May 14, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 20

Interview

Four animated short films focus on family homelessness

By Rosette Royale , Assistant Editor

Sihanouk Mariona arranges set pieces used in “Super Dads.” The blue figures are made of clay and wax, and the set was constructed mostly from cardboard. To plot out the film’s storyline,

Photography by Julie Lopez

Director Sihanouk Mariona, standing, and artistic director Chris Rogers in their Capitol Hill artist’s studio. The two worked on “Super Dads,” a stop-action animated short about three homeless fathers separated from their children.

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A family with a home reaches out to another family living in a shelter. Three homeless fathers each struggle to stay connected to their children. A homeless youth in the suburbs seeks salvation in rap and spoken word. A couple questions whether to buy a foreclosed home.

These tales of family homelessness make up the animated short film program “American Refugees,” which is sponsored by Seattle University’s Film & Family Homelessness Project. It will premiere during the Seattle International Film Festival on May 19 at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Exit. Several filmmakers and subjects will take part in a post-screening discussion.

The program’s organizers chose animation for the medium’s ability to present characters in an open-ended way, said Lindy Boustedt, project manager for the program.

“It gave a layer of anonymity, so we’re not asking one or four people to be the face of homelessness,” Boustedt said.

The quartet of shorts brings together award-winning filmmakers and animators to address what some service providers call the “hidden face” of local homelessness: As many 12,500 adults and their children in Washington state are without homes, according to information from Seattle University.

As for the program title “American Refugees,” Boustedt said that one of seven SU student production assistants coined the phrase in a blog post about the project. She said the title may be divisive, but it could lead people to consider an unspoken reality of homeless families: “How they’re our own refugees in the war on poverty.”

Some shorts are narrative while others are documentary. The films incorporate a combination of styles, from stop-action technique to hand-drawn imagery.

The film project was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Seeing the films at SIFF may be a challenge: Boustedt said the screening is already sold out. But the films will also be available on May 19 at 7 p.m. on the project’s website, americanrefugees.org. After the screening, the program will go on a local tour with stops at SU, Bellevue Community College, chamber groups and a rotary club.

To get a sense of how each short addresses the issue, the filmmakers described the creative process that went into each of their films. 


‘The Smiths’ directed by Neely Goniodsky

An ordinary family can do extraordinary things: Director Neely Goniodsky said that belief was the guiding principle behind her short “The Smiths.”

After researching family homelessness, Goniodsky said she wanted to make a film that related to her own experience. Though she has never been homeless, her family went through hard times that led them to receive help from close friends.

Friends play important roles in “The Smiths.” In the three-and-a-half minute film, a young girl narrates the story of how her family lost its home. The loss sends the family to a shelter to find housing, only the shelter doesn’t accept adult males, forcing the father to stay somewhere else. As the family copes with the separation, it receives help from another family: the Smiths.

Goniodsky said she drew the film’s almost 3,000 frames by hand. To lend the piece visual texture, images were drawn in ink and scanned in on a computer. It’s a lengthy process, but one of the joys of animation, she said, is that it allows her to alter images, such as facial expressions, that reveal her characters’ inner experiences. “I can show this …. moment that shows how distorting a situation can be,” said Goniodsky, who has produced and directed 16 animated shorts.

Artistic distortion can also unveil a universal truth. Goniodsky said she wants the film, though not based on a specific family’s story, to portray the disorientation homelessness and forced separation can create in a family. Gonidosky wrote the script, with input from others, from the young girl’s point of view, with her descriptions detailing the family’s struggles in a matter-of-fact tone.

As for the Smith family, Goniodsky said she believes that we all have the ability to help someone else. In looking for a way to illustrate this belief, she gave the family that offers assistance a neutral name. It was her metaphorical way of hinting to viewers that a family doesn’t have to be special or unique to help another family in need.

“Anybody [could be] the Smiths,” she said.


‘Super Dads’ directed by Sihanouk Mariona

As they began work on the film “Super Dads,” Sihanouk Mariona said he and his collaborators tried to calm their nerves.

Their anxiety, Mariona said, was grounded in a serious concern: the difficulty of turning an important issue like family homelessness into an animated film. He and his collaborators — artistic director Chris Rogers and writer Heather Ayers — all wanted to do a film grounded in the lives of actual people. While real people meant real emotions, it also represented a real opportunity to address the topic.

“Truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to stay within possibilities,” said Mariona, an Emmy-winning animator who directed the film.

But where to find the family? For that, the group turned to shelter providers. Mariona said as they discussed their project with one provider, she mentioned that due to rules about adult males in family shelters, fathers can’t always stay with their children. The filmmakers knew immediately this would be their topic, he said, so they set out to interview fathers caught in this predicament.

The interviews quickly became emotional, he said, and to keep some artistic distance, he and Rogers stepped back from meeting the fathers in person. Instead, Ayers gathered audio, and Mariona and Rogers based the film on the recordings.

“Super Dads” weaves together the narratives of three fathers, each of whom has been separated from a child or children due to family shelter regulations. In the film, family members are represented by blue clay-wax figures. Their actions are represented through a process known as stop-action technique, which involves moving a figure incrementally, taking a shot, moving it again, taking another shot — over and over. The process was also used for the pieces of the set, which were made out of cardboard and foam core, a lightweight synthetic material sometimes used to create architectural models.

