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"Bella Vista" film producers cast local talent

By Lailani Upham

Bella Vista film writer, producer and director Vera Brunner-Sung asks each prospective actor/actress how the role made them feel and for feedback and insight of how they would say or do anything different. (Lailani Upham photo) Bella Vista film writer, producer and director Vera Brunner-Sung asks each prospective actor/actress how the role made them feel and for feedback and insight of how they would say or do anything different. (Lailani Upham photo)

POLSON — The magnificence landscape of the Missoula and Mission Valley linked with it’s history is the background to a storyline of a young lady who is at a crossroads of adapting and belonging in an upcoming local, independent film called Bella Vista.

Vera Brunner-Sung, writer, director and producer of the film defines “Bella Vista” from her interest in how people identify their connection to a “place.”

Brunner-Sung says her interest lies in “invisible histories” — the way the past informs the present and the journey of timeless, psychic connection a people develops with “landscape.”

“Bella Vista takes its title from the name given the Missoula Valley by Italians interned with Japanese Issei during World War II. It is a quiet, deeply realist film, with the local landscape at its center.”

She says the long, static takes on the film communicates the steadiness of the terrain and transience of its inhabitants.

This past weekend auditions were cast in Polson and Missoula for two roles in the film for a forty-year old or older Native male or female; a 30 - 40 year-old, “medium/athletic built” white male; and an over fifty white male, “friendly and outgoing.”

Almost a dozen local aspiring actors and actresses tried out for the roles.

Dave Weingart, a Pablo resident was selected for the 50 and over Caucasian male; and Char-Koosta Editor Sam Sandoval was selected for the over 40 Native role.

Brooke Swaney, Belle Vista assistant director, closely listens to the auditions as Polson High School student and volunteer, Sharidan Russell reads through the script with the tryouts. (Lailani Upham photo) Brooke Swaney, Belle Vista assistant director, closely listens to the auditions as Polson High School student and volunteer, Sharidan Russell reads through the script with the tryouts. (Lailani Upham photo)

Film Producer, Brunner-Sung was raised in Michigan where her parents met. Her father from Korea and mother from Switzerland are first generation immigrants to the United States. “The story is inspired by my personal — and generational — experience of transition and economic limbo. Displacement, both individual and historic, is a central theme. How does the past inform the present? How do outsiders become insiders? Set over the transition of winter to spring, the film is also about renewal, echoing a profound history of crisis, movement, and adaptation in the American West.”

The film was written in December of 2011, shortly after Brunner-Sung arrived in Missoula. Currently, she is an adjacent professor teaching film making at the University of Montana.

“It is my first project. I have never wrote a script, but I knew I had to make it right away, and do it while it is still real to me.”

Brunner-Sung’s films and videos have been presented at the Torino Film Festival, CPH:DOX, San Francisco International Film Festival, Images Festival, the Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival, and Los Angeles Filmforum. Her writing has appeared in “Sight & Sound, Moving Image Source, Cinema Scope, Senses of Cinema, and Art Lies.”

She has lectured in Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego, and Media Arts at the University of Montana. She received an M.F.A. in Film/Video from the California Institute of the Arts. “Bella Vista” is her first feature.

Brooke Swaney, Blackfeet member and Salish, is co-producer and assistant director for “Bella Vista.”

Matt Friedlander takes a look at his lines while volunteer Sharidan Russell reads the lines of “Doris,” the main character in the film. (Lailani Upham photos) Matt Friedlander takes a look at his lines while volunteer Sharidan Russell reads the lines of “Doris,” the main character in the film. (Lailani Upham photos)

Swaney grew up on the Flathead Reservation. She graduated from Stanford University and wrote a psychology honors thesis on the media’s effect on American Indians. Swaney linked her research to artistically in her first film called, “The Indigenoid,” that shows a young Native man awakening to the Native stereotypes in everyday life. The film was nominated for Best Live Short at the 2005 American Indian Film Festival. While on the East Coast, Swaney produced short films in the graduate film program at New York University.

“I’m a big supporter of local filmmaking that is well thought out and has an artistic point of view. This is cinema we’re making,” Swaney stated.

Swaney said when she first read the script, she appreciated that it wasn’t a traditional narrative.

“Vera wrote a very realist film, about a woman that I could relate to, even though I am from here and she is not. I think we all experience feeling like an outsider at some point.”

