‘When They See Us’ actor stars in Weston filmmaker’s short film ‘The Other Side’

Before the pandemic flipped the world upside down, Weston’s Sofia Bara traveled to Ethiopia in 2019 to make a short film with fellow film student Josh Leong about the country’s abandoned children crisis.

Bara and Leong, both students currently enrolled at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, spent two weeks in Ethiopia filming with “When They See Us” star Ethan Herisse. Their film “The Other Side” is based on the life of Abel, a young man Leong had met while on a previous trip to Ethiopia, who would be aging out of the orphanage where he lived.

Hearst Connecticut Media spoke with Bara and Leong about “The Other Side” which will be available for streaming on Nov. 20.

TinaMarie Craven: How would you describe your film?

Sofia Bara: We not only see this film as an opportunity to bring awareness to a social cause that is rarely discussed in the United States, but also, at the core, it is a story about brotherhood. We hope it serves as a reminder that sometimes what we desperately search for has been right next us the whole time.

TC: What inspired you to work on this film?

Josh Leong: Back in 2018, I went to Ethiopia on a mission trip with my church. On paper, we knew that there were close to 5 million children orphaned in the country as a result of HIV/AIDS, poverty, and the lack of female empowerment programs. But it was an entirely different experience to step into those orphanages and truly be with the children. During my stay in one of the government boys orphanages, I met a 16-year-old boy named Abel. We initially connected because he spoke English. But after getting to know him, I learned that in Ethiopia, when an orphan turns 18, they age out of their orphanage and have to fend for themselves on the street. Abel had a younger brother inside the orphanage, and it was only a matter of time before they’d be separated and he’d have to face the outside world alone. Later that fall, I started my freshman year at NYU. Abel’s story had stuck with me throughout that time, and I felt compelled to write a film about what he was going through. Fast-forward to February, and after meeting some classmates at NYU (including Sofia) we decided to pursue the project for real.

TC: What was it like meeting with the real-life Abel while shooting the film?

JL: We actually got to film in the same orphanage that Abel was living in - which was the first place I had ever met him in 2018. I remember arriving at the orphanage in July 2019 and seeing so many familiar faces - but I was searching for one kid: Abel. Despite being apart for an entire year, he still recognized me. It was an incredible experience to tell him that I’d come back - this time with a film crew - to make a movie about his life. He and some of the older boys followed us around all day, watching us shoot scenes and use the camera. He even helped slate for us on set. Abel would later tell me that when he grows up, he wants to make videos - just like us. I think everyone could agree that having him on set made everything feel viscerally personal and real. This wasn’t just a fictional story we were telling - it was someone’s life.

TC: You began working with Ethan Herisse before “When They See Us” received Emmy recognition, what was it like working with him?

JL: Ethan was a joy to work with from the beginning. Every day was filled with smiling, dancing, and laughter when he was on set. It was as if he was two people! One minute he’d be happily dancing with a little kid, and the next he’d be stone cold and fully immersed in character. His acting marked a standard for everyone else to match. He truly set the tone and made his co-stars better.

TC: What was it like filming in Ethiopia? Were there any issues while filming there?

SB: Like in any production, there were certainly so many issues that came up while filming! Yet the most prominent one was scheduling conflicts. We decided to film in July, we knew that this time of the year was the Ethiopian “rainy season” — all forecast applications predicted 100% chance it would rain all day. What we discovered, however, in our days of scouting was that these forecast predictions were completely inaccurate, and there was a general rule we could follow: if it rained in the morning, it would not rain in the afternoon and vice versa. This essentially meant that all scheduling would have to be done last minute...we learned to welcome constant change and be adaptable — though some days we got caught in torrential rain and fell behind, we were able to make our days by improvising creative solutions in the face of unpredictable weather!

TC: What was your experience like working on this particular film?

SB: Up to this point, I had previously had the privilege of producing short films through NYU classes, meaning we had the support and the backing of the school in all aspects—insurance, equipment, casting, etc. In contrast, this film had no support system in place. As a result, the beauty of having to work from the ground up by ourselves was in getting a taste of the process behind independently producing a film and having the ability to make mistakes...it has not only made us better filmmakers but also better prepared for facing the independent filmmaking arena. It was a privilege being welcomed so warmly by the community and learning about their customs as well as spending time with these children and lending a helping hand. We approached the entire process, the trip, and the experience as listeners, not experts.

TC: What has the reception been for your film so far?

SB: Overall, we have received incredible support across all of our networks. We’ve had the privilege of being accepted into 10 major festivals around the world, including 4 Academy Award®-Qualifying competitions. We’ve also won Best Short at the Greenwich International Festival and the One to Watch Award at the Asian American International Film Festival. “The Other Side” enjoyed an NYC Premiere at the Urbanworld Film Festival and an LA Premiere at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, in partnership with HBO and WarnerMedia. The film was also included at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival Court Metrage.

TC: You're currently looking to continue working on the film to make it a feature length film, how would you like the film's narrative to move forward?

JL: From the beginning, we knew this story was so much bigger than the short. I feel like there’s so many aspects of the crisis as a whole we haven’t gotten to explore yet. In its current format, the short barely scratches the surface of what Abel truly experiences. The feature version will be an expansion of Abel’s story. We’re continuing to explore life in the orphanage while also delving into the world of the streets. Petty crime and gang activity is frequently common - but the feature ultimately tracks Abel and Kiya’s relationship over a longer period of time with a broader view of the crisis. In a country where orphans are labeled “nobodies,” our characters reveal the way we all struggle towards what we think we want, and how often we lie to ourselves about what that is.

TC: The film is intended to raise awareness about Ethiopia's abandoned children crisis, how do you think the film will help?

SB: We believe that the film is the instigator of new conversations through which we hope our American audiences will learn about and become aware of this largely-unknown orphan crisis in Ethiopia and reality that these vulnerable children face. Beyond this, however, we hope to inspire our audiences into taking action beyond “becoming aware;” our team actively supports organizations like Orphan Care Ethiopia (OCE), who work to provide local solutions for Ethiopian orphans and meet their basic needs. In fact, “The Other Side” team participated in OCE’s inaugural virtual 5K run this summer and helped raise $50k for COVID-19 relief in Ethiopian orphanages.

For more information about the film, visit theothersideshortfilm.com.