By Lynne Hendricks
---- — Two nationally acclaimed documentary films traveling the art movie house circuit will open at the Screening Room this weekend in a double billing that promotes both films’ ties to Newburyport.
The two films, which are very different in context, share a commonality in that they’re both garnering the kind of respect from the American film community that could earn them Oscar nods from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But when audiences line up to purchase tickets for the films, it will likely be to catch sight of two familiar faces.
Newburyport native Jenna Cook is one of four young Chinese American women featured in the touching film “Somewhere Between” that depicts the coming of age of women given up for adoption as a result of China’s “one child” policy; and 2007 Newburyport High graduate John Pouliot’s name will be on the marquis for his production and editing work on the film “Open Heart,” which follows the brave journey of eight young Rwandan heart patients who travel to Sudan to get lifesaving treatment at a free heart surgery clinic.
According to Screening Room owner Andrew Mungo, the pair represent a chance for locals to see two important works that stand a good chance of achieving the highest film honors in the industry, with the added benefit of knowing local residents have made their mark on the films.
“My business partner Nancy Langsam was instrumental in finding ‘Somewhere Between,’” Mungo said. “Nancy knew that ‘Somewhere Between’ had a connection to the city and that it was an important film that has a real shot at being noticed nationally and could even be nominated for an Academy Award for a full length documentary.”
“Open Heart” was Mungo’s find, and is one of seven titles on the short list for Oscar contention in the category of Documentary Short Subjects.
“Both of them have possibilities and both of them have national stature,” Mungo said. “Both will both find their place in the pantheon of important films.”
Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s “Somewhere Between” catches up with four young girls who left their native homeland as infants in a wave of adoptions that correlated with a controversial Chinese policy restricting families to one child.
Through the lens of Goldstein Knowlton, we meet them as young teens becoming aware for the first time of the social and political circumstances that separated them from their birth families, and follow them to the provinces of their birth, where the girls who liken themselves to bananas — yellow on the outside and white in the center — link together the missing pieces of their identity.
One of the girls is Jenna Cook — a hockey player, rowing captain and current student at Yale University — who goes on the record about what it was like growing up in the community of Newburyport, where she was one of only a handful of Asian children.
The film has been well received by critics and audiences alike, described by Variety as “delicately wrought, deeply-felt docu-profile” that shows a sensitive execution of material that is unique to a certain demographic, but should have widespread appeal.
In the film “Open Heart,” directed by Kief Davidson, a group of eight Rwandan children, whose hearts have been ravaged by rheumatic fever, leave their families and at great risk, embark on a life or death journey to Africa’s only free cardiac surgery center, the Salam Center in Sudan.
Aside from the compelling content, the film was created with the help of NHS theater department alum John Pouliot, who touts the film as his first real job upon graduation from Emerson College in 2011.
“I got really lucky,” said Pouliot, in an interview from his home in Los Angeles.
From the days when Pouliot held his first video camera, handed to him at Newburyport High in his Introduction to Video class, he was hooked.
From his time at the high school where he credits teachers Lisa Zaleski and Stephanie Williams for giving him creative license to manage the stage during high school productions, he decided to take his studies further at Emerson.
Upon graduation, he took a chance by reaching out to Davidson, on the advice of his mother, about a piece Davidson was working on. Davidson said it was too bad that Pouliot wasn’t living out in Los Angeles, where he could have offered him a spot on the staff for “Open Heart.”
Three weeks later Pouliot jumped on a plane and off to the unknown.
“At that point I had no idea what to expect,” he said.
He fell into a role of organizing the myriad and complicated details involved with getting cast and crew and patients booked for air travel on the same flights via a system that’s a far sight more complicated than the online services Americans have access to.
He orchestrated shooting from the film’s home base, arranged for translators for a film that features five different languages; and when the footage came home, he was anointed associate editor and called upon to learn — by trial and error and long nights at the editing wheel — a new trade.
“I came into it only because that was what was needed,” Pouliot said.
Now, with his first real film credit getting a potential Oscar nod, the sky is opening up for Pouliot, who plans to head back east in the new year to perhaps turn some of his own ideas into projects.
“The next thing I want to start doing more of is journalistic projects,” Pouliot said. “I’d like to do some micro-journalism and micro-documentaries about current events.”
But in the meantime, he’s enjoying the break from all-nighters working on the film and waiting to see whether “Open Heart” is selected as an official Oscar nominee.
“To have a film recognized and have my name on the credits of a film that might be up for an Academy Award is pretty amazing for a 24-year-old,” said Pouliot, who thinks about his days at NHS fondly.
“(Zaleski and Williams) were the first ones that made me feel I could have this be a career and be creative for a career,” he said. “They were the first ones who ever put me in a position to succeed in the creative arts.”
IF YOU GO
What: Double bill of “Somewhere Between” and “Open Heart”
When: tonight, 7:30 p.m.; tomorrow, 3:15, 6 and 8:45 p.m.; Sunday, 4:45 and 7:30 p.m; Dec. 17 through Dec. 20 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: The Screening Room, 82 State St., Newburyport
How much: $8, seniors $6.