It’s not every day that a current UCLA film student is handed a prize from the president of Black Entertainment Television, the creator of “NYPD Blue,” the director of “L.A. Confidential” and “8 Mile,” and … the executive vice president of the AARP?
For Anthony Onah, that day was last Thursday, when the second-year graduate film student won $7,500 in the AARP-sponsored Stolen Dreams film competition for his 9 1/2-minute film “The Cure.”
The contest challenged teams of directors and producers from UCLA’s film program to produce short films addressing the economy and health care. “It definitely came as a surprise against all the other films,” Onah said.
Onah himself has a background as eclectic as the panel of judges. Born in Nigeria to an ambassador father, Onah grew up on four different continents as his father moved between embassies. This cosmopolitan upbringing eventually influenced his later filmmaking. “Having lived in different countries has led me to think about (social) issues,” Onah said.
Eventually Onah settled in Boston and enrolled at Harvard University. But at that point, Onah’s undergraduate major was decidedly removed from the discipline of film: biochemistry. After a year or two of science classes, Onah began to figure out his true future calling.
“I think I always knew I wanted to be a storyteller, I was particularly keen on visual storytelling. … I had taken a lot of science course work in my first year, I forgot about the film thing for a couple of years,” Onah said. “I got bit by the bug again junior year. I would see films and I found myself asking, “˜How were the effects achieved?’”
Despite his newfound passion, Onah went on to complete his degree in biochemistry and took a job at the university as a research scientist. Onah quit a year later and did odd jobs around New York City until he made the decision to apply to the MFA film program at UCLA.
Coincidentally, that same interim period helped to inspire and inform his eventual entry into the Stolen Dreams competition. “After I graduated from college, I had no insurance because I was working at a coffee shop, and I got sick. I got to see the effects first-hand of a lack of universal health care,” Onah said. “Obviously, my condition was nothing compared to millions of other Americans.”
Onah eventually found his way to the competition, which was open to all MFA film students, a joint venture between AARP and the film school where the finalists’ films were posted online.
Stolen Dreams is also a part of AARP’s Divided We Fail initiative, a bi-partisan campaign for a universal health care plan. Between the aims of the initiative and the subject matter the films had to encompass, Onah felt inclined to jump in. “I definitely had strong feelings. … Many Americans without long-term financial security have to make hefty payments, and a medical disaster could send them spiraling in the wrong direction,” Onah said.
These themes found their way into Onah’s winning film, “The Cure,” a stark, realistic tale of a single mother dealing with hospital bureaucracy and lack of insurance after her son suffers a serious accident. As writer and director of the film, Onah hoped to keep things simple for a reason.
“This isn’t agitprop filmmaking. … Looking at the lives of ordinary people, the sort of people you wouldn’t see in mainstream Hollywood, looking at circumstances ““ what it’s like to live those lives. It allows us to shed some sort of light on what it means to live,” Onah said.
Having now claimed his sizeable prize, Onah is planning on moving on to a new project, which also concerns a sociopolitical issue: rampant deaths in immigrant detention centers.
Although many of Onah’s topics are loaded issues, he remains reluctant to declare his beliefs in his work. “I’d emphasize that I don’t want to make a piece of work that’s a political polemic. There are larger social issues that ought to be investigated; I would just write an essay for a polemic. There are more primal questions that can be answered because it’s such an immediate