I’ve attended a lot of film screenings over the past several years in Anchorage. At first in living rooms and basements, often teeming with different flavors of smoke. Other times, they were in beer-stained bars with limited seating and forgettable names. More recently, the burgeoning and fully self-propelled local filmmaking movement has ascended to sold out film festivals and packed, late night parties at the Bear’s Tooth. “Open Projector Night,” a hodgepodge collection of first-come-first serve, independent, local films — started back in 2011 — has become an unrivaled success.
Last week’s UAA Student Film Premieres screening was something quite different. Students in Assistant Professor Doug Kelly’s Digital Film Production I presented their semester’s hard work, on the ginormous screen inside the 910-seat Wendy Williamson Auditorium. The films included two documentaries: Travis Dowling’s Homelessness: Giving Hope to Those in Need and Julia Tenison’s Coffee Babes, a drama: Kitty Mahoney’s Hooked, and two offbeat comedies: Evan Erickson’s Sugarspoon and Scot Wolverton’s Benazir.
It was the weirdest final exam I’d ever seen. Also, the coolest.
Despite the popularity and rising demand, UAA doesn’t actually have a film program (insert obligatory sportsplex dig here). Film concentration, instead, is offered as a focus within the Journalism Department. The six films presented on Wednesday represented a capstone for their academic careers; a body of work that both integrates and presents what they’ve learned. Their collegiate opus. Their Seawolf-maximus.
Of the six productions, two clearly stood out. The films came from two different universes — albeit both set in Anchorage — but also shared the common theme of hope.
Homelessness: Giving Hope to Those in Need – Travis Dowling.
“[I]t’s hard to get through it, especially during the winter,” Jess Stewart, a current UAA student sporting wire-rimmed glasses and a dark beard, says into the camera in the opening scene of Dowling’s documentary. Stewart’s mother, brother, and sister lived in a campsite for nearly a year after his father abandoned them. Their only source of heat over that winter was single a propane tank heater, which absorbed the little money they were able to make through chores. “But with the right people helping you, and knowing the right people to ask for help, the community helps you that way.”
Homelessness tells the story of that community; both the non-profits who work tirelessly throughout the year, mostly through volunteerism, and the homeless who depend on those services to survive.
Dowling told me that he was inspired to make the film after moving here for the Army back in 2003. He said he was shocked by both the number of homeless in the community, and by the stereotypes he would hear about them when relaying his experiences to his friends and family (Stewart would mention how we often heard people conflate homelessness with laziness). “I always wondered if there were some other underlying issues with a person being homeless and my goal with this documentary was to change how people view the homeless.”
Looking through the lens of the over-taxed social services sector in Anchorage, Dowling saw these stereotypes resurface.
“One of [those stereotypes] is that people don’t work, or they don’t want to work. And that’s just not the case,” Lisa Lauder tells Dowling, during a busy day at Bean’s Cafe, of which she serves as the executive director. “In our last social services survey, 12 percent of the clients surveyed that were coming here for meals have a job. They just don’t make enough money to be able to live independently and have enough money for food.”
Susan Bomalaski, the executive director of Brother Francis Shelter, points out that Anchorage’s housing shortage compounds the issue. “You have to make $18 an hour to spend no more than 30 percent of your income on a two-bedroom apartment…. A lot of people don’t make that.”
But, through the time spent at Brother Francis and Bean’s, Dowling found a message of hope, which he emphasized throughout the 20-minute short. And that hope lies in a supportive community. Stewart reported that he was no longer homeless. “Anyone can do it if you want to try. You just have to try. There’s people out there willing to help you if you just ask.”
At Bean’s Cafe alone, Lauder explains, volunteers logged over 95,000 hours last year. She said they couldn’t provide the services they do without the support they receive from the community. Bomalaski echoed the sentiment, but stressed that the need has grown. She encouraged more people to get engaged with caring for the more needy members of our community, struggling to enjoy the same success and hopeful future that Stewart now enjoys.