Swaney graduated in 2011 with a MFA with film called, “Ok Breathe Auralee” as her thesis. It screened at the ImagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Fest that same year, and last year at the Sundance Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. It was named as a finalist at the NBC Universal Short Cuts Film Festival where Kendra Mylnechuk, the lead actor, won Best Actor.

Since then Swaney returned home to Montana to write and work on her first feature, along with other projects, with the most recent being, “Bella Vista.”

Tawna Bradford runs through the script a second time taking the role in her own approach at the request of director Vera Brunner-Sung. (Lailani Upham photo) Tawna Bradford runs through the script a second time taking the role in her own approach at the request of director Vera Brunner-Sung. (Lailani Upham photo)

Swaney said one scene she is particularly pleased with is adding her ideas to a part where the main character, “Doris” has a conversation with a local on the Rez, played by Sandoval. “It’s come a long way and I’m proud of the scene.”

Swaney is presently a Native Fellow and a Time Warner Fellow with the Sundance Institute.

Producer of the film, Jeri Rafter, also raised in Montana is an experienced in design and production of filmmaking.

Rafter worked on feature films from Montana directors and producers, Alex and Andrew Smith, to worldwide producer Cannes winner Arnaud Depleschin.

She holds an M.F.A. in Media Arts from the University of Montana.

Rafter was assistant producer with Megan Ellison, who is known as “Hollywood’s most powerful new force,” producing “True Grit, and The Master.”

Rafter says this is where she gained experience in casting and post-production accounting. She has had a hand in every part of production and worked alongside costume designer David C. Robinson (Zoolander, Donnie Brasco).

Rafter’s approach to her film and design is based in research, anthropology and reality. Her interest is in small, local, Montana issues. Most recently, she worked at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival as videographer.

Rafter says she believes that the west is full of compelling and intriguing voices that need to be heard.

“Being a fifth generation Montanan I love to see new takes on the story of the American West. Bella Vista puts the ‘stranger coming to town’ story on it’s head and really reinvents the tale. Vera Brunner-Sung’s aesthetic is understated and beautiful. Her focus on landscape and internal drama will make this film a truly cinematic experience.”

Brunner-Sung explains the setting of Bella Vista, it is in the dead of winter in the valley of Missoula. “Doris” the main character is at a junction in her life after returning to the U.S. from years of teaching English abroad. She has taken a job at a local university. Her class is a small group of international students and is great at it, yet, feels there is no stability to her part-time position. Repeated phone calls form a student loan collector adds to her anxiety.

Sam Sandoval brings the role to life with a touch of personal knowledge. Sandoval landed the role for the Native male in the film. “Our Polson casting was very successful! And I’m really excited about Sam, he nailed it,” stated Jeri Rafter, film producer. (Lailani Upham) Sam Sandoval brings the role to life with a touch of personal knowledge. Sandoval landed the role for the Native male in the film. “Our Polson casting was very successful! And I’m really excited about Sam, he nailed it,” stated Jeri Rafter, film producer. (Lailani Upham)

Brunner-Sung goes on to tell the storyline, “At home in the classroom, Doris connects easily with her students. But outside she is alienated, unable to form meaningful connections. She enjoys the privileges of being a stranger — entertaining herself by observing and eavesdropping on the locals — but loneliness is creeping. Eerily, the topics of the lessons she assigns begin to resonate personally: transitions, rites of passage, marriage, family, work, and death.”

“Doris wanders, finding solace in the landscape. She comes across clues to a recent history of displaced persons: an old photograph of an Indian camp, a row of Japanese graves in the local cemetery. And she is haunted by an encounter with a young boy, who lives in a motel on the edge of town. As winter begins to thaw, Doris and her students must consider the complexities of adapting and belonging. What if home is no longer a place, but just an idea? Could you lose yourself completely? The next decision they make will redefine not only their lives, but, their very identities.”

Bruner-Sung says the film is about not only about landscape and history but it prompts the question, “What does it mean to be from somewhere?” And raises the other question, “What meaning does a place have when you are not from there?”

According to Brunner-Sung, the film attempts to draw or show an experience of misplacement due to economic and political reasons.

“And we can’t talk about those things without the Native American history and land rights.”

“I loved that Vera wanted to talk about the history of displacement in the area. It’s something that people don’t always think about, the Japanese internment camps and the forced march of the Salish,” said Swaney.

The next shooting of the film will be in Polson and Missoula beginning March 29.

To follow the progress of “Bella Vista” visit the website at www.bellavistafilm.com or like their page on Facebook at “Bella Vista, a film by Vera Brunner-Sung”.

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