I haven’t been able to get the images of Christopher Oroza-Nostas’ stunning short film, Savior, out of my head. Clocking in at just under five minutes, Oroza-Nostas’ film confronts us with an America that hasn’t changed very much over the last fifty years. We have sworn to do better, but when will a better world–a more equal and just world–come to those who are suffering? Savior is eligible for awards consideration for next year’s Oscars, and it cannot be forgotten for invoking such a response from its viewer.
Shot in stunning black and white, Savior features two dancers, Marem Hassler and Anthony Velasquez, as they experience emotional and physical violence. They are desperate to reach one another but they are forced apart by prejudices and political circumstances. As drums are beaten, we hear the words of famous speeches that you could probably find in a history book. Robert F. Kennedy’s speech after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence, Richard Nixon’s Cambodian Incursion Address from 1970 are just some of the addresses heard throughout Savior as Hassler and Velasquez reach and writhe.
Oroza-Nostas has delivered a powerful call to action and identifies that peace within our reach. There has been endless talk of reaching across the aisle and being divided, but Oroza-Nostas’ puts it very plainly. We have the tools to make our world better. We have to call upon our own bravery to make changes. Too many people are sacrificing too much while we wait for a white knight to come save us.
Awards Daily: This film is so unique. What was the genesis of this project?
Christopher Oroza-Nostas: It’s about the cyclical nature of violence. You live in the world that I live in. It’s filled with chaos and filled with incredible gun violence in the United States. It’s filled with the oppression of almost every minority group in this country. For me, it was the Poway Synagogue shooting and even the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings. The Christ Church Mosque shooting, the Pulse nightclub shooting. It was Patrick Crusius who walked into a Wal-Mart in Texas and killed 23 people, most of them Latino. It’s all of these things. I get emotional just talking about it, because it’s the world that my friends are living in and my mother is living in. Being in a minority group, you are in a constant state of awareness that you are different. I don’t want to say fear, but there is a courage in just existing. This amazing group of people, we all wanted to do something. You can march and vote and scream, but if you aren’t pushing with your art then you aren’t really fully helping as an artist. Trying to make conscious art is so important in times like these, especially when we are so divided. It’s not even a political divide—it’s an ideological divide, an emotional divide, an economic divide. The pandemic has made that divide even greater. It was filmed before the pandemic and finished during the pandemic, but you can see from the speeches that it’s a timeless message.
AD: I couldn’t stop think about that.
CON: The world hasn’t changed. Going back to the Crisis of Confidence speech, you can listen to it in its entirety and think, “What happened?” How are we going to overcome those problems? I missed what political rhetoric sounded like when this was made. I missed what it was like to hear leadership so I went into the past and listened to political speeches and weaved them together to form a message that is now just reflective of our moment today but also create a moment of hope today. The seed came from the conflict in our world and feeling oppressed on a daily basis. Not just me—people of color, LGBTQ Americans, Indigenous Americans and indigenous people all over the world, immigrants. The list goes on and on. It’s not a talking point. It’s a reality.
AD: How did you decide to weave the speeches in and out? I love how they come in and out and circle back.
CON: We went to the pivotal moments in history and went to the most politically relevant speeches out when there were times of great crisis and great inequality. They were speaking during times when there was, for instance, the existential threat of nuclear war. All of these things are ever present for us and it always feels like the sky is falling. For people it’s the climate crisis and I have friends who are afraid of being pulled over by the police. It’s minority costumers who get accosted at shopping malls when they are just trying to do their jobs. We haven’t gone far past this. We went to speeches where the stakes were so high because they are that high now. We need to be changing. That’s where we pulled that from.
AD: I like how you used the world cyclical earlier, because it feels like as soon as we get the tiniest bit of progress, some other horrible thing happens. The day that the Derek Chauvin verdict came out, Ma’Khia Bryant was killed by the Columbus, Ohio Police Department.
CON: You captured that perfectly. That’s that cycle. That’s the never-ending feeling and it was present in one day. I cannot bear the weight of that because I have the weight of community but looking at my brothers and sisters of color, it is all of our pain. The iconic moment–I call it iconic because it symbolizes what I was trying to capture with this film–is when Marem [Hassler] lifts Anthony [Velasquez] off the ground. It’s that moment where we lend a hand to our community and it speaks to us because a lot of us are in a position of privilege and can help us. It’s up to all of us to uplift one another and look at the communities around us to help. Only by doing that, can we have change.
AD: Tell me about the rehearsal process with this. I was curious if Marem and Anthony played around with movement before you started filming or if they may have come in with something very specific.
CON: One of the producers of the film, Briana Frapart, introduced us to our choreographer, Ellen Kim. She came in on the day and Anthony was introduced to me through Briana. I have known Marem for years and worked with her before. I storyboarded the entire piece and they came in and talked about the movement while we were filming. A lot of it was talking about where this pain and agony comes from. As you noticed, it starts with being shot.
