‘Elsa’ gets behind the pen and sword of deafblind fencer and author￼
Short documentary screens twice at Slamdance 2023
Slamdance will screen Cameron S. Mitchell’s “Elsa” at 7 p.m., Friday, Jan. 20, in Treasure Mountain Inn’s Crescent Room, 255 Main St. A Q and A will follow.
• Slamdance will also host a second screening of “Elsa” at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 25, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
• For information, visit slamdance.com/festival#schedule
In Cameron S. Mitchell’s documentary short “Elsa,” his deaf and blind subject, Elsa Sjunneson, says she’s “loud, snarky, sarcastic and talks a lot.”
But that only scratches the tip of her iceberg because Sjunneson, as Mitchell shows in his eight-minute short film that will serve as Slamdance Film Festival’s Opening Night Premiere at 7 p.m., Friday, Jan. 20, at Treasure Mountain Inn’s Crescent Room, is also a fencer, hiker and award-winning author.
She’s the first deafblind winner of the Hugo Award and the Aurora Award, and she’s written stories in the “Assassin’s Creed,” and “The Magic: the Gathering” universe, as well as the story about Peggy Carter that appeared in Marvel Comics’ first “Women of Marvel.”
Sjunneson’s 2021 nonfiction book, “Being Seen: One Deaf and Blind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism,” won the Washington State Book Award.
“Elsa,” which is part of Slamdance’s Unstoppable program that highlights films made by filmmakers with visible and non-visible disabilities, is sort of a follow-up to Mitchell’s other films “The Co-Op” and “Regenesis,” which are narrative works highlighting people with disabilities, he said.
“The Co-Op” premiered in 2020, and the synopsis of that one is a robbers plan goes horribly awry when he realizes that the grocery store he had targeted is full of people with disabilities, while “Regenesis” is about a man who wakes up to discover he’s been given the ability to walk again through an experimental procedure. The results may or may not be wanted.
“My work has kind of always focused on outlier individuals who are forced into these worlds,” he said. “And these worlds may not say they don’t belong, but they also don’t say they do.”
Mitchell got in touch with Sjunneson through FWD-DOC, an organization founded by a group of filmmakers with disabilities.
“Co-founders Amanda Upson and Day Al-Mohamed connected me with Elsa, and I think they knew my previous works and saw an opportunity for us to take Elsa’s story and run with it in a documentary space,” he said.
Although Mitchell’s other films have been narrative fiction, he has served as director of photography and cinematographer in the documentary field.
He shot the Emmy Award-winning Netflix show “Cat People” last year, and was the D.P. on a splinter unit for “Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time,” which was released in 2021.
“So, documentaries are one of the most natural formats for me,” Mitchell said.
It also helped that Mitchell and Sjunnnneson hit it off when they first sat down to talk about making a film.
“So, when Elsa and I sat down, a chemistry and connection developed over the span of one weekend.My folks are disability study professors, and Elsa is also a disability professor,” he said.
Mitchell is also invisibly disabled.
“I have post traumatic spondylolisthesis, which is a spinal cord injury,” he said. “I’m neurodivergent, and I have sleep apnea, and these things inform my approach to when I work with disabled people, stories and scripts. In fact, my whole family is interdependent and that allows me to get deeper into these types of subjects.”
While not a filmmaker, Sjunneson writes film critiques that center around disability, according to Mitchell.
The biggest challenge for Mitchell was trying to whittle down Sjunneson’s life into a film that ran under 10 minutes, which he did after pitching the idea to PBS, where it premiered last year as “Elsa Sjunneson: Fencer, Hiker, Published Author.”
“They wanted to know what the hook was, and the big one was that she had written for Marvel,” he said. “That in one respect is an important part of the film, because it was about visibility, and being seen. And Marvel has had such a movement in the zeitgeist of film and culture right now, so someone like Elsa writing about Peggy Carter is a big moment for disabled people in general.”
That hook also proved to be one of the more challenging things to showcase, because Mitchell had to get permission from Marvel to include the comic in his film.
“We worked hard to get that, because the whole approval process with Marvel was incredibly daunting, which is as it should be,” he said.
After getting Marvel’s green light, Mitchell had to get clearance from Converse shoes.
“Elsa is so stylistic and style forward, which is great for a filmmaker like me who wants to capture details, but she has these unicorn Converse sneakers and rainbow socks she fences in,” he said. “So we had to go to Converse to get approval to show those sneakers.”
Mitchell also wanted to showcase Sjunneson’s work in designing video game controllers and other electronic devices.
“She has her own color-coordinated XBox controller, and she’s even consulted with MicroSoft on their Surface tablet,” he said. “So there was a lot to take in consideration.”
In “Elsa,” Mitchell is able to introduce these different aspects of Sjunneson’s life because of how she presents herself.
“You see a sampling in the film where it’s like she’s just talking to you personally,” he said. “. She has that effect and I wanted to capture that in the cinematography and interview we chose for the film.”
While Mitchell is happy with the outcome, he wants to do more.
“There is a lot to get into, and we would like somebody to pick us up so we could develop this film into a documentary feature,” he said. “The short film lays a great blueprint and road map for a feature.”
Mitchell plans to use Sjunneson’s book to help fill in the story.
“The chapters in her book are perfect to expand upon in a feature,” he said. “There’s one where she talks about learning how to drive a stick shift while deafblind. All I have to do is tell you that and you know that’s going to be a great vignette.”
As of now, however, Mitchell hopes viewers who see his short will come away with a deeper appreciation of people with disabilities.
“There are many things disabled people can give us as a culture, but the one thing they are really good at is being disruptors, not fitting into molds,” he said. “I think we see a lot of stories about people with disabilities that come out of Hollywood that focus on them overcoming an obstacle or how sad they can be. So, I wanted to redirect things and show how disabilities can be used as a road to creativity. I want people to come out of the film knowing who Elsa is. I want this film to be a conduit to becoming intimate with her persona.”
Mitchell is honored that Slamdance selected “Elsa” for its first in-person screening of the Unstoppable program.
“We’re incredibly excited to be the opening-night film in Park City,” he said. “This is something that Elsa echos in a natural way when she says ‘Nobody told me I couldn’t fence as a deafblind girl, but nobody told me I could.’”
Echo Church travels into the past with a Transcontinental Railroad exhibit
Tourists and residents can immerse themselves in the past through free, self-guided tours at the historic Echo Church.
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