NYWIFT Blog

NYWIFT at Sundance: In Conversation with Liz Sargent

By Katie Chambers

In the 2023 Sundance Film Festival short film Take Me Home, a cognitively disabled woman and her estranged sister must learn to communicate in order to move forward after their mother’s death. It captures of a moment of terror experienced by so many siblings of those with disabilities, when they are suddenly responsible for making a plan for a loved one who cannot live on their own, potentially upending both their lives as they also work through their grief.

For writer and director Liz Sargent, the story hits close to home. And she cast her own mother and younger sister to play versions of themselves.

NYWIFT Sargent is a Korean-American adoptee whose award-winning work explores themes of adoption, disability, and family. As a writer-director, she incorporates her background as a choreographer into visual storytelling that channels complex human emotions that are an extension of her experience as the middle child of eleven and recognize her intersectional identity as an adult.

She spoke to us about finding support in her identity as a sibling guardian, beautiful moments working on set with her family, and her joyous Sundance experience.

 

NYWIFT Member Liz Sargent

 

Congratulations on your Sundance 2023 screening! What does inclusion in Sundance mean to you? And how did you enjoy your time at the festival? 

From the moment the announcement was made I could feel a shift in my career. Sundance shines a light on new voices and that recognition has already helped create opportunities and new relationships.

I love how the cold creates a camaraderie and casualness to the festival – there’s no better way to meet an exec than in a snowsuit shivering in line for an overbooked party! 

 

How did Take Me Home come about? 

I used to feel so alone in fear for my sister Anna’s future living situation. It’s a conversation my parents never wanted to have, they didn’t want their children to feel that stress, responsibility, or burden. I wanted to make a documentary to unravel this conversation, and that research led me to organizations like the Sibling Leadership Network, SibNet (on Facebook), and Don Meyer’s book The Sibling Survival Guide.

Being in these candid conversations was a defining moment for me – it was a part of my identity I never knew defined me. I realized that disability in a broad sense: mental illness, aging and intellectual/developmental, isn’t talked about enough. But as I discussed these ideas, I realized more and more people were feeling the same loneliness and anxiety I felt. And it is important for me to unpack these ideas through film. 

But really it wasn’t possible till we had the support of the Julia S Gouw Short Film Challenge. With this first bulk of money and a mentorship with Janet Yang Productions and CAPE, I felt a new energy to push forward, and a team. It felt possible. These incredible women protected the story and have helped create relationships, additional financing and have been a key part of building a community so that I can continue to make work. Having a great story is only half the job! 

 

Anna Sargent appears in Take Me Home by Liz Sargent, an official selection of the Shorts program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Film Gate Still.)

 

Your mother Joan and sister Anna both play versions of themselves in the film. They did a wonderful job – your sister in particular is called on to show a lot of nuance, and she carries the heart and soul of the story. Why did you decide to cast them? What were some of the challenges, and joys, of directing your own family? 

I always knew I wanted to cast Anna to play herself. The film was written for her because I wanted to be specific about a disability without defining her disability. And in that sense, I couldn’t just cast anyone with an Intellectual/Developmental Disability because each is unique, and the script would need to be re-written for their voice – their patterns of speech and ways of thinking. 

My mother was a different challenge because she had COVID right before the shoot which dropped her physical and energy level way down. Several scenes had to be adjusted because she couldn’t sit for long periods and it was dangerous for her to move too much. But the biggest challenge was that she wanted to do everything! This was one of the most exciting events of my parents’ life to be a part of a film, to offer their child their home for the location, and to have a piece of their lives seen and preserved in the world. 

It was an impossible task, but how we get through the challenges is what makes a film, right? 

 

How did you work with Jeena Yi, the professional actress playing the older sister, to develop a bond with and collaborate with Anna, especially given some of Anna’s verbal communication challenges?  

Anna is easy to fall in love with and she also loves people. So Jeena’s friendly, down-to-earth personality was an easy pairing. I always knew that the casting for Anna’s sister would be important. I needed someone who was smart and could roll with the punches. I’d seen a transcendent self-tape from Jeena years before, then met her backstage while I was working crew on a theater show. Both of these encounters were equally important to me. Jeena is a stand-up human and talented actress. 

We wanted someone who would help create a structured improv for Anna to work within and had the stamina to do repetitions while maintaining an emotional presence. Since Anna has little short-term memory, I would need to prompt lines at the beginning, then slowly pull away, and by the end, Anna would often understand the scene and hit the emotional beats with her own unique perfection.

