When tragedy strikes, what happens to a place and its people after the news vans have packed up and the stories have been broadcast? This question is the central inspiration for new, indie film Up There. The film follows journalist Jack on assignment to the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan, tasked with writing a story about the evolution of an iron mine town. He instead finds Emma Ellis (which, she tells him, “rhymes with overzealous”), a young woman overflowing with nervous energy who dreams of becoming a writer herself. The story includes some familiar tropes (city slicker out of place in small-town America, an overprotective, violent older brother, and a lead woman who flirts with manic-pixie-dreamgirl territory), but ultimately find its own voice and perspective on the gun violence that is gripping our nation.
The most interesting thing about the film, however, is its authentic, homegrown origins. Couple Daniel Weingarten and Zoe Kanters with friend Michael Blaustein (all three are Jewish!) are the driving forces behind the film and returned to Kanters’ hometown in the UP to create it. Inspired by a shooting that took place during her high school years, Kanters was eager to tell a story about a community struggling to help its members process and move forward from tragedy. In a post-show Q&A at the Twin Cities Film Festival on October 23, Kanters shared that “in a town such as this, mental health resources are so limited and were not ready to handle” the trauma, especially the trauma experienced by the younger members of the community.
“People really wanted us to move on from what happened and that was really hard for my peers and myself,” said Kanters. “So what happens when you can’t move on or don’t want to move on?”
It is Kanters’ personal experience that colored the development and writing of the script, a task shared by all three main collaborators and what pulled them to Michigan for filming. “There was no other place I could have done it, but home,” said Kanters. “My mom cooked for us…and the businesses opened their doors for us at no charge…The film would not have happened without the community.” That integration between artist and locale, including casting locals as locals, creates a special “je ne sais quois” and lends credibility to the piece as a whole.
Up There is an authentic and charming answer to the difficult question of healing after a community tragedy. While we can never fully understand another community’s pain and trauma, the story seems fitting as we approach the one-year anniversary of the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. With commemorations planned both near and far, I can’t help but wonder exactly what does happen to a place now that the reporters have left and the stories have been told. Let Up There serve as a reminder that pain lingers well beyond the timeline of the news cycle and that we have a responsibility to our community members who are undoubtedly still healing.
Up There screened at the Twin Cities Film Festival on October 23, 2019, and will be available for purchase and rental on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play on November 12, 2019.