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Short film produced in Appleton prompts discussion on societal issues

Samantha Leno, left, volunteered as make-up artist for “Xenos,’’ and used her Ojibwa heritage as inspiration for design. She plays the lead role of a local who falls in love with one of the aliens played by Roy Hanley. (SUBMITTED)

Masked aliens from outer space make an abandoned house in Appleton their destination. One of them drops in at the Paddle Bar in the downtown.

A local woman, played by Samantha Leno, takes an interest in the alien, played by Roy Hanley. Two hunters in the bar, played by brothers Brian and Brice Dempcy, take notice of the visitor too, but not in a friendly way.

Things take off from there.

What might seem a far-fetched storyline is behind a short (10 minutes), but captivating movie called “Xenos.’’ It could not be more relevant to the issues of today.

Audiences who have been viewing the production at showings in west central Minnesota — sponsored by Pioneer Public Television — have found themselves discussing the issues of the day: How we as a nation respond to refugees fleeing the turmoil of the Middle East, and how we treat those different from us in our midst, whether they are from other cultures and races or, simply, the big city.

“It’s not like I could tell the future or anything,’’ said its producer, Dana Johnson, in reference to whether she could have anticipated the national debate today about refugees when she created “Xenos.’’

A behind-the-scenes shot of the aliens, played by Katie and Jean Sando, is taken during the production of “Xenos" (SUBMITTED)

Johnson is the also producer of Pioneer Public TV’s “Postcard” series, which focuses often on artists in the region. A Spicer native and Willmar High School graduate, Johnson is also a graduate of Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. She studied video production in London, China and Japan as well.

Some of the inspiration for “Xenos” came from her own life experience as someone who moved to a small, rural town. In a small town there is none of the anonymity of the big city, she discovered. You are always under a microscope and you’re a character in everybody’s story, she said.

The story behind Xenos is inspired too by her work with Pioneer TV. She has documented the experiences of the Somali, Latino and Micronesian communities in the region. She’s learned about their experiences and aspirations in a new land. The airing of the documentaries also brought phone calls and comments that told her too about the anxieties and lack of understanding many people have about cultures that are new to them.

“Xenos’’ is from the Greek word meaning “stranger.’’ It can refer to either a welcomed guest or an unwanted one.

Johnson produced “Xenos’’ as an independent film, thanks to a grant from the Southern Minnesota Arts and Humanities Council. She has entered it in a number of independent film contests.

She relied entirely on the help of volunteers, many of them artists, to produce the film October 25, 2014. It was shot in Appleton.

Artist Naomi Schliesman of Fergus Falls produced the masks worn by the three aliens, as well as the spiritual symbol the aliens call on to communicate to their home planet. The production also features an original score of mood-setting music created by Jacob Pavek.

Hmong dancers — the Prairie Lotus Dance Troupe from Walnut Grove — perform in an enchanting portion of the film that is fast becoming an audience favorite.

Artist Jean Sando and daughter Katie, who play two of the aliens, made the robes and sashes they wore.

There is no audio, only the musical score through the movie. The audience’s inability to know what the characters might be saying is deliberate. Johnson’s hope is that viewers will interpret the action based on their own life experiences.

Lauren Carlson has led dicussions on “Xenos’’at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. (TOM CHERVENY | TRIBUNE)

Lauren Carlson, a rural Dawson poet and author, has led showings and discussions of “Xenos’’at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall and more recently at the Minnesota West campus in Granite Falls. Carlson said she has been impressed at how well the movie encourages thoughtful discussions.

Audiences are quick to see the movie’s relevancy to the debate today about welcoming those different from us, said Carlson. The plight of refugees from the Middle East and the sentiments of “anti-anybody different’’ were among the themes raised during the discussion following the showing Jan. 8 in Granite Falls.

So too were issues ranging from small town judgmentalism to how we as individuals respond to newcomers: Whether we accept, are indifferent, or hostile to those we may not understand.

At the heart of Xenos is a love story. The local woman, played by Samantha Leno, falls in love with the alien she met at the Paddle Bar. Leno had originally signed on to help as the make-up artist, and used her Ojibwa heritage as inspiration for design, according to the show’s producer.

In perhaps a case of life imitating art, Leno and Hanley (playing the alien) are now engaged in real life. It happened after the filming of “Xenos.’’

The movie’s protagonist is the hunter played by Brian Dempcy. He confronts the alien visitor at the Paddle Bar. It’s the hunter who owns the last scene in the movie. His final action leaves viewers to decide for themselves whether he ultimately embraces or remains hostile to the visitors.

Audiences have been evenly split on which way to interpret the conclusion, said Johnson. The producer certainly prefers we take the positive approach. “That is what I would hope for in my own life or community,’’ she said.

Montevideo to host ‘Xenos’ showing, discussion

The next opportunity to view “Xenos’’ and discuss its themes will be offered at 6 p.m. on Monday at the First Congregational Church of Montevideo, 224 North Fourth Street, Montevideo.

The presentation is part of a free community meal featuring tacos being held to celebrate Martin Luther King Day. Everyone is welcome.

Xenos to be aired on TV, available online

Everyone will have an opportunity to view “Xenos’’ on broadcast television or online beginning Jan. 31. Pioneer TV’s “Postcards’’ will include a feature on Fergus Falls artist Naomi Schliesman. A photographic exhibit by Schliesman and Eric Santwire helped inspire Johnson as she developed the script for “Xenos.’’

The Postcard segment broadcast at 7 p.m. will include a showing of “Xenos.’’ Following the show, “Xenos’’ will also be available for viewing online on Pioneer TV’s website.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335