‘We Burn Like This’

Director Alana Waksman

"We Burn Like This" | Credit: Courtesy

Macro- and micro-aggressions against Indigenous and Jewish people pop up throughout this dramatic feature about a young woman trying to find herself in Billings and Butte, Montana. Partying and parenting issues form the moral backdrop, with troubling revelations emerging by the end. 

Filmmaker Alana Waksman recently answered some questions via email.

How did you develop this story? 

This film has been a six-plus-year process. I made a short film called Cheyenne Is Burning when I was in the graduate production program at USC School of Cinematic Arts. I decided I wanted to expand it into a feature film. 

The story I had set in Montana, with my own ideas of what Montana was like, perhaps coming from when I was young — I used to be penpals with my cousin who grew up in Butte, Montana. I started writing, and I realized I knew nothing about what I was writing about, so I convinced a friend to join me and road trip up to Montana for a couple weeks. 

Montana was such a different and unique place, I felt like I needed much more time. I moved there in 2014 with the goal to write a film and come back to L.A. in about a year. The film originally centered on a Northern Cheyenne young woman (named Cheyenne) who was navigating historical trauma and searching for belonging, healing, and self-acceptance. I developed meaningful friendships within the Native community in Montana, and time passed as I experienced life with my friends, had many important conversations with folks in the community, and developed my story. 

The more I learned, the more self-aware I became as an outsider telling this story with an indigenous lead character. A few years into the process, I stopped, and then eventually restarted my script. I wrote it from a personal perspective, from the perspective of a Jewish young woman, which I had started to think about differently. 

I had never thought much about the fact that my grandparents survived the Holocaust, but now I was thinking about it. I was also thinking about it in light of 2016, and how the day after the presidential election, neo-Nazi flyers showed up on the steps of Har Shalom Synagogue in Missoula, where I was living at the time. 

Our producer Jeri Rafter is a fifth-generation Montanan, and our producer/editor Marshall Granger grew up as a Jewish kid in Billings, Montana, where he was bullied for being Jewish. Their experiences and knowledge of Montana greatly influenced the development of what the film is today. 

The concept of micro-aggression is very front-and-center right now, and your film manages to capture so many of them in a narrative way. (Plus some macro-aggressions.) Was that intentional? 

Yes, micro- and macro-aggressions were very intentional. I wanted to show the internal state of Rae, the main character, and how these small and large aggressions pile up to a place of overwhelm. 

Her inner world is reflected by her outer world. We first see the way her outer world does not accept her, and it is mirroring the way she doesn’t accept herself, which she later has to face. 

We also see the ways her best friend, who is indigenous, is not accepted in her environment, which is a parallel story and should be very enraging, given that no one belongs there more than her as an indigenous person native to those lands. We also see the way even her ex-boyfriend displays micro-aggressions, or the new boyfriend of her mother. 

Even though those characters mean well, they do not land well for the character. Many of these micro- and macro-aggressions have been either my experience, or from experiences of people I know. 

Given the rise of neo-Nazo and alt-right groups today, it seems like we aren’t so far from the sentiments that led to the Holocaust. Are we just caught in a cycle, or can we overcome this social hate?

Yes, it is very frightening and eye-opening. I do hope that things will not get as bad as that, but we have to stay vigilant and keep bringing awareness and resistance to any hate showing itself towards any group. 

Right now there is such a huge spike in hate directed toward Asian-Americans, and we all need to be great allies and support systems for each other and disrupt anything we see — whether it’s in person, online, with family members, friends. Now is not a time to be complicit by being silent. 

What do you hope audiences take away from the film? 

I hope my film can spur these important conversations like the one we are having right now. I hope audiences will walk away thinking about what it’s like to be Jewish in America, and perspective on the history many Jewish people come from. I hope audiences will reflect on any hatred we see directed at any group, and be attentive and be ready to be a good ally for each other. 

For anyone who identifies with the main character, Rae, I hope you will feel less alone. She is in a challenging moment in her life, and she makes choices that are hard to look at. I hope that the parts of ourselves that we may judge the way we judge Rae can have more understanding and compassion, both for ourselves and for each other. I hope this film can help us talk about how to heal our pain, both individually and collectively, and therefore be a part of the process.

See weburnlikethis.com.


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