Arts & Entertainment Editor
Trigger Warning: This article contains mentions of suicide. Please read with caution.
Grief is a funny thing, and I don’t mean funny like in a humorous way. It’s not the punchline to a joke or something that brings a smile to your face. It’s funny in the way it sneaks up behind you and consumes you whole, especially if you’ve ever lost a parent. It’s a scary feeling that haunts your life until you’re unsure whether what you’re experiencing is a dream or not. Whittier ‘20 alumna Lauren Swintek captures this feeling in a beautifully eerie way in her short film Memoriam.
Memoriam is about a young woman (played by third-year Jillian Weber) mourning the loss of her mother (played by Karen Penley), who had severe Alzheimer’s at the time of her death. The film opens with the shot of a small memorial for the young woman’s mother in the middle of the desert. It then cuts to the young woman driving into an unmarked desert road, where she gets out of her car. “Dear Mom,” are the first spoken words as the young woman walks deeper into the desert. She describes how she wanted to die, even before her mother died. Then, a second voice joins in. It’s a smaller, more frail voice: the voice of her mother. Her mother’s voice echoes what the young woman says, but it’s often delayed by a second or two.
“It was us versus everyone else, and, for a long time, it felt like we were winning,” the young woman says before her mother says, “I want to die.” Then, she comes across a desk that appears in the middle of the desert. On it is a floral mug, many books, and a lamp. A blurry figure starts to walk towards the camera before the young woman sits down. We then see her sitting at the same desk, at a different time when her mother was alive.
During her walk, she picks up the backpack she was carrying the day that she learned about her mother’s Alzheimer’s. “It was a wasting disease. Not of the body, but of the mind,” the woman’s voice-over says as the mother and daughter hug in a dark space. The speed of the frames increases as the young woman describes her mother forgetting their address, her daughter’s birthday, her birthday; yet, despite everything, she still wished for death. The sound of an organ plays in the background. Then, it’s followed by a boom as her mother sees her daughter as a stranger. “I remember wishing for both our deaths, hoping we could somehow both die together,” and the two walk off-screen together, then the screen turns black.
“I know you would want me to continue living my life. Please don’t be mad. I just want to see you again. Love, Inez,” she says tearfully before she’s reunited with her mother in death. The two hug, and then it was over. I can’t explain to you how teary-eyed this film made me. Having lost a parent, I know those scary thoughts are ever prevalent, and I related more than I anticipated.
Swintek’s inspiration for the film was the desert itself: “I knew that I wanted to film in the desert and that the main character would be wandering there, and then reverse-engineered the story from that. Usually, I write fantasy or fantasy-related things, but I knew I didn’t have the time or money to do that in live-action.” So, she played with her character wandering through the desert and going over the events that brought her there. She edited in a way that would make her character question reality; for that style, Satoshi Kon and his movie, Perfect Blue, inspired her.
Memoriam won the award for “Outstanding Excellence” in the Women’s International Film Festival on April 25. Swintek said, “Winning was really gratifying! A lot of effort and absurd amounts of stress went into this project, so it’s very cool to think that it could win an award over a year after I made it.” She made this film during her last year at Whittier, where she double majored in Screenwriting and Film Studies (a Whittier Scholars Program major) and Digital Art and Design. “It was at Whittier that I started to truly consider a potential future in the entertainment industry. Maybe I kind of sound like a kiss-a—, and I guess I am feeling a bit nostalgic, but I really appreciate the teachers I had! And awesome students!” She said that, even though Whittier isn’t really geared for a film career, she always made the best of it. She tends to be a hermit when it comes to making art, but she loved working with her friends in a creative environment.
So, what’s Swintek up to now? Well, she was recently accepted into USC’s Animation MFA program. However, she still hasn’t entirely wrapped her head around it: “To be honest, I’m really torn because, on one hand, it’s a great department, and it’s freaking USC, but, on the other, graduate school isn’t necessary — though definitely helpful — to get into the animation industry. [ . . .] Even with scholarships, I would still incur student debt.”
Whether or not Swintek decides to attend USC, she knows that she wants to tell stories in animation. “As a writer and an animator/artist, I haven’t yet decided exactly which career path within the industry to pursue — lots of decisions to make — but animation as an art form is absolutely the goal,” she said. With her gorgeous art style and heartfelt storytelling, there’s no doubt that we’ll see her animation on the big (or small) screen.
Featured Photo Courtesy of Lauren Swintek