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UM Film Professor Makes International Debut

Sarah Hennigan

One of the most recent additions to the University of Mississippi’s Department of Theatre and Film faculty is already making great strides – across an ocean and into another hemisphere.

Sarah Hennigan, assistant professor of film production, is on her way to New Zealand for the international premiere of her short film “Light,” which will screen Saturday (March 23) at the Maoriland Film Festival. Hennigan joined the faculty in fall 2018 to teach in the theatre and film department’s new film production emphasis within the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre Arts program.

Hennigan wrote, directed, produced and edited the film, which was conceived as part of her graduate degree from the University of Texas and filmed in and around Austin. Hennigan is from Texas, and the film is a retelling of a Cherokee legend called “Grandmother Spider Stole the Sun.”

“I knew that I wanted to adapt an oral history story, so that’s where I started,” said Hennigan, who is Cherokee herself. “I read lots and lots of them, but I ended up coming back to a story that I had actually known for my whole life, that I had heard as a child.”

The legend is about a time for the Cherokee people before there was light. The sun is stuck on the other side of the world, and everyone is in darkness. Various attempts are made to retrieve the sun, but ultimately, it is the grandmother spider who succeeds.

“I wanted to take that idea and throw it on its head,” Hennigan said. “So my version is environmentally driven. It explores the idea of what happens to us if we force ourselves back into that situation, if we do so much harm to this planet that we don’t have any light left.”

In Hennigan’s version, every day has only 10 minutes of light, and people are being sent out into the darkness to try to find ways to survive. One of them, the main character, has an ancestral connection to the land and is able to communicate with beings out in the darkness.

“It’s hard to put a genre on it,” Hennigan said. “Technically, it’s most like a post-apocalyptic sci-fi.”

The film premiered last fall at the First Nations Film and Video Festival in Chicago and will screen in a block of Native American shorts at the Phoenix Film Festival in early April. Hennigan has gone out of her way to find, and submit to, festivals that highlight works by indigenous peoples.

“Finding native festivals can be difficult in general, because they tend to be small and underfunded, and a lot of them are new, so they’re not as visible,” Hennigan said.

“But the Maori people have a recent history of being one of the most powerful in terms of reclaiming their agency in New Zealand, and this festival has basically done the same thing.”

The Maoriland Film festival seemed like a good fit for the film, Hennigan said.

“The impetus for their festival is recognizing similarities among all indigenous cultures and the importance of our voices being heard everywhere – but also amongst each other, because it’s really difficult around the globe to build that sense of community, and art is an easy pathway to do that,” she said.

“This festival celebrates the idea of an international indigeneity, and my movie is about the whole planet.”

Hennigan was a bit coy when asked what her screening at this festival might mean for the future of the film, but she did note that a filmmaker who screened at a previous festival had gone through the Sundance Institute’s Native Filmmakers Lab Fellowship and gotten a feature made.

“The No. 1 question I get asked about this film after people see it is, ‘What happens next?'” Hennigan said. “A lot of people have viewed it as a pilot. I didn’t necessarily make it with that intention, but I did know that it was the beginning of a story.

“I’m holding back a little bit on deciding final distribution.”

Distribution options may present themselves in greater number and variety after Hennigan’s recent experience at the prestigious South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, where the film “I Am Mackenzie,” on which Hennigan served as cinematographer, took home the Texas Shorts Jury Prize.

In the meantime, Hennigan will continue to work on new projects while teaching cinematography, sound design and editing in the Ole Miss film production program. Alan Arrivée, associate professor of film production and the head of the film production emphasis, noted what an achievement this is, and what a boon to the fledgling film program.

“It doesn’t get much more exciting than to hear that a film colleague is going to have her film shown on the other side of the globe and be there to see the audience react to it,” Arrivée said. “We’ve always made it our goal to become more international, but I wasn’t expecting this level of international to happen so soon.”

By Katherine Stewart

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