That Which Once Was
By Kimi Takesue
In the year 2032, Vicente, an 8-year-old Caribbean boy, has been displaced by global warming and fends for himself as an environmental refugee in a hostile Northern metropolis. Orphaned and without connection to family or friends, Vicente now lives in a children’s shelter on the fringes of the city, and struggles with anxiety, rage, and disturbing memories of the tragedy he fled. On a hot summer day, Vicente sits outside the shelter and sees a mysterious man smashing large chunks of ice against the pavement. Thus begins an unexpected friendship between Vicente and Siku, the ice carver: two people from different worlds who have both experienced tremendous loss. Through their bond, Siku ultimately helps Vicente confront his past and understand the value of memory.
I often take a collage approach in making my films. In That Which Once Was, I drew from a number of disparate sources and assembled the ideas together. I had been impacted by the severity and frequency of environmental disasters that were striking all parts of the world, including the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Every day it seemed there was news of a flood, earthquake, fire, or mudslide that was destroying the lives of a community. I was thinking a great deal about loss and displacement, in regards to family and homeland, and how disasters specifically affect young children. How does a child cope with such trauma? How does a child move on emotionally?
I was also inspired by a recent trip to Uganda where I made a documentary, Where Are You Taking Me? that featured Hope North, a school and refuge for youth impacted by the civil war in Northern Uganda. Many of the children were orphans and former child soldiers who had been deeply scarred by war and conflict. Hope North was founded by a remarkable artist and activist, Sam Okello. Part of the ongoing mission of the school is to integrate art, dance, and music into the curriculum as a form of therapy. This idea of using art and creativity as a way to aid in the process of emotional healing was very influential in the making of That Which Once Was.
There were a number of powerful images that resonated with me while visiting Hope North. Many of the children had only a few personal photos and remnants from their pasts packed in small suitcases or trunks. There was a real sense of poignancy in this, as each object carried great emotional weight, representing an important connection to family and community. The talented production designer Matt Herschel and I incorporated these images into the visualization of the children's shelter, and more specifically, I explored this idea in Vicente's intense physical and emotional attachment to the fishing lure given to him by his father.
Another central source of inspiration for the film was the ice. I am currently developing a feature-length film project that explores the life of an ice carver and I have spent several years researching various aspects of the ice sculpture process. I'm fascinated by the visual and metaphoric possibilities that ice offers. Ice speaks to all that is fleeting and ephemeral in life. Part of the beauty of ice sculpture for the maker and the viewer is the remembrance of that which has been, and that which is lost.
--Kimi Takesue, Writer/Director
Making a film is a leap of faith and a bit of a miracle. All of the creative, technical, and practical elements have to cohere seamlessly. Each decision is critical: What colors for the balloons? Should the ice sculpture be abstract or figurative? How quickly will the ice melt under the lights? Should the children's shelter be apocalyptic or comforting? But beyond the creative and technical execution, it's the actors that convey the soul of the film. And the biggest unknown is whether the actors will be compelling on screen, have chemistry with one another, and sustain the audience's interest.
I had written the part of Siku - the Inuk ice-carver - with Natar Ungalaq in mind, having seen his terrific performance in the Cannes Festival award-winning Inuk film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Natar is captivating on screen and I knew he was capable of playing the role of Siku with great intensity and depth. Siku is a man who says very little but still conveys a complex emotional past.
It was also very important to me that the film had a real sense of authenticity. For the role of Siku, the actor had to be convincing as an ice carver, not only in terms of physicality, but also through his adept handling of dangerous ice-carving tools. So often films about artists feel contrived because stand-ins are used. Not only did Natar have a convincing physical presence, but he brought years of experience as an accomplished artist and sculptor to his demanding role. Under the guidance of Takeo and Shintaro Okamoto, a father-and-son team of professional ice-carvers, Natar learned the difficult practice of ice carving quickly and was amazingly able to execute the majority of the carving in the film, which gives the piece incredible vitality.
The film also hinges on the magnetic performance of Vicente Otero. For the leading role, I needed a young actor who could convey a guarded presence that simultaneously masked a deep and wounded interior world. Only eight-years old, Vicente had very little acting experience but he was a natural on screen. It was amazing to see a young person take on such an enormous challenge and succeed so brilliantly.
That Which Once Was is an atmospheric and visually driven film, so the camera work was critical. Director of photography Bobby Sciretta and I came to the project with a shared artistic sensibility, after having collaborated together on another film, Summer Of The Serpent. I also worked closely with John Walter, a gifted editor who helped define and shape the piece, with his terrific sense of rhythm and understanding of distilled storytelling.
In the end, the script came to life with the support of producer Adriane Giebel, co-producer Richard Beenen, and a team of wonderful collaborators who were not only talented, but who shared a real passion for the project and were truly committed to the success and overall spirit of the film.
--Kimi Takesue, Writer/Director
Kimi Takesue is an award-winning filmmaker and the recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in Filmmaking. In 2010 she was awarded her second artist fellowship from the New York Foundation in the Arts in the video category. Her recent feature-length documentary Where Are You Taking Me, shot in Uganda, was commissioned by the International Film Festival Rotterdam where it had its world premiere, and was also selected for the documentary competition at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival where it was a Critics’ Pick by LA Weekly. Takesue’s films have been televised in the U.S. and have screened at more than 200 film festivals and museums, including the Sundance Film Festival, Rotterdam International Film Festival, New Directors/ New Films, Locarno International, the Walker Art Center, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Her films have aired on PBS, the Independent Film Channel, and the Sundance Channel.
Adriane Giebel’s credits include Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story and Theater of War, a feature documentary starring Meryl Streep and Tony Kushner. She has produced programs for Sundance Channel, IFC, and Court TV, as well as commercial work for the fashion industry and corporate clients such as Calvin Klein, IBM, and UPS. She holds film degrees from Harvard and New York Universities.
Richard Beenen is a New York-based artist, photographer, and educator with teaching experience at Parsons School of Design, Pratt Institute, and the Museum of Modern Art, NYC. His fine art work has been exhibited at numerous galleries and museums including the Brooklyn Museum of Art, White Columns/NYC, and Museo D'Arte Contemporanea Roma. He has received artist fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Pollack Krasner Foundation, and the Adolph & Esther Gottlieb Foundation. Beenen has also been a co-producer on numerous award winning narrative and documentary films including, Summer of The Serpent, E=NYC2, Suspended, and the feature length documentary Where Are You Taking Me? which have screened at festivals worldwide including the Sundance Film Festival, Rotterdam Film Festival, Locarno Film Festival, New Directors/New Films, SXSW, and the Museum of Modern Art.
Natar Ungalaq — Siku
Unquestionably Canada’s best-known Inuit actor, Ungalaq has garnered numerous awards for his turns in Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner and Ce qu'il faut pour vivre. He is also a renowned sculptor with works in Canada's National Gallery. Ungalaq resides in his native Igloolik, Nunavut, a small island community in the Artic Circle.
Vicente Otero — Vicente
An 8-year-old Bronx native, Otero has acted in several plays, including a featured role at the New York Theatre Workshop. That Which Once Was is his film debut.