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It was a chance encounter between a story and storyteller that birthed a new short film, Safe Haven, which recently earned Amri Rigby, an Academy senior, a 2018 Sundance Ignite Fellowship.
“I knew in my gut I had to make this movie,” Rigby said. “I couldn’t be the only one who heard this story. Other people need to hear it.”
Inspired by a true story, Safe Haven is a short film about Amelia Palomino*, a high school senior, struggling with depression who fights to attend college in order to break out of her family’s cycle of immobility, but risks defying her mother in the process.
The film explores mental illness, cutting, and mother-daughter conflict in a Mexican family. The story and its themes make Rigby, who is male and not Hispanic, an unlikely conduit. Yet, he knew the story was meant for him to tell. He just needed to crack the code.
“It was a hard story to unravel and I went through multiple iterations before I solved it,” Rigby said. “I was even told by a professor that I wasn’t the writer for this story, but I knew this film should never be about me. It’s about the girl who inspired this film and the people it’s supposed to reach. I was very focused on honoring her story and being culturally authentic.”
Rigby immersed himself in heavy research, interviewing Mexican families to gain a deeper understanding of cultural nuances. The film alternates between English and Spanish dialogue and yet nothing is lost in translation because the audience is tuning into emotional cues. Communication is empathetic.
“I’ll see things, hear things, I’ll pull out the core of what’s really there. I’m a subtext person,” Rigby said.
This existential problem-solving approach is not surprising as Rigby is not your typical filmmaker. He is a senior pursuing a degree in Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation at the USC Iovine and Young Academy, a program which intentionally cultivates a startup mindset and an interdisciplinary, collaborative approach to creating an impact.
“Making movies, for me, is not some overly auteur, highbrow art-house thing,” Rigby said. “Filmmaking is about uniting people under a vision and pushing a story forward as a community. It is a form of collaborative leadership. There is an art, creativity, and business to it that I’m very invested in.”
As a leader, it was important for Rigby to create an environment where actors and crew members could bring out their best selves. “I like to bring joy wherever I go.” Rigby said. “People need joy. If you don’t make an active decision to protect your joy, you’ll get robbed of it every second of every day.”
The filmmaking process, from financing to post-production, was arduous. The logistics of coordinating crew and actors, dealing with a revolving door of producers, and the possibility of the lead actor dropping out was a lot to handle, especially for a novice filmmaker.
Rigby, however, was unfazed by the natural turbulence of filmmaking. “I didn’t put so much pressure on myself because the burden was not mine,” Rigby said. “This was God’s project and it was going to happen, period.”
Call it destiny or luck, but opportunities aligned for Rigby -- access to the right people, studio equipment, and sound technicians all supported Rigby’s uncompromising vision and commitment to excellence.
“Some people thought this was going to be a tiny student film,” Rigby said. “I don’t have time for little. I’m not in the business of little.”
Rigby’s determination paid off. He was selected from over 800 global applicants to be 1 of 15 Sundance Ignite fellows. The fellowship provides him unique access to a year-long professional mentorship and an all-expense paid trip to the Sundance Film Festival.
At its core, Safe Haven, is a film about resilient hope that persists in the hard, hidden moments of life. The film, as its filmmaker, is concerned with the human dialogue of storytelling. The language it chooses is empathy.
“I’ve heard ‘you can’t do this’ so many times, but my motivation is not to prove people wrong.” Rigby said. “I believe all people are intrinsically valuable and I want to tell stories that take a slice of life that people can relate to and be inspired.”
*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.