Independently, each figure resembles a toy. But as each frame in the three-and-a-half minute film runs together, the figures possess a fluid, lifelike quality. The quality is highlighted by the narration, which is provided by a culturally diverse group of men and children talking about how being apart makes them long to be together.

By the end of the filmmaking process, Mariona said the anxiety had departed, and the filmmakers felt they had achieved their goal of melding respect for people to a respect for art. He felt grateful for the whole process.

“It was a special gathering of stories,” he said.


‘The Beast Inside’ directed by Amy Enser and Drew Christie

Amy Enser felt that other filmmakers had already excelled at telling the stories of homeless urban youth. So she and her collaborator, animator Drew Christie, decided early on they would tell the story of a homeless suburban youth.

Enser’s search led her to Everett, where she spent time at Cocoon House, Snohomish County’s only program serving homeless youth. While visiting the program’s low-barrier drop-in center, she spoke to a number of young people. But one, she said, stuck out. His name was Tilawn.

She interviewed him, along with members of his street family, for a couple of hours, then set up another interview with Tilawn alone. In the room was a keyboard, which he started playing. He began rapping, reciting pieces he’d written along with some he crafted while they were in the room together. “It was beautiful and intense,” Enser said.

Tilawn was 19 and had been homeless, with his father, since he was 8. Enser saw Tilawn was a natural leader, who drew other young people to him. And he encapsulated the experiences of his life and struggles living on the street with his father in a spoken-word piece, which Enser recorded. At one point during his verbal linguistics, he speaks the phrase “the beast inside.” The words became the film’s title.

After Enser, a Bronze Telly Award winner, edited hours of audio into a three-and-a-half minute story, she handed the audio to Christie. He listened to Tilawn’s words over and over, allowing imagery to arise. Then through a process Chrisitie calls “tradigital,” which involves traditional hand-drawn imagery done on a computer, he created a style that could be called visual magical realism to present Tilawn’s story. Christie estimates there are some 2,400 frames in the short film.

Though Christie was familiar with Everett, he used Google Earth to familiarize himself with settings Tilawn had visited. For one particular scene, where Tilawn tells the story of applying for a job at Wendy’s, Christie mapped the location and recreated the fast food restaurant. Since he’d never met Tilawn, he based his renditions of him on an iPhone photo Enser had taken.

Christie, whose animation has appeared on the New York Times website, said animating a documentary story about family homelessness gives a filmmaker a chance to explore a topic viewers may tend to avoid. “When you animate someone telling the story,” he said, “you’re giving it a new life.”

As for the Tilawn, Christie said that even though he hasn’t met him, the youth’s charisma comes through on the audio. He found his voice and story captivating, which he believes will translate to viewers. “It’s really easy for an audience to get on his side,” said Christie.

Enser agreed. She said that Tilawn possesses a gentle nature and professes a desire to help others. Working on a film based on his life, Enser said, may cause some people to rethink how they view homeless youth, whether they live in the city or the suburbs.

“There are a lot of beautiful humans that don’t fit what [someone may] think is great. Or normal,” she said.


‘Home for Sale’ directed by Laura Jean Cronin

Sometimes real life transforms into art. For director Laura Jean Cronin, her emotional experience of trying to buy a home informed her take on family homelessness.

Several years ago, Cronin and her partner decided, after years of renting, the time had come to purchase a house. Many of the houses in their price range were foreclosed homes. As they entered homes that others had lost, her early excitement as a first-time homeowner was muted by the sight of items that belonged to previous owners.

One foreclosed home stood out.

“It was like an apocalypse had happened and people were thrown out of their homes,” Cronin said. “It clearly had been a home that a family had to abandon.”

Real estate agents often spoke about it in a matter-of-fact way, she said: Someone lost the house, and now the bank owns it. Cronin had a hard time distancing herself from someone else’s experience. Even as the process caused her to stop looking for a while, the experience never left her mind. The process plays out in “Home for Sale.”

The film is a time-traveling representation of buying a house. A couple, joined by a real estate agent, surveys a potential home, which is still cluttered with items that belong to another family. As one member of the couple questions the realtor, the narrative shifts in time to the family who’d lived there before. Then the film bounces back to the prospective buyers, shifting back and forth between a family pursuing a dream and another watching theirs deteriorate.

Cronin, who is a producer at Reel Grrls, wrote and rewrote the script over the course of five months. Actors supply the dialogue of five adults and two children. As for the animation style, the film travels an unusual route: Instead of stop-action technique or hand-drawn filmmaking, the movie incorporates 65 oil paintings by Debbie Faas. The paintings were based upon photos that Cronin staged of actors in a house. Some of paintings are background settings; others are portraits of characters. With animation supplied by Goldy Jones, the characters float and move over the backgrounds, lending an ethereal feel to a story that’s grounded in Cronin’s real-life experience.

After the home-buying struggles, Cronin said she and her partner bought a house, one that feels good and had a good story.

But working on the film caused her to reexamine her feelings of that initial home search, when she said she questioned her privilege.

“It was a constant [re-evaluation] and rewriting of the reality of how close we could all be to losing everything that we have,” she said.

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