Morbid curiosity: Student filmmaker turns fear of death into art

by Cathleen Cusachs / Beacon Staff • January 21, 2015

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Junior Alejandro Peña is afraid of death. Truly afraid; he said he can’t fly without being heavily medicated and gets anxious just watching the news. Yet with his latest film, death has become his muse.

Peña, a visual and media arts major, recently completed an 11-minute black-and-white short, titled A Future, about the fear of mortality. The film, available online, tells the story of a young boy from a troubled home going to his first day of school. When he arrives, he gets sucked through a time vortex, and his future school years flash before his eyes. The vortex then drops him off at his high school graduation, leaving him petrified about how quickly he has grown up and how soon he will die. 

Peña said the intense anxiety the boy feels is meant to reflect the filmmakers’ own, equally intense fears.

“I think about the future 85 to 90 percent of the time,” Peña said. “I’m scared to go places.”

He said his self-diagnosed fear of death holds him back from doing everyday things. He said he also has his future outlined down to the last detail, and can see only one of three things happening. He said, casually, he will either successfully make music videos in the United States, shave his head and live in an orb-shaped house in Berlin, or die on a sidewalk from an overdose, while wearing a wedding dress.

The film’s various artistic components—animation, acting, sound effects, costume design, and monochromatic finish—are meant to express not only Peña’s fear, but also his wonder, he said.

“It also kind of fascinates me the idea of ‘We’re all going to die,’” Peña said. “But you can’t go around thinking about it, because if everyone went around thinking about, ‘Well, we’re all going to die eventually,’ then the world would just fall apart.”

Guillermina Zabala, the Media Arts Director of Say Sí, a youth film program in San Antonio that taught Peña, said he uses his life experiences, such as his fear of death, to create the  base idea for his films.

“He will kind of reflect on all of [his personal experiences], but add a twist to them,” Zabala said. 

A Future was shot over a year in both Boston and San Antonio, Texas, Peña’s hometown. A crew of two, including himself, filmed the scenes in Texas, Peña said, which took place in a house owned by Peña’s family. The film’s budget of $5,000—collected through the fundraising website Kickstarter—only allowed for junior Cooper Vacheron—his cinematographer, roommate, and frequent collaborator—to fly down. Scenes shot in Boston were done with a larger Emerson student crew.

Another challenge the project faced was Peña’s planning process—or lack thereof. Peña said he works best when developing a project as he goes along, which can annoy his crew.  Because of his anxiety, he said film is his only way of being in control and spontaneous in his life. Vacheron recalled once when Peña awoke him with an idea that ended up completely changing a project they had already started.

Still, Vacheron, a visual and media arts major, said he loves working with Peña, despite Peña’s fear of the future and spontaneity. Vacheron said that although it can be a challenge to implement Peña’s last-minute ideas, their quality and distinctiveness often makes it worthwhile.

Peña said he soon plans to submit the film to various festivals. 

One of Peña’s previous pieces is R/B/G, a short about the negative effects of television that he produced about a year ago; it used only red, blue, and green set pieces. It shares a similar cinematic style with A Future, according to Peña and Vacheron.

“Sometimes [the style] is overwhelming,” Vacheron said. “I think the combination of the sound and the creepy animations and stuff gets to a point where you’re just like, ‘What’s happening here?’”

The creepiest, and most controversial, sequence is an animation at the end of the film, Peña said. A laughing devil is seen walking towards the camera, an idea that Peña attributes to his religious upbringing. 

“I was raised Catholic, and [there’s] this idea that if you’re not on good terms with what the Catholic Church thinks, you’re going to spend time with this red hell for eternity and this pit of fire,” Peña said. “That’s so fascinating and terrifying at the same time.”

 Zabala, who worked with Peña in 2011 through 2012, and still advises him, said she sees that same style in his work.  

“[He’d] make it more experimental or alternative or bring in all these characteristics that make a more surreal environment, but yet still make a statement about society.”