CON: That’s not just symbolized in the physical act of violence but also how we enter discourse with people. When we fight with someone and we feel attacked, we cover ourselves with our beliefs. We transform ourselves into this symbol of what we believe we represent and then we engage. That’s the idea of the paint. Then this violent transformation as they are thrashing on the ground before they engage with each other, I said to channel all the anger and pain and oppression that you yourself have faced. Anthony is a person of color, an Afro-Latino male, a member of the LGBT community. Marem is a female who has worked in this country with an accent. How have you been oppressed? Channel that through your moment. All of that was about the weight of the pain that has been brought from the last century but the pain they have felt themselves. It’s about tribalism, isn’t it?
AD: Yeah, you definitely feel that.
CON: It’s about these two warring factions who are attacking each other in this moment and then working through the choreography from Ellen, they are unable to touch. They can’t. We are unable to understand the other side or we’re so caught up in our own belief systems that we aren’t willing to connect in the middle until everything explodes.
AD: There is that moment where they are on their stomachs and they are reaching for one another and you are hoping that they touch.
CON: It was all channeled in the moment and we worked together to convey these very difficult emotions. Not just about the political climate but our own personal feelings of being oppressed or being “the other.” Enter any political discussion or philosophical conversation, you feel it physically. It was one hundred percent a collaboration.
AD: There is a shot of Anthony’s back right after the shot happens where the paint is falling through his fingers that is kind of burned in my brain. So much of this short is so beautiful but the nature of it is so horrific. There are some shots I want to ask about. Near the beginning, we see Marem and Anthony with a crown on their head. There is an aspirational quality to them both before the violence erupts.
CON: With saviors, who do we look to to solve our problems, right?
CON: For some people it’s a higher power. For some people it’s a political institution. Some look to heroes and mentors. For me, that shot of Marem is a lot about religious iconography. We tailored it so it wouldn’t be on the nose but Anthony is wearing a crown of thorns made from technology and ethernet cables. That was about how we engage and how our dialogue comes on the internet and he was representing a Christian dichotomy. Marem was wearing a hijab and this whole dress that our costumer, Laura Cristina Ortiz, made from this very fine tulle that you can see through but it’s all held together with wires. It was all about how we connect and how we strip away those symbols that we have and showing the typical clash of civilizations stems from a religious background.
AD: I love that.
CON: It’s a lot of iconography that is very dense but it’s important that it’s there.
AD: But it invokes a strong emotion and people all over the world react to people from other religions and cultures. In America, people are put into a box because of the things they believe or how a person’s religion is perceived.
CON: And after that time, there were mosque shootings and shootings at temples and synagogues. There’s so much rampant violence against people who think differently. I am so blessed for some of these opportunities that this country has given me but there is something so unique here with the constant annihilation of the other. It’s built in the history of this country and I tried to explore that in this. It stems from the religious conversation and the right versus the left conversation. You see it every day.
AD: It reminded me of one of the lines in one of the speeches where he says, “We have become a nation of the individual.” That accidentally takes on another meaning with the pandemic. I personally wish we originally said that we should wear masks to protect ourselves instead of “wear a mask to protect others.” I think more people would have worn masks initially if they said to take care of yourself. That’s just me (laughs).
CON: A lot of people in this country care more about themselves than they do about their neighbor. Not everyone. That’s one of the biggest challenges. We put these barriers up. We need to think about not ourselves. Our culture have become centered about this idea of individualistic grown and spirituality–which is great–but it shuts us off from others. Life is our journey. The only way we can survive what’s coming at us is together. There is no way you can be one person against all this change.
AD: I love the moment at the end where each dancer throws a flag over their head. Talk to me about the image you wanted to convey there.
CON: Each flag has an individual streak. That’s the flag that we wave as someone’s beliefs. At the end of the film when they pull their flags, it creates the equality symbol. For the briefest of moments, they are both equal. Black and white on the same level. Both of these forces are stronger when they come together. You’ve seen these people wave these flags but for the briefest of moments you can see that equality formed. And that image is when they are most at peace.
AD: I wanted to know how hopeful you personally feel with this film. That’s such a cheesy question, but I feel like your personal emotional strength is very important since you are guiding this story, so that’s why I wanted to ask that.
CON: The light is big within my heart. Hope is an active choice we make every day. How much are we going to believe people will chance. How much can we hope that the other person will look back at you and say, “I understand you and I see you.” I have hope, but I think fire can’t spread without the ability for people to enhance the flame. You need people to say that they have hope and they have faith. You have to meet people at the center to help each other grow. The final line of the film is, “We are the savior that we seek” so we build that. It’s difficult when you see all the problems ahead of us and you want to fight for what is right. Every person needs that hope to have the will to fight. We have to build a barge of light and love and understanding of one another. We have canceled people that we love. It takes a lot of work to meet someone at the center and not lose your cool and not lash out. If you don’t put in the effort to change minds with your words and your patience and your peace, we are never going to fix the world.