A Sense of Wonder

T'chaka Sikelianos on 'A Yeti in the City'

(l-r) T'chaka Sikelianos, Ishaq Clayton, Carolyn Merriman, and Courtney Davis on the set
(l-r) T'chaka Sikelianos, Ishaq Clayton, Carolyn Merriman, and Courtney Davis on the set

On the surface, T'chaka Sikelianos doesn't appear to struggle with any sort of identity crisis. He is who he is: both black and white, neither black nor white, an artist, a human, an animal. From his slight sigh, audible over the scratchy cell-phone connection between Portland, Ore., and Austin, it seems as though he doesn't care to dwell on his own identity. And then he goes on to discuss his one – and only – outfit.

For a few years now, Sikelianos has donned one single-colored outfit, washing it at night and wearing it until it runs ragged. First, there was a white one, handmade, then a blue one. His current ensemble is solid black. "It looks kung fu," he says. "A lot of people ask me all the time if I study martial arts. I don't really. ... But my answer to that usually is that I do practice the tennets to kung fu, which are to make everything in your life shine ... to be as good at everything as you can so that your kung fu, of any element, is tight."

The metaphor has worked well for Sikelianos the filmmaker, who this year has finally completed his opus of more than eight years in the making, A Yeti in the City. It's a magical, multiformatted affair that combines puppetry, crude animation, handmade costumes, poetry, and music by Austin's own Octopus Project (see "Silver Lining") to tell an allegorical tale focusing on the theme of what else? Identity.

"The original dream was to prove to myself, maybe the world, that you could make a movie that could still be entertaining and ... poetic and engaging using something as simple as a sock puppet," Sikelianos says. "I went and saw Hulk and Spider-Man, and you'd see these CGI things that were rendered so beautifully or whatever, but they just seemed so fake, and I always found it so fascinating that they do all that, but then if you put a puppet on your hand, even a 3-year-old can find the life in it."

A Yeti in the City, which was partly shot in Austin, one of the director's various former residences, is the story of a yeti, displaced from his home in the Himalayas, who is trying to find his foothold in a city inhabited by humans and working, talking animals. The animals are immigrants to the city, who are forced to carry government-issued identification cards stamped with Resident Animal. Those caught without the proper papers are detained.

"Even though I like to think that the themes are somewhat adult in nature, it's still universal to all ages and a little kid who might not get half of it, and maybe adults won't ... maybe only dogs will get it or something, but ... anyone could and should be able to watch it without fear of being offended."

Though A Yeti in the City was Sikelianos' brainchild in 1999, the project turned collaborative. "I definitely owe so much to so many people who were willing to help out so much, usually for free," he says. "That's what Austin was great for. ... I just put out work calls and casting calls, and so many people showed up knowing it would be hard work for two weeks every day, and it wouldn't be paid, but they liked the idea of a fun script like this. ... And I don't know if the climate is still like that in Austin, where people are just so jazzed about working on films."

Friday, Oct. 12, 11:55pm, Dobie; Sunday, Oct. 14, 9:30pm, Arbor

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