The process became a collaboration for the entire crew including our DP Minos Papas who had to be nimble in the way we lit and shot each scene. The final edit was built around Anna’s performance, the storyline was adjusted so that we could preserve her most authentic moments. Our editor and I joked that it often felt like editing a documentary rather than a narrative. 

 

Jeena Yi and Anna Sargent appear in Take Me Home by Liz Sargent, an official selection of the Shorts program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Film Gate Still.)

 

I can’t even imagine the fraught emotions you must have felt, seeing a moment of terror and decision you might someday face yourself playing out on set and on screen, with your own loved ones in the roles. How do you as an artist practice self-care when tackling intense material? 

I think a lot of people repress their fear of death. It’s a deeply American problem that keeps us from caring for our loved ones during this transition period. 

They say that siblings of people with disabilities often have trouble with self-care. They have been raised thinking about the needs of others before their own. It’s not the fault of their families, it’s a problematic American way of thinking. Making this movie is how I multitask and balance my creativity with my love and responsibility to my family. And in that sense is it my form of self-care. It’s how I make sense of these moments and talk about the feelings surrounding them. It’s how I talk to my siblings about these moments.

During the process of writing this film I learned so much about future planning for the disabled. I became Co-Guardian for Anna. And my sister Molly Jordan has been an educator for 20 years and is now heading the educational/community outreach around our film. This is a way for us to learn and share with the community we need to build in order to help us all live independent lives. And in this way, all of our love and professions intersect. 

 

Jeena Yi, Anna Sargent, and Lisa Panagopoulos appear in Take Me Home by Liz Sargent, an official selection of the Shorts program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Film Gate Still.)

 

What were some of your favorite moments making Take Me Home

Anna is one of the coolest people I know. I have ten brothers and sisters and she is the youngest sibling. Anna has little short-term memory and has difficulty articulating herself. She is witty, stubborn, loving, and hilarious.

She generally doesn’t like new situations, but she loves people and she loves to be engaged. During this film shoot she was challenged, and I saw a clear development on the set – she was brave, confident, and by the end of it knew exactly what to do. In one of the last shots, she started the scene, then when it was over said, “Ok – that’s it.” She basically called “cut.” Anna is a boss if the world would let her be. 

One of my favorite moments was when I was taking a break with my other sister Molly (the Co-Guardian/Associate Producer and our Educational/Community Director). We were laughing in the trailer while Anna was getting her hair done. Our HMU Artist, Lera Juno, had to keep re-doing Anna’s braid. Anna could feel her frustration. So, she turned to us and said, “I’m sorry, but you two need to calm down. You are too loud, and she needs to focus and I need to center myself. I love you, but you really need to chill.” She was so direct and articulate and right.

 

It’s interesting that you have an extensive background as a choreographer. Much of this film’s forward movement – because of the nature of Anna’s disability – happens without words. How do you incorporate dance into your filmmaking process? 

Dance is about the story the body tells us in the gesture, energy, or rhythm. I think we had to use these silent moments in the edit to dictate the flow of the film. I love shapes and gestures and wish I could spend more time in these abstractions. The effects of our understanding and connection with the body are deep and unconscious. I like to look at a performance based on the authenticity in their bodies.

For this film, I took one scene and tried to do a bit of an improv instead of a traditional set up – we let go of the dialogue, created markers in the space, and then allowed the actors to adjust their spacing and lines within a series of rules. To me, it’s maybe a throwback to my dance studio days.

 

What do you hope audiences will take away from the film? 

I want the audience to feel deeply connected to Anna’s unique experience in the world. I hope it will equalize Anna, [and] make the audience think about the way we listen to people with intellectual disabilities.

I want them to realize that this world is totally insufficient and unsupportive to these families. 

That a woman with an intellectual/developmental disability can have self-agency and her quiet voice can be unique and powerful.  

 

Connect with Liz Sargent on her website sargentliz.com, on LinkedIn, and on Instagram at @lizziesarge.

PUBLISHED BY

Katie Chambers

Katie Chambers Katie Chambers is the Senior Director of Community & Public Relations at New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT). She also serves as the Communications Chair of the New Jersey State Federation of Women's Clubs and is a freelance writer and digital marketing strategist. Follow her on Twitter @KatieGChambers.

View all posts by Katie Chambers

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