center of the Syrian War from 2012-2016, and remains a battlefield. They can’t go forward, as European nations have closed their borders to refugees. The UN is present to supply some food and water to the camps, but as the camps are “unofficial,” Menwar and his family have no representatives or legal resources.
“Imagine today if suddenly you had to become a law expert to understand your own rights,” said Myklebost, “because people all around are trying to push you out and take away from you your human rights and the dignity that you deserve…there’s no structure around these kids, or these families, when they’re in an unofficial camp like this.”
Some hope for Menwar and his family is that his two eldest brothers, who are fourteen and sixteen, will find a place for the family in Europe. Myklebost said that when she was in Greece, the two brothers were in Serbia on their way to Germany with human smugglers. In Germany they can apply for family reunification, but they would have to cross borders illegally first.
“In order to apply for asylum, you have to be in the country you’re applying to,” Myklebost said.
It’s not easy to admit that when I was watching the film, I found myself disconnecting emotionally. In this constantly plugged-in, social media age, it feels like bad news is always all around me. Here at home crime and poverty and homelessness are significant problems. We all see it and we all feel it. But this should not prevent us from extending our empathy to those across the globe.
I read an article not too long ago about a young Swedish woman who was gang raped by refugees. These types of articles and stories are all around us, coming from half a world away to convince us that all the refugees are violent, radicalized, terrorist-sympathizing young men who would have stayed in their own country and fought if they only had any sense of morality. Whether these stories have validity or not is irrelevant to the refugee crisis, a crisis that is made up of primarily families.
Menwar is one of six siblings, and according to Myklebost, these unofficial tent camps are full of kids and families.
“You can go anywhere in Greece and you will find refugees…you will find children living on the street that are victims of war.”
As the film nears its end, the police have come to break up Menwar’s camp. He and his friends and family flee into the woods and across the border.
“They were saying ‘bye’ to me as I was filming them, the kids running. And I couldn’t say ‘bye’ because you would get my voice on the camera. So I was just watching them, like the world just watches them. They must have felt rejected.”
Myklebost shouldered her camera and ran after them, catching up to Menwar’s pregnant mother.
The mother started crying. “You have to leave,” she said. “If the smugglers catch you here with a camera, they will kill you.”
Myklebost stops in the field and watches as the children run away.
“There was nothing I could do,” she said, momentarily overwhelmed by the poignancy of the moment.
The film closes with a shot of Menwar’s Superman shoe, left behind at his tent as they flee police across the border. The most heartbreaking detail of this story is that Menwar’s situation, a year and a half later, hasn’t changed. His childhood passes by, stuck in a state of impermanence, waiting for a place where he will be welcome.
“Unwelcome” won second place prize in the festival in the category of Short Documentary.
The Drawer Boy: A Feature Film by Arturo Pérez Torres
I spoke with Aviva Armour-Ostroff, who produced this, her first film production, with her partnerTorres. The film is set in rural Ontario and was filmed on location. It’s based on the play of the same name written by Michael Healey, which is one of the most produced plays in the US, and one of Canada’s most famous plays.
Armour-Ostroff said they applied to get their film into various festivals, and the Anchorage International Film Festival accepted.
“We were both really excited about the prospect of coming to see Alaska,” said Armour-Ostroff. “It’s nice to be around mountains, and you can really feel the history here because it’s a young city. The history is still tangible.”
The story follows a young theater actor from Toronto named Miles as he finds himself at the home of Angus and Morgan, two aging bachelor farmers who live in rural Ontario. Miles wants to observe Angus and Morgan in their daily lives as farmers in order to write a script. The two farmers both fought in World War II where Angus suffered brain damage in the London bombing. This has left him with significant memory loss, unable to even remember what he had for breakfast. Morgan cares for Angus and reassures him with the story of how they met their wives. As Miles writes his script and tells their story, it reawakens a memory in Angus and reveals that the story Morgan has been telling is not true.
Storytelling is perhaps humanity’s oldest art form, and “The Drawer Boy” fundamentally demonstrates how life not only imitates art, but life can be inalterably changed by art. Drawing much inspiration from true events, the play is Healey’s tribute to the power of art.
