We Are Here: A Documentary Film |  Varsity Theatre, Chapel Hill | Sept. 9, 7 p.m. 

A few days after moving from Los Angeles to Carrboro, the filmmaker Marc Levy took his kids to see Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s 2015 summer show, A Drop in the Bucket, at Chapel Hill’s Forest Theatre.

The experience changed his life.

“I’d never seen anything like it before,” he recalls. “Just coming from L.A., I thought, ‘This is an undiscovered gem. How does the world not know about this?’”

The Saxapahaw-based troupe has a longstanding emphasis on unassuming artistry that is in the service of community building and ecological activism. That creative focus stood in marked contrast to Levy’s professional experience, until then, as co-founder and co-director at The Marcs, an Emmy- and Webby-nominated media production company generating sports programming for top-shelf clients like Red Bull and the NFL.

“It seemed like this utopian experience, this ideal,” Levy recalls. Encountering the company over the next three years only reinforced his initial impressions. Paperhand, he says, seemed “to be people doing their fucking art the way they wanted to do it, in as pure a way as I have ever seen.”

Finally, Levy decided: “I wanted some of that for myself.”

Next, he convinced Paperhand co-founders Donovan Zimmerman and Jan Burger to let him and a technician document the company’s work during its most stressful time of the year: show week, the final days before presenting their 2019 production, We Are Here.

Regional audiences see the result Thursday, Sept. 9 when Levy screens his probing documentary, also named We Are Here, at Chapel Hill’s Varsity Theatre.

Levy’s crew captured the challenges every theater group faces as opening night approaches: the adrenaline-based highs of load-in and tech; the mid-rehearsal meltdowns and moments of doubt that are usually kept out of the public eye.

Existing coverage of the troupe prompted Levy to pursue another path in his documentary.

“I didn’t want to hear experts talking about their importance; I didn’t even necessarily want to get into the intricacies of each movement in the show,” he recalls. “What was interesting to me was this: Who are these people? How do they live? What’s it like being them, particularly since their themes are so life-and-death, not just on a personal level, but life on Earth: existence as we know it.”

“How do they live with that reality?” he continues, “What are their personal lives like?”

Levy’s pensive hour-long work gets at the answers in unguarded moments. In individual interviews, the director lifts up his subjects and brings into visibility their private struggles, as they come to grips with truths that are clearly very hard for them to face at times, on an individual level as well as a planetary one.

After Zimmerman goes swimming with his daughter Althea in the Haw River, Levy’s camera captures the deep, silent love and concern that a father has for his child’s future in a world in the grip of steadily increasing global warming.

It’s challenging to witness Burger losing his composure at a 2019 climate strike protest in Raleigh, as he recalls his daughter asking “What do you mean we have 11 years [to control the current climate crisis]?”

In a particularly raw, heartfelt moment, the clearcutting of old forests at developments like Chatham Mills brings long-time studio artist Gretchen Adracie to tears. We not only see but also feel it viscerally when she says that clearcutting “hits me right in my heart space.”

When asked how he gets people to explore such private moments on camera, Levy is quiet for a moment.

“They know I’m there in deep reverence for their life, quietly observing, taking it in,” he says, finally. “When you do that, you’re validating them, validating their life. You’re saying this is important to see. I’m searching for a way to understand my own life and all of our lives here. Paperhand is able to tell stories that have extremely dark themes in a way that still feels palatable. To tell the story, I had to zoom in on that darkness.”

It took Levy nearly two years to complete his film, an extended and mostly solitary foray in an editing booth as he wrestled with the story of artists struggling to tell a story of their own. Finally, he resolved to “give people what Paperhand gives me.”

“I’m a translator, a medium here,” he concludes. “I take this world, put it through the film processor I am. People will see something that they’ve never seen of Paperhand but is still of Paperhand. I think they’re going to be really surprised by what they see.” 

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