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MIFF centerpiece “American Thief” offers timely view of American political system

At a time when the United States is experiencing so much uncertainty with a global

pandemic, the ongoing protests against systemic racism and an upcoming presidential

election, the film “American Thief” could not be more relevant.

Written by Miguel Silveira, Michel Stolnicki and Missy Hernandez, the film, described as a

“documentary-narrative hybrid,” will serve as the centerpiece for the 23rd annual Maine

International Film Festival. The film will premiere Saturday at 8:45 p.m. at the Skowhegan

Drive-In Theatre.

The film follows two teenage hackers: Diop, played by Khadim Diop, who is determined to

expose government surveillance programs, and Toncruz, played by Xisko Maximo Monroe,

who wants to avenge his father’s murder by using technology.

As Diop’s and Toncruz’s stories unfold, the audience is introduced to Paul Hunter, played by

Ben Becher, a video blogger who shares his political conspiracy theories with his internet

viewers, and Josephine, played by Josefina Scaro, an artificial intelligence programmer.

Silveira, Stolnicki and Hernandez, who met while studying film at Columbia University,

originally set out to make a fictional thriller.

“It started off as a fiction film about a teenager hacker who was trying to utilize his skills as a

hacker to seek revenge on the person who murdered his father, and in the process gets

contacted by some dark web, mysterious forces, characters that pull him into some dark

situations,” Hernandez said, “and that was the premise that we started with.”

But as events unfolded in the American political system between 2015 and 2020, the story

began to shift. “This film is a fiction-hybrid documentary about many things, but it takes place between 2015 and 2020 in the United States,” Silveira said. “And it documents what took place in the country during this time period according to how we were able to observe it.”

Stolnicki said the inspiration for the original fictional story line was the conversation around

cyber security that was happening in 2015 in the wake of the 2013 release of classified national security documents by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

“The film began focusing on the cyber security conversation,” Stolnicki said. “At that time it

became evident to society how cyber security has been working for so many years so that was the starting point.”

The film began to integrate elements of documentary-style storytelling once the Black Lives

Matter movement began to pick up prominence. “In the midst of this was the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015,” Hernandez said. “The (main) character is a Black teenager whose father was murdered by a police officer in New York City. We had our characters participate in the marches and the rallies because if it were a true story, that person, that character would absolutely be a part of that movement …”

The Black Lives Matter movement was formed by activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and

Opal Tometi in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a Florida man who shot and

killed Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager, in February 2012.

“The Black Lives Matter movement connected very organically to our story,” Stolnicki said.

“For us it was about being artists and being there. It wasn’t necessarily focused on the Black

Lives Matter movement. We were just there documenting what was going on and that’s why

it’s so organic.”

The film was shot in and around New York City, and the filmmakers used their locations to

interview passersby to add to the hybrid-style of the movie.

“Shooting in New York City, a lot of the time you’ll get interrupted,” Hernandez said. “And

instead of brushing people away, we turned the camera on them and asked if they wanted to

say something to the camera, and sometimes they did. That’s what adds this other

documentary element where we’re not interviewing experts of any kind. It’s interviews with

people who just wanted to say something and be heard.”

As the production progressed, Silveira, Hernandez and Stolnicki decided that the climax of

the film would be the 2016 presidential election. “What changed after we started this was the world. The world kept getting more interesting,” Silveira said. “This was before the candidates were announced and the thought of ‘American Thief’ came before Trump was announced … Things just unfolded and we just kept following the story of what was happening politically and historically in the United States.”

Silveira said that in addition to the real life political climate, the characters and the actors who portrayed them drove the direction of the story. “The role of the characters and the actors who played them is instrumental,” Silveira said. “I just want to emphasize that working with the principal four actors and the minor character we chose was basically the center point of how the story became physical for us to tell.” Although the direction of the film was always open ended, Becher said there was a comfort in the uncertainty.

“The truth about the making of this project is that we had no idea what we were doing,”

Becher said. “In the beginning, and the middle, and even once we got to the end, it changed.

Looking back on it now, I perceive it as a really good thing because there was so much trust

throughout the process … collective trust in that what we’re doing, and we knew we’d all go

on this journey wherever it would lead us.”

For Scaro, the most striking thing about viewing “American Thief” is the way the film

blended reality and fiction. “The mix that the film creates, I got so uncomfortable, but watching it now, I realize that those are my best moments,” Scaro said. “Uncomfortable in the sense of having to figure out, OK, what is a documentary and what is fiction? As a viewer we need to put a title on things, and I remember the first time I watched the film I was unsettled not knowing, but now I think the best part of the film is that intersection, that blurry part.” The film was chosen as the centerpiece for the Maine International Film Festival after

program director Ken Eisen watched it in February. Eisen said he was blown away by the film and knew immediately that the festival would incorporate it into its program.

Adding to the timeliness of the film, this year’s MIFF is dedicated to people who have lost

their lives due to racist violence, including George Floyd, the 46-year-old black man who died May 26 while in police custody in Minneapolis. MIFF’s programming was not altered to fit this dedication, but the program does place an emphasis on Black filmmakers. All donations made to MIFF this year will be given to the Black Public Media’s COVID-19

Emergency Relief Fund. Black Public Media, formerly known as the National Black Programming Consortium, is an organization that develops, produces, funds and distributes media content about the African American and global Black experience. Advertisement

The makers of “American Thief” want the film to generate conversations among viewers.

“It’s super important to me that this film, once watched, forces folks to look at news and the

political process in a completely different lens,” Silveira said. “That’s my intention, for people

to understand that this film is about breaking and reconstructing the way in which we think

about all of these things.” Hernandez said that although the film touches on these issues of racist violence, cyber security and political turmoil, it doesn’t provide a concrete answer on how to fix them.

Instead, the film acts as a way to change the discussion around these issues to hopefully create positive change. “This film is ultimately about creating a conversation, creating a dialogue,” Stolnicki said. “So we’re here in Maine to do exactly that, to show our film and talk to people.” Silveira, Stolnicki, Hernandez, Becher and Scaro will be at Saturday’s screening.

“We’re so grateful to be here in Maine showing our film at the drive-in,” Silveira said. “After

five years of work, we just want to see it out there … it’s a mix of relief, excitement, happiness… it’s just an incredible honor.”

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