“It deals with truth,” said Armour-Ostroff, “and what is truth and what is memory. Is memory just about repetition, or when is it a fact?”
“The Drawer Boy” is a drama, but it also has plenty of comedy.
“It definitely has some good jokes,” said Armour-Ostroff. “Some good farm jokes.”
Armour-Ostriff works in theater as an actor, writer, producer, and director.
“My partner is a documentary filmmaker and we wanted to make something together…we wanted to use an established script, a Canadian play. Because he’s from a documentary background, he loved the idea of that truth line and being an observer and how that changes your atmosphere. Because of my passion and love for theater, I was drawn to this script.”
Armour-Ostroff and Torres are partners in real life as well as in making this film. They brought their son with them to the filming location and lived in the farmhouse that is the setting for much of the movie.
“The farmhouse we rented from two of the original actors who were in the original acting troupe in the 70s,” said Armour-Ostroff, referring to the real life events that eventually led to Healey writing his play.
Beautifully shot and poignantly acted, it is not surprising the film “The Drawer Boy” won first place in the Narrative Features category.
Painless: A Feature Film by Jordan Horowitz
Painless is a science-based drama written and directed by Jordan Horowitz. The story follows Henry Long, a man who is unable to feel pain due to a very rare and very real medical condition called congenital insensitivity to pain.
“Because of that he’s very cautious and protective of himself, and he’s also a very lonely, alienated person,” said Horowitz. “Kind of like a modern day Edward Scissorhands character.”
In the film we see Henry cautiously navigating day-to-day life - he always wears a jacket and scarf, he carries an extensive first aid kit, he puts ice cubes into hot beverages - all in an attempt to prevent injury. Much of Henry’s life is occupied by trying to find a cure to his affliction, to the point of obsession.
“Because there’s so much science and medical talk in the film, I ended up hiring a team of science advisors and medical advisors who helped us through all aspects of the film,” said Horowitz.
Much of the film is shot on location in New York City, a place where it should be difficult to be isolated.
“I was really looking for a New York story that dealt with a lonely, alienated character. I’m really fascinated with the idea of urban loneliness,” said Horowitz when asked where he found the inspiration to write the script for “Painless.”
Many people who experience congenital insensitivity to pain die at a young age due to their inability to detect serious injury. They could have internal bleeding or another serious illness and not know it.
“I began imagining what kind of character would live to be an adult with this kind of condition,” said Horowitz.
When asked if he had spoken with anyone who experiences the condition, I received an emphatic “no.”
“I did some research on kids that had it, online I found out a little about some adults that had it…but I kind of stayed away from that. I had this idea of a modern day Edward Scissorhands in my head. I didn’t want to meet someone that had it and find out they’re just like a normal person with some quirks. I wanted it to be its own thing.”
The doctor who helps Henry in the film, and acts as his mentor in his quest to find a cure, is based on a real doctor in New York who specializes in pain management and works with people with Henry’s condition. Early in the script-writing process, Horowitz hit a wall – the same wall Henry hits in searching for a cure.
“I needed a breakthrough,” he said.
Fortunately one came with a Google search. Very new research at the time had revealed a second gene that may be responsible for Henry’s condition, and could therefore someday lead to a cure. Horowitz presented the new evidence to his science advisors.
“As soon as that happened, the ending wrote itself,” he said. “If you were to look up this condition now, all the research points to this second gene. It’s kind of like the school of thought has completely shifted. So I guess that makes it a period piece, because technically the movie takes place five or six years ago.”
Horowitz said Henry’s story may also be adapted for a TV show in the near future.
As with all the films I saw in the Anchorage International Film Festival, “Painless” stuck with me. There’s nothing wrong with just enjoying a movie for the sake of entertainment, but I really appreciate a thought-provoking film as well. Scientists have concluded that the amount of pain we can feel isn’t adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint. Most life forms will do what they can to avoid mild discomfort, let alone excruciating pain that makes you pass out. Despite not feeling pain, which many people would probably see as a blessing, Henry develops a pathological avoidance of injury. We only see glimpses of his childhood, and the ending feels unresolved, but this allows the viewer to imagine the circumstances that made Henry who he is, and who he might become.