Photo credit: Kim Berens

Ariel Vida is many things. She is a filmmaker. She is an artist. She is the founder of independent film production company Wondria Films. She is the director, screenwriter and producer of Sleep, Wake, Forget, a feature-length film, which recently wrapped filming in Muskegon.

One thing she may not be is entirely human. The challenges faced by any filmmaker are grueling, but Vida has handily and eagerly maneuvered them while simultaneously attending classes at Michigan State University.

“My sophomore year here I took film directing and I did a short film,” said Vida, now a senior. “As soon as I did that short I was kind of bitten by the bug. I said, I know I have to keep going with this.”

Vida subsequently started saving money from her four jobs and discussing screenplay ideas with professors and fellow students. Determination and a love of film have led to Sleep, Wake, Forget, her inaugural feature film. It’s a film that borrows from many genres to tell a story about universal humanity which most viewers, said Vida, are likely find some identification with.

Sleep, Wake, Forget stars Andrew Way, left, as Liam and Velizar Ionikov as Max. Photo credit: Kim Berens

When defining the “universal humanity” of the movie, family, love and loyalty are vital concepts.

“It’s about two brothers,” said Vida. “I wanted to do something to just explore the bond between these two people.”

The brothers Vida refers to are Max and Liam who, armed with unique telepathic gifts, endure a dangerous world born of modern civilization’s collapse. As the film’s only principal characters, Vida had the freedom to delve deeply into the development and complexity of the two brothers. Vida’s powerful words, however, seem to have taken a backseat to a slice of the film that has been well-publicized.

Vida and her crew shot a scene in October that garnered significant attention for its use of extras as zombies. Local Muskegon reporters bestowed the film with media coverage and in doing so labeled Sleep, Wake, Forget a zombie film. While enthusing fans of classic horror movies is great, Vida would like to be clear: this is not your average zombie movie.

“It doesn’t really fit into any sort of traditional horror category,” she said. “I have a bit of science fiction. It has the dreamlike qualities of films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Pan’s Labyrinth… intermingled with the darker nature of films like The Road.”

This unique convergence of genre works well for Vida as she explores the connections and memories between her characters through a surreal, “dreamlike” lens. In this mindset, the characteristics of the zombie are of greater importance than the mere presence of the zombie.

“Normally in zombie movies, there is no cure nor any reason to believe an individual can be saved.” But in Sleep, Wake, Forget, Vida explains, “Liam can still communicate with Max due to their gifts and that is what gives him the small hope that somehow he might be able to get his brother back.”

The pieces of Vida’s genre puzzle form a clearer picture when, after Max is “bitten”, the brothers fight desperately to preserve their relationship. Toxic bites giving rise to zombies has been done, but not from this angle. As Liam endeavors to save Max, their brotherly relationship is used as a vehicle to examine both the physical and emotional pain of a zombie transformation.

“The audience sees not only see the point of view of an infected human, but in this case, the crumbling of all of Max’s idealized memories over the years,” said Vida. “It’s just one of the ways I feel the film differs from what has been done in the genre before.”

Photo credit: Kim Berens

It is a testament to Vida’s talent that she has constructed a narrative so moving and emotional amongst zombie-like inhabitants of a futuristic dystopia. When asked, however, about the staggering feat of making a movie while attending school and working side jobs, Vida deferred most of the credit.

Sleep, Wake, Forget was blessed to have a cast and crew with positive attitudes who believed in it fully,” she said.

“I have an amazing crew,” said Vida. “I wouldn’t trade them for 50 people from Hollywood.”

Beth Berens, one of the film’s assistant directors, returns the warm feelings.

“I learned the true meaning of dedication when I met Ariel,” said Berens. “This story, these characters, mean so much to her.”

“Ariel has the ability to juggle many roles and do each role well. If she’s stressed, she doesn’t show it. She’s always smiling and laughing.”

The healthy relationships Vida created with her crew members are perhaps due in part to her willingness to learn.

“One of my favorite things about film is that it is so collaborative,” said Vida. “It’s something magical when I have this group of people with diverse talents come together.”

It is not just within film, however, that openness to collaboration is useful. MSU students, no matter their majors, can benefit from adopting Vida’s desire to best utilize the strengths of those around her.

“I would hear a song and know, oh that’s kind of what I want,” said Vida of her film’s music. “But I’m not a musician so I have my composer and she can whip something out. And I’m not a musician, but a composer will know exactly what I mean and create something beautiful. It’s just amazing to see that many different kinds of art come together.”

If people and personalities are factors in Vida’s success equation, then so is passion.

Photo credit: Kim Berens

“Some people call it passion, some people call it crazy,” laughed Vida. “I might end up in complete abject poverty making little indie films, but with how excited it makes me and how much I love it, I feel so lucky I did find what my passion is.”

It’s an outlook on life that likely leads to happiness. College classrooms are filled with students uneasy about their futures whose goal is landing any post-graduation job. Forget about that job also being fulfilling or even bearable, a massive economic recession and global uncertainty have shaped a generation of realists.

Such worries and anxieties are why campus needs an Ariel Vida, a breath of fresh air and a reminder of life’s importance.

“People will be like, I’ve got a script, I’ve got an idea, I’ll do it in 10 years, I’ll do it in 15 years when the cards are right,” said Vida. “I don’t know what the future holds. I have no idea. So I just said, I’m going to try it now. I don’t want to have regrets.”

Vida isn’t exactly on the fast track toward regret. She has accomplished more before leaving school than many people accomplish in a lifetime, but remains unfazed by her successes.

“I just want audiences to have fun,” Vida said of Sleep, Wake, Forget. “If it can make people happy that’s what I want, for audiences to really enjoy it the way I enjoy films.”

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