April 12, 2016

Alumnus Brings Timeless Orwell Essay to the Screen

By Peanut Alvarez-Mena

SCA alumnus and director Juan Pablo Rothie is taking his first project to the Tribeca Film Festival this week: a short film titled Shooting An Elephant. Inspired by George Orwell’s timeless essay about colonialism and violence during times of pressure, Venezuelan-born Rothie brings Orwell’s words to life with an 11-minute short that captures the beauty of the story’s Burmese setting.

Rothie spent his teenage years living in India and the Philippines and shot the film in Nepal. He used his unique appreciation for those countries and their cultures to inspire his representation of Orwell’s description of what was then colonial Burma. “Growing up in third world countries and experiencing the kind of life Orwell describes in his stories gave me an understanding of the fragmented experience people face when they are outsiders in a world they don’t belong to,” says the 2009 alumnus. An Orwell fan while growing up, Rothie could not believe someone had not already translated this piece into film. After playing professional squash for a few years after graduating from the Bryan Singer Division of Cinema & Media Studies, Rothie knew he wanted to use this inspired read as his first project.

It took Rothie about a year of reaching out to various contacts in order to secure the rights to the essay. He finally connected with both Orwell’s Estate and son, Richard Blair, who were extremely receptive of the film. “They were both extremely supportive but also protective of the work; they had very strict guidelines on what could and could not be done,” says Rothie. “We luckily had similar artistic interest in the project. It was restricted but gave me certain parameters that finally allowed me to make the film.”

When Rothie realized the film was too big to take on alone, he reached out to Oscar-nominated writer Alec Sokolow (Toy Story, Garfield: The Movie), whom he had done research for throughout college and had kept in touch with ever since. Sokolow shared a similar passion for the Orwell story, which some scholars believe is based on Orwell’s own experiences in Burma (now known as Myanmar), and the two became partners in re-creating the writer’s account.  

They began production in May of 2014 with Barry Sloanne (Revenge, The Whispers) playing the young-Orwell character, and a fifteen-foot elephant to play his antagonist. Rothie and his team anticipated an eight-day production schedule, but were limited to only three and a half days of shooting due to bad weather. Between using a production crew of predominantly local Nepalese, working in a rural area that had never been documented, and casting an elephant as his main character, Rothie’s experience was truly beyond anything he could have anticipated.  “It was a huge learning experience for me on how to make movies,” he says. “It’s not necessarily what you want to do, but (a lesson in) working with the tools you have.” While Rothie and his cinematographer had a prior understanding of working in the developing world, it was uncharted territory for their lead actor. Rothie says the unfamiliar location made Sloanne’s performance raw, encompassing the emotion and integrity of Orwell’s original piece. “He was acting what he was experiencing; he had actually become the outsider to a foreign place.”

The production was a microcosm of the world of the story and the cultural interactions that intrigued Rothie in the first place. He believes Orwell’s story, in which an English police officer vacillates between saving a rampaging elephant and saving face, is enduring and relatable because it questions the compromising positions humans constantly find themselves in, and the impulses they follow to avoid looking foolish. “Throughout the entire process of making the movie, I felt like this character in many ways; I was horribly frightened of being humiliated and would do anything to avoid it.” While the piece is originally set during a time of colonialism, Rothie says it can easily be translated and applied to “any time egos are in the way and people feel the need to use violence as a solution.”

Rothie and Sokolow are excited to debut Shooting An Elephant at Tribeca, having screened it at smaller film festivals like the Savannah Film Festival, where it won Best Historical Short. The duo has already begun working on their next project together, which they hope to pitch during their time in New York. Rothie is humbled and grateful for the success of this film that started with a risky idea he only dreamed of accomplishing. “Tribeca is the perfect platform for our film,” says the director. “Their stories really call to me and Alec, and I have been charged to bring our story there from the start.”

Shooting An Elephant makes its Tribeca debut on Saturday, April 16 at 5:45 pm.

The School of Cinematic Arts will be well represented at the Festival. Another short, a road-trip film called Girl Band, was written, directed, and produced by Kerry Furrh and Cailin Lowry, who both graduated from Film & Television Production in 2014, and by Olivia Mitchell, who graduated from the Thornton School of Music with a Cinematic Arts minor. Lowry also edited the film. Betting on Zero is SCA Professor Ted Braun’s documentary about the fight between hedge fund titan Bill Ackman and the global nutritional company Herbalife.

Other projects with SCA representation include:

The Loner — directed by Daniel Grove ‘12 and edited by Brian Scofield ’11 (both MFA Production)

Dean — producer and production manager Gil Marsden ’12 (MFA Production)

King Cobra — Shaun Sanghani ‘05 (MFA Writing)

Balcony — produced by Ali Mansuri ’11 (MFA Production)

Catch a Monster (or Coger Un Monstruo, it's original Spanish title)—directed by Michael Lei ’13 (BA Production)