Moving continents is a gargantuan feat, an incremental process that takes millennia. Abstracting this process, Communication senior Olivia Peace wrote and directed the film Pangaea, exploring a young girl’s attempt to rationalize Hurricane Katrina.
The film, shot in a style of documentary filmmaking called “cinéma vérité,” is set days after the 2005 natural disaster. The 6-year-old protagonist, unnamed in the film, uses her brother’s explanation of how the continents formed from the landmass Pangaea to understand the force of nature that has unfolded in front of her.
While Peace says her film explores childhood more than it does Blackness, the story unfolds in Treme, a predominantly Black neighborhood in New Orleans.
“From the beginning,” Peace says, “I knew I wanted people of color in the forefront.”
Initially, Peace was unsure what this might look like, so she began to investigate the stories she didn’t remember seeing in the news when the hurricane hit. She thought of the children who Katrina impacted, and the fact that many of them would be around her age now.
As her vision for the movie expanded, Peace scratched her original idea of shooting on a roof in Evanston and instead set her sights on New Orleans. Most Northwestern-funded student films shoot in northern Illinois or nearby Wisconsin, but few have attempted to film nearly 1,000 miles away.
Peace approached Ethan Senser, the Communication senior who went on to produce the film, with an early idea at the beginning of this past fall. The two spent much of Fall Quarter reading about individuals impacted by the traumas of Hurricane Katrina. Peace was initially struck by how few mainstream narratives of Katrina concentrated on people’s experiences in the poorer wards in New Orleans, so she and Senser looked to the work of journalists, survivors and psychologists to create a picture of the tragedy through a child’s eyes.
“It seemed like there was a lot of media distortion,” Peace says, adding that listening to podcasts during the research process was a liberating experience. “There’s so much more than just people crying. For the first time, it felt like I was hearing a lot of personal stories.”
Once they completed their research, it became a matter of Peace and Senser working out the logistics. Moving the equipment was one of the biggest obstacles, Senser says, but he made sure the nine-student crew and the Northwestern RTVF equipment traveled safely to New Orleans. This was the first time undergraduate students had taken Northwestern’s film equipment so far away.
Although the hurricane happened more than 10 years ago, the impact on the neighborhood was still palpable when they arrived. Peace and her crew could even see water lines left on rooftops around one of the neighborhoods where they shot.
For Peace, communicating the youthful perspective was an important part of making this movie. The vitality of her lead child actress, Raeghan Keys, captured it. To further convey the lens children use when viewing the world, she includes animated scenes in the film, a vision she shares with Senser.
“You see the politics, the environment, the news – what you don’t see is what that might be like for a kid living through it, that was something we wanted to address and achieve through the film,” Senser says.
Pangaea will screen on Northwestern’s campus through Studio 22 on June 4 and Inspire Media at the end of the quarter. Peace then plans to take it on the festival circuit.
“I hope the audience can feel the love and care when we’re done,” Peace says.