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

After a series of unexplained miscarriages, LIBBY (Ali Ahn) takes her newlywed husband, MARCO (Gil Perez-Abraham) to see her ex-fiance. It’s a desperate move, but all the doctors say is “have more sex” and SEYMOUR (Motell Foster) is a geneticist after all — even if he studies Neanderthal fossils not people.

Seymour swabs their DNA. Mostly so Libby and Marco will go away and let him practice his guitar in the precious few minutes he has outside the lab. But then the swab data suggest something he knew from the fossil record was possible: there are multiple species of humans. Not just in our ancient past. Right now. Today. To confirm his suspicions, Seymour convinces Marco and Libby to help him collect DNA samples from the enclave immigrant community Marco had abandoned years before. Libby, caught between the two men, ventures out in search of anything that might shed light on Marco’s secrets.

Finding the “Narval” people hidden amongst the most diverse neighborhood in the U.S. (Jackson Heights, Queens, NYC) is no easy task. The Narval have their own culture. They speak their own language. And they’re divided in two factions, one of which is after Marco for supposedly abandoning his Narval bride. The movie ends with a doctor/patient discussion befitting current genetics and anthropological headlines: will Seymour, Libby, and Marco use in-vitro fertilization and gene-modification to have a child?

At its heart, ANYA is about discovering and valuing cultural and biological diversity. ANYA takes a plausible extreme of human biological diversity (a tiny genetic fluke that causes infertility for an entire group) and shows that even if our biology divided us into technically different species, we’d still be humans, more biologically and culturally similar than we are different.

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