Two Austin films are headed to Park City, Utah, this week, Zombie Girl: The Movie, co-directed by Justin Johnson, Aaron Marshall, and Erik Mauck, screening at Slamdance, and Michel Orion Scott's Over the Hills and Far Away, which is Sundance-bound.
First up, Zombie Girl's Mauck: "Justin [Johnson] and I had been doing a series of short featurettes on Austin-based productions called Between the Scenes and throwing them up on YouTube for a couple of years now. We'd read Dan Eggleston's list [a Yahoo! group called AustinFilmCasting] or go to AustinActors.net and see what was shooting and then go do a minidoc on it. One day we came across a post that said something like, '12-year-old girl casting for zombie movie.' Right away it was obvious that was something we wanted to do a segment on."
That 12-year-old girl was Austinite Emily Hagins, and the casting call was for Pathogen, the ambitious feature from, well, a 12-year-old girl.
"It became apparent pretty early on to Justin and I that there was the potential for a feature-length documentary in Emily's story," recalls Mauck, "so we had dinner with Emily; her mom, Megan; and Rebecca Elliott, who helped produce Pathogen, and we set it up."
The resulting doc, which played to an enthusiastic house at Fantastic Fest 2008, is a portrait of the artist as a young girl covered in blood. Displaying a maturity beyond her years while dealing with the twin bedevilments of her day job – being a kid – and her real profession – being a kid making a splatter movie on nights and weekends – Hagins' story is nothing if not inspirational. (Orson Welles was twice Hagins' age when he finally got around to Citizen Kane.) With her already artistically inclined parents doing everything they could to help the project achieve completion, the plucky, unflappable Hagins, who received a $1,000 Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund grant midway through production, is the very picture of tweenage determination. And guts. Lots and lots of guts.
Mauck: "Emily's a unique girl. A lot of the visionary aspects of being a filmmaker were already there when we first met her, which is surprising given her age at the time. She had drawn storyboards; she had written a script; she knew in her head exactly what she wanted pretty much from the outset. The difficulties of getting actors and extras to make her vision a reality is where the dramatic arc of her story appeared. But ultimately Zombie Girl: The Movie is a story about having a vision and making it real, no matter what."
Displaying guts of an entirely different sort, not to mention enough heart to change more than a few lives for the better, Michel Orion Scott's immensely moving Over the Hills and Far Away chronicles an Elgin family's odyssey into the unknown after their 4-year-old child is diagnosed with autism.
Respected human rights journalist/activist and longtime equestrian Rupert Isaacson and his wife, Kristin Neff, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, took along Scott and his crew on what was to be, for both parents and their son, Rowan, the trip of a lifetime. They went to Mongolia, where Rupert believed he could find help for his son from the shaman of the near-mythical reindeer people of the Mongolian Steppes.
Having already determined that Rowan's increasingly unnerving autistic tantrums and their equally distressing satellite symptoms were, miraculously, becalmed whenever Rowan was near or on a horse, Isaacson, a believer in the potential healing powers of indigenous shamans the world over, found that the most difficult part of this adventure to the land where man first domesticated the equine would be convincing his spouse that they were actually going to do it. And why not? It sounds crazy, even irresponsible, but given Rowan's illness and the frazzled, near-desperate state it imposed on his parents ... why not?
"Before we went," says director Scott, "I had already decided that this was going to be a film about a family and whether Rowan was healed over the course of the trip to Mongolia – and I frankly didn't believe he would be. I knew that it would be a beautiful film about a family coming to terms with their son's autism, having an adventure, and then coming home and realizing that, look, we have to value his autism for what it is. That's what I was expecting."
What Scott actually brought back from Mongolia was something even more emotionally satisfying. Over the Hills and Far Away is a documentary that opens a door to new perceptions of what it means to be autistic, what it means to be the parents of an autistic child, and what Western medical practice too often fails to include in its prescription for wellness of all kinds: the power of the spirit.
Sometimes, when the mind wanders or stutters or functions outside the perceived notions of normalcy, the only option is thinking and acting outside of the box, over the hills, and far, far away.
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