Movie explores internment of local filmmaker's grandfather during WWII
FARGO — A locally funded and produced interactive film reports on a contentious point in American history — and explores a personal family story for the filmmaker whose grandfather is the subject.
"Watching Leo" is on display as part of the North Dakota Human Rights Arts Festival, which is currently in Fargo and will also visit Bismarck and Minot later this year.
It’s the story of family and struggle — a scrapbook account from the distant memories of an enemy alien.
“It’s a very long and detailed story,” prefaces filmmaker Ray Rea.
In his project, a mind map of sorts outlines his grandfather’s experience as an emigrant from Italy during World War II.
Plains Art Museum visitors can relive the story by slipping on a pair of headphones and navigating a large screen. It centers around Leo, a journalist working as a foreign correspondent for an Italian publication.
Just like the citizens and descendants of other enemy states during this time in American history, Leo Rea was detained and risked having to say goodbye to his newly formed family.
“All of the Italian journalists stationed here were supposed to be exchanged for the American journalists in Italy,” Ray Rea says. “There were a lot of letters about that, going into great detail about whether if they leave his name off his list, will it be noticed? There was even a suggestion of saying he fell sick on the day he was supposed to board the boat.”
Working in film and digital media, Rea documents his investigation with official letters and black-and-white reenactments of his grandfather shot on 16 mm film.
Previously, these were accounts he heard as a boy from his father and grandmother, but now there’s physical proof that tells a detailed tale.
“When the Freedom of Information Act came out, it provided me a way to actually write to the government and say, ‘I’d like to see all the documents you have on my grandfather,’ and there was a whole sheath of them,” Rea says. “There’s even a letter from J. Edgar Hoover about him.”
One of these letters reads, “The case is a difficult one to which there is no immediate solution,” and a difficult one it was.
In another, Leo’s wife, Irene Holland Rea, pleads in formal documents for her husband to remain in the country. While he was finally granted citizenship, Leo was no longer able to work as a journalist according to a stipulation of the deal. He lived in the country until he died in 1973.
“This project presented itself as only being effective through a connected viewer experience,” Rea says about his choice to use an interactive platform to tell the story.
In the film, he expands on the idea of immigration with a series of interviews with a student named Ibtissem Belmihoub from Algeria.
In addition to his work in film, Rea is an associate professor of film at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He wrote Theatre B’s first commissioned play, “The Sweet New,” a collaboration with The Pride Collective and Community Center in 2016.
“We have a really nice equilibrium between the technical work right next to something that has a really strong heart,” says Sean Coffman, executive director of The Human Family nonprofit that was founded to change communities through art.
In his third year as chair of the event, Coffman curates a whole spectrum of artists with skills ranging from beginner to advanced. The project helps fulfill The Human Family’s mission to educate, engage and facilitate discussion around local and worldwide human rights topics.
The North Dakota Human Rights Arts Festival is supported locally by The Arts Partnership and the Fargo Human Relations Commission. The exhibition's statewide endeavors will be supported by the North Dakota Council on the Arts. “Watching Leo” was funded by an Individual Artist Grant from The Arts Partnership.
To find out more about Rea’s work, visit densityoverduration.com.
If you go
What: Artist talk and reception for the North Dakota Human Rights Arts Festival
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 22
Where: Plains Art Museum, 704 First Ave. N., Fargo
Info: Artwork will be on display until the end of the month; visit human-family.org for more information.
This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net.