DR. SEYMOUR LIVINGSTON (Motell Foster) defends his ethics to his research assistant, RIKA ENDO (Olivia Oguma)

DR. SEYMOUR LIVINGSTON (Motell Foster) defends his ethics to his research assistant, RIKA ENDO (Olivia Oguma)

Overview: ANYA (80 min, 2019) is a love story and genetics mystery set in contemporary New York City about a couple and the scientist who tries to help them overcome their unusual infertility to have a baby no matter the cost. The story is fictional. The anthropology and genetics are real.

Status: Completed January 2019 (with full rights). Not yet premiered. Anticipating Fall 2019 release.

The Filmmakers: ANYA is the first narrative feature by documentarian Jacob Okada and anthropologist Carylanna Taylor, PhD. Through their company, First Encounter Productions, Carylanna and Jacob are committed to creating compelling stories with complex characters informed by anthropology, science, and current events.

Development: To get the genetics right, they worked closely with science advisors, Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Ting Wu and Dr. Ruth McCole. They polished the script through feedback from Stowe Story Labs, fellow writers, and potential audience members as well as table reads with professional actors.

Production/Post-Production: SAG-ULB. In July-August 2017, we filmed doc-style on location in four New York City boroughs and at a Carnegie Mellon University genetics lab in Pittsburgh. In December 2018, our experienced post team completed ANYA with 5.1 surround and stereo sound mixes (theatrical and nearfield), HD color, and a fully-licensed soundtrack featuring jazz, punk, Latin, and classical music.

Why this movie? Why now? Because fiction and fact are fast colliding. When we conceived of ANYA genetic technologies were still the stuff of sci-fi, ivory towers, and elite research hospitals. In only few years genetic testing has become mainstream and affordable. While we edited ANYA, the first human baby born through gene-editing was born. Though the circumstances are fictional ANYA captures the experience of what it might be like for a researcher and research participants in the most moments of deciding whether to pursue gene-editing to overcome infertility (a now very real prospect). As in real life, they have imperfect information about the benefits, risks, and costs. (Read more about ANYA & genetics.)

Production & Outreach Partners: Harvard’s Personal Genetics Education Project (pgEd), Carnegie Mellon University, Centro Cultural Barco de Papel, Frontline Genomics (view all partners).

Synopsis

When Libby (Ali Ahn) takes her new husband to see her ex-fiancé, it’s a move driven by desperation. They’ve suffered a series of miscarriages and the fertility doctors couldn’t find an explanation. Marco (Gil Perez-Abraham) thinks he’s cursed to never have kids because he abandoned his secretive immigrant enclave community, “Little Narval.” Dr. Seymour Livingston (Motell Foster) reminds them he’s an evolutionary geneticist, more equipped to study Neanderthal fossils than people. Still, out of love for Libby or a desire to get rid of them, Seymour agrees to take a cheek swab and see what he can find in the DNA results. To his surprise, Seymour learns that Marco carries a previously undiscovered genetic variant that could explain their infertility. Even more intriguing, Marco’s DNA suggests a possibility that’s up till now only been seen in the fossil record: there may be multiple species of humans alive today. To know for sure, Seymour convinces Marco and Libby to help him collect DNA from the residents of Little Narval in Queens, New York. There, they encounter a divided community with a unique culture and language. Gaining the Narval’s trust and collecting their DNA is no easy matter. Nor is deciding what to do with the results. ANYA ends with a doctor/patient discussion that many may soon encounter in real life: given the potential risks and unintended consequences, should they pursue gene-modification in order to have a child?

The Filmmakers

ANYA filmmakers,  Carylanna Taylor  and  Jacob Okada , at home in Washington Heights, NYC. You might recognize the view from a scene of LIBBY and MARCO planting seeds on the balcony. Photo by Jacob Okada.

ANYA filmmakers, Carylanna Taylor and Jacob Okada, at home in Washington Heights, NYC. You might recognize the view from a scene of LIBBY and MARCO planting seeds on the balcony. Photo by Jacob Okada.

ANYA is a Taylor/Okada film.

It is the first narrative feature of writing/directing/editing/producing partners, Jacob Akira Okada and Carylanna Taylor, PhD.

Together, Jacob and Carylanna have also produced the three-time best documentary winning PAINTING THE WAY TO THE MOON and the narrative short EVERY OTHER WEEKEND. They co-own First Encounter Productions which is dedicated to crafting entertaining films informed by current events, science, and anthropology.

Jacob’s first film, the documentary CURTIS (2004 Sundance, honorable mention in short film making), led him to 16+ years freelancing as a shooter, editor, and producer of documentaries. He shot and co-produced the Emmy nominated OFF AND RUNNING for PBS, which premiered at Tribeca. Jacob’s passion for research, vérité, and complicated characters helped define ANYA.

Carylanna is an anthropologist by training (PhD, Applied Cultural Anthropology, BA, Latin American Studies). Her research on migration in Latin America and the U.S. shapes ANYA. She is dedicated to crafting grounded stories that broaden world views by immersing audiences in new cultures and ideas.  

Like the newlywed couple at the heart of ANYA, Carylanna and Jacob are an intercultural couple. Jacob grew up in Manhattan and Boston with a writer mother from Romania and Japanese-American photographer father. Carylanna, a product from immigrants from seven European countries, grew up with her sci-fi loving dad in a trailer park in southwestern PA. They bonded while producing PAINTING THE WAY TO THE MOON and got married while developing ANYA.

Further Reading