For Virgin Islanders who survived the 2017 back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes often referred to by the portmanteau “IrMaria,” life after the deadly storms will never be the same.
But for many in the U.S. mainland and beyond, the storms registered as barely a blip on the proverbial radar — lost in a litany of breaking news alerts about deadly wildfires, storms in Florida and Texas, police brutality and mass shootings.
The lack of attention on the deadly hurricanes was so troubling to two students at Savannah College of Art and Design — 21-year-olds Christopher Lawrence and Aariyah Athanase — that the Ivanna Eudora Kean High School graduates teamed up to pitch a short film about the storms for their senior film project.
Out of more than 100 pitches, only 30 ideas were chosen to be produced by groups of seniors over the course of their final year, including “IrMaria,” a film with a 4-minute, 42-second running time that Lawrence and Athanase are screening with their fellow student filmmakers in Atlanta, Ga.
“We pitched this way back at the beginning of 2018 and no one really knew about the storms. At least, anyone up here,” said Athanase. “That kind of upset us that no one really knew about the storms unless they were affected by them personally, so we wanted to kind of make this piece to create an experience for people who hadn’t experienced the hurricane themselves, or hurricanes in general.”
Athanase designed the film and Lawrence directed, and they worked with a group of other students to develop characters, create a storyline and animate the piece, which centers around a 5-year-old girl named Mia and her mother Kierra.
“Basically, we just follow this family’s experience through the storm and how they handle it,” Athanase said.
A St. Johnian, Athanase was on the mainland when the hurricanes hit, but Lawrence was home with family on St. Thomas, and missed months of school because the airport was decimated and he couldn’t fly back to Savannah.
“I would say it’s a very surreal experience, and I only say that because when you have a force of nature that is so powerful that you can’t control — you don’t have any control over your life — it puts you in a very weird state,” Lawrence said.
“At that point, from what I experienced, I wasn’t thinking about school, I wasn’t thinking about any extra stuff that was around my life, it was just, ‘Is me and my family going to be safe?’ I just want to make sure that we’re alive at that point,” Lawrence said. “So, it just becomes a matter of survival, and that’s how I felt going through the storm.”
Athanase said it was difficult to watch from afar and worry about friends and family back home.
“I was in Orlando and I remember on the news the only places that were really getting any coverage were in Florida, and I remember them saying that Irma was about to hit the U.S. And I just remember feeling so enraged because it already hit the U.S. Obviously, it wasn’t the U.S. mainland, but you know, the islands. And there was zero coverage on that, except for like, small outlets,” Athanase said.
Lawrence and Athanase used their own experiences enduring the hurricanes to inform Mia and Kierra’s story, and used the storm to symbolize an underlying theme — the loss of innocence.
“No matter how much your parents try to hide you away from the real world, there’s nothing you can do to stop the real world from getting to your child,” Lawrence said. “Throughout the film, Mia has to learn to go from innocence to maturity in a very short span of time. She has to learn through the film to gain courage to do for her mother what her mother did for her at one point in time.”
Lawrence drew on the experience of another young girl in his life, Zaniayah Monsanto, who’s “like my adopted niece,” and whose father told Lawrence she was happy and playful throughout the storm while her grandmother “was praying in the closet that the roof don’t rip off,” he said. “That’s where I kind of got the idea, from innocence to maturity.”
He also thought about his little sister who “was super scared throughout the entire storms, and even though I was scared myself, I had to be strong for her, you know what I’m saying? I had to kind of become a confident person in order for her to feel more at ease, even though I was just as scared at her at certain points.”
Athanase said that she wanted Mia and her mother to “represent what a typical household might look like in the Virgin Islands, which is sadly a single-parent household. And both Mia and Christopher have that experience of just being in a home alone with just a single mom.”
Lawrence said it was important to him and Athanase that the film represented Virgin Islanders’ authentic story on the big screen.
“Animation in itself is a subculture and we’re a minority in a subculture — so we’re even more misrepresented in animation than in popular films,” said Lawrence.
“When I looked around and I saw all the stories and films that my other friends were making, there weren’t really people that look like me and talk like me. And I feel like it’s a story that no one else has ever told, especially in the states where I live right now. I think representation is a big thing, and I think it lends itself to the types of stories that people have never heard before, and I think by helping them understand the things we go through, they’ll be more eager to hear different stories from us.”
Athanase and Lawrence said they’re submitting the film to various festivals and competitions, which means that for now, they’re limited in where and when they can screen it publicly.
But they’re hoping to bring their work home to the Virgin Islands soon so the rest of the community can see it for themselves — something that Lawrence said is invaluable to inspiring the next generation of young artists who may not realize animation is even a viable career option.
In high school, two Savannah College of Art and Design film students visited one of his classes and screened a project they’d been working on, Lawrence said, sparking in him a dream to be an animator that “never even occurred to me” before then.
“I think people back home need more options,” Lawrence said. “There’s people who express themselves in a more artistic way, and I think it’ll make a lot of kids back home realize what they really want to do.”