Dowlings film hinges upon the one-on-one interviews with social workers, spliced with intimate moments at the shelter; scenes of volunteers serving meals while clients talk, laugh, even play guitar. The worry felt by the people trying to provide a leg up for those who so very desperately need it leaks out of each interview, as the concern for the growing homeless population increases. But the message repeats itself: a community that takes care of their own can succeed.
“[E]veryone needs help every once in awhile and that majority of Americans are two paychecks away from being homeless,” he told me. “I often look at people who are in need of help from their fellow humans as what if that was me in that position. ”
Dowling submitted the film to the Solstice Showcase Screening, put on bny the Alaska Film Forum, which will take place in June. For now, the full production is viewable on Youtube, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Hooked – Kitty Mahoney.
Hooked departs from the documentary genre. The hour-long production is a heavy drama about love amidst the backdrop of drug addiction. There are no plot twists. The flow is deliberate and painful, as audiences are dragged slowly through one young woman’s world as it falls apart entirely, bit by torturous bit. Kitty Mahoney (who wrote, produced, and stars in the film) said the idea came from a mix of personal experiences and imagination.
Mahoney plays Jennelle Forrester, a wholesome college student from an upper middle-class home. She’s the type of girl who stresses over getting B’s in school.
At first look, audiences are lulled into a false notion that the film will play out with a light, teen comedy. Forrester gossips with a girlfriend in the halls about boyfriends, then jokes with her film department friends in a scene reminiscent of The Breakfast Club. But one can’t deny the lingering weight of the film’s foreshadowing title. And, soon enough, a stranger appears in the theatre during auditions for that semester’s onstage production.
Forrester immediately notices him, and asks her classmates who he is.
“Oh, that’s Logan [Akers],” one student replies. “He graduated from Eilson High my freshman year. I saw some of the productions he was in.” It’s recalled that he had fallen into the wrong crowd and got hooked on drugs, but shrugged it off. “He must have gotten better.”
Forrester and Akers immediately hit it off, leading to an all-night phone call that takes things a step further. Many more similar phone calls follow, and the two begin a relationship — albeit a secret one, as he works for the university and we tend to frown on student-teacher relations.
Relationships — especially the ones that sneak up on us — often come with the side affect of distraction. For Forrester, that focus draws her attention away from her friends and family, all of whom occupy slowly building subplots. Her best friend is having relationship problems. Her parents are fighting. But those developments are glossed over by a distracted Forrester in the throws of a budding relationship which demands her full attention. Especially when Akers’ character begins to unravel, offering telltale signs of a drug relapse — though left offscreen away from the audience’s itch to either confirm or deny it.
On screen, Mahoney is a force. She gives a commanding performance as Jenelle Forrester, demanding attention and emotional connection in every scene. Maybe people exist who have never been through anything remotely like the ordeal Mahoney captured in Hooked, but I haven’t met them. And the 60-minute drag through the emotional torment is visceral. I talked to more than one attendee who reported having that same heart-sinking feeling as they watched a teenage girl’s earth shatter.
That’s not, of course, to say it ends on that note. But maybe it does. Spoiler free!
The process of filming, according to Mahoney, was also grueling. “It took an ungodly amount time and effort to get that movie made,” she told me. “While it has its issues, I’m very proud of the final product.”
She said she hopes to touch up some parts, but would love to have further screening. None have been set in stone yet.
The film reminded me a lot of a rough demo-tape from a really good band. The production quality was lacking; it was rough around the edges (the audio during the long phone conversations between Forrester and Akers, for instance, was a bit awful) — a point she conceded. The UAA screening was the first time she had seen the finished product outside of living room watch parties. “It was nerve wracking having my movie on such a big screen with so many people watching it,” she described the experience. “I couldn’t stop looking around the audience. I’m definitely more proud of some scenes than others, so sometimes I would be beaming from my seat and other times I would be so far sunken down that no one could see me.”
Despite the imperfections, something really impressive, genuine, and raw was buried underneath, leaving me anxious for what might come next.