Hanover High graduate’s first film starts a budding career

  • A still from Mia Fichman's short film "Twenty," about a family going through divorce. Fichman made the movie for her senior thesis at Middlebury College. (Courtesy Mia Fichman)

  • Asa Baker-Rouse stars in Mia Fichman's short film "Twenty" about a family going through divorce. Fichman is a graduate of Hanover High School and made the movie for her senior thesis at Middlebury College. (Courtesy Mia Fichman)

  • Mia Fichman (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/26/2019 10:00:17 PM

In the space of an afternoon, the 12-year-old protagonist of Mia Fichman’s short film, Twenty, appears to grow up. One moment he’s lying on the floor aimlessly tossing a Frisbee in the air, all boy. The next he’s the acting adult in the room, encouraging his younger sister to demonstrate how she can count to 20 in Spanish to distract her from the sound of her parents arguing. In between those two scenes, the boy has gathered scraps of evidence, half by accident, that his mom and dad are splitting up.

The film, which Fichman made for her senior thesis at Middlebury College, debuted at the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival last month. It’s a deeply personal story for the Hanover High School graduate, whose parents split up when she was a teenager. At the same time it’s a story that unfolds in various ways every day in households across America.

“Divorce is an event a lot of people have to deal and reckon with. It’s not uncommon,” Fichman, 22, said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where she’s been working as a production assistant for the past few months. “For me, making the film also felt like a catharsis.”

Fichman, who moved with her family to Hanover when she was in middle school, grew up watching movies with her dad, who had majored in film but didn’t pursue a film career. “As a kid, I was being shown the gamut of classic films, from Hitchcock to Oklahoma! the musical, and everything in between,” she said.

Fichman also loved to draw and paint, but when it came time to choose a career path, she followed more pragmatic inclinations. After a year at New York University as an undeclared major, she transferred to Middlebury and began studying political science. “In my head, I felt like I had to put my passion for the arts to the side,” Fichman said. “Political science had the right ring to it.”

Then, in her junior year, Fichman decided to take a film production class. Suddenly, the value of all those childhood films became clear, and her love of visual storytelling had found a new outlet. “It kind of just clicked. I said, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do,’ ” Fichman said.

Switching to a film major/political science minor, Fichman secured a month-long internship, along with five other Middlebury students, in Los Angeles last January, working with Middlebury alumnus Shawn Ryan, creator of numerous TV shows including the critically acclaimed The Shield.

“Along with following him around like little ducklings, we were given the task of writing a TV pitch,” Fichman said.

Fichman conceived of a dramedy in the mold of Freaks and Geeks, centered on a 14-year-old girl whose father moves to an apartment above the garage after he and her mother announce their pending divorce.

That pitch laid the groundwork for Twenty. Changing the protagonist to a 12-year-old boy in an effort to put a bit of distance between the film and her own experiences, Fichman wrote a sparse script that she hoped captured the quiet tension of the characters and emphasized visual elements.

“I really wanted the environment to speak for itself and remove any overt explaining in the dialogue,” she said. “I wanted to balance this feeling of being a child and kind of having no responsibility and ultimately, through different circumstances, being forced into responsibility.”

Lead actor Asa Baker-Rouse, who made a splash on the internet in 2013 as the star of Middlebury student Bianca Giaever’s film, The Scared Is Scared, conveyed that feeling authentically.

“He was phenomenal,” said Fichman, who shot the film one weekend inside a friend’s vacation home near Ripton, Vt., working with fellow Middlebury students, including Hanover High classmate Asher Brown.

The film’s inclusion in the fifth annual Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, an event that draws directors and producers from around the world, was an affirmation not just of its quality but of the value of filmmaking, Fichman said.

“It was a lovely feeling to have people thinking and talking about it,” she said.

Fichman plans to submit the film to other festivals when her schedule allows (It can now be viewed at vimeo.com/335796875). Four days after she graduated from Middlebury, she returned to Los Angeles, this time as a paid production assistant in the writers’ room of the CBS procedural drama S.W.A.T., where Ryan serves as writer and producer. “It was just a really fortunate opportunity,” she said.

The job entails a good deal of errand running — just before this interview, she’d completed a cupcake run for a staff member’s birthday — but Fichman also gets to be a fly on the wall in the writers’ room and occasionally contribute ideas or chat with writers about their creative process. She’s also visited the set a few times.

“Once I started doing this, my appreciation and awe of things that I had watched maybe more casually as an audience member really exploded,” she said.

The experience also has reaffirmed Fichman’s decision to tell people’s stories through film. “I think there’s such a power in having people feel like they’re seen in some way,” she said. “If you can play a part in that, I think that’s an amazing role to have in this society.”

An Emmy for ‘Dawnland’

Dawnland, a documentary co-produced by Dartmouth College Professor Bruce Duthu, received an Emmy for Outstanding Research at Tuesday night’s News & Documentary Emmy Awards. The film, which screened at Dartmouth and was featured on PBS’s Independent Lens last fall, examines the impact of child welfare practices on indigenous tribal communities in Maine.

Filmmakers Adam Mazo and Ben Pender-Cudlip followed members of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission as they gathered testimony of Wabanaki people who’d been seized by the state as children. It highlights the high rate at which Wabanaki children were removed from the homes and the abuse many of them were subjected to in foster care.

Duthu, the Samson Occom Professor of Native American Studies at Dartmouth and an expert on tribal sovereign law, helped ensure that the story was told in proper context and was factually accurate.

The film was an official selection of numerous film festivals around the country.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews or 603-727-3268.

Correction: The 2019 Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival was the fifth annual festival. A previous version of this story misstated the number of years the festival has been in existence.

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