Alana Waksman came to Montana seven years ago to research a film.
“When I set out and moved here, I was telling people I’m going to go to Montana for a year, make a film, and go back to L.A. That’s obviously not what happened,” she said.
Waksman, a 35-year-old filmmaker from Iowa who has been living primarily in Missoula, released her debut film, “We Burn Like This,” in April at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, with subsequent showings in the U.S. and internationally. Selected as the closing film for this year’s Montana International Film Festival, “We Burn Like This” screens Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Babcock Theatre.
The film, shot primarily in Billings and Butte, centers on the experiences of Rae, a 22-year-old Jewish woman and descendant of Holocaust survivors who becomes the target of anti-Semitic harassment while living in Billings. The story pulls from a not-so-distant past in Billings, when Jewish families were targeted, initially receiving anti-Semitic flyers.
The harassment reached violent levels in December 1993, when a brick was thrown through the bedroom window of a 5-year-old child, where a paper menorah was taped to the window to commemorate Hanukkah. Racism and targeted attacks ramped up in Billings toward Jews and minorities, as well as members of the LGBTQ community. Concerned citizens formed the Coalition for Human Rights, and the campaign “Not In Our Town” was launched to combat the hate crimes.
Waksman’s film picks up parts of this history while showcasing familiar landscapes of the city: the sandstone Rims, the refineries, downtown and the railroad crossings, and plenty of Billings faces that joined in the filming.
In a scene filmed in the Congregation Beth Aaron synagogue in Billings, where Rae goes after receiving a hateful flyer, the Rabbi says, “No, we will not tolerate this. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” words shared in the 1990s by the coalition.
The film is dedicated to Waksman’s grandparents, who survived the Holocaust, but died before she was born. As teenagers, Rachela “Rae” Waksman and Zindel “Sam” Waksman were rounded up from their home near Radomsko, Poland, in 1942 and forced to work in labor camps in Russia. Though they didn’t know one another, they would meet in a displaced persons camp in Germany and marry after the war. Alana's father was born in that camp, and the family immigrated to Brooklyn when he was age 2.
“My idea of who they were is abstract,” said Waksman, who was disconnected from her family’s history for much of her life. “My dad didn’t really talk about it, because they didn’t talk about it with him.”
In Missoula, Waksman met Marshall Granger, who grew up in Billings and was studying at the University of Montana. The pair would team up for “We Burn Like This,” while also coming together as a couple in 2016.
Granger, who is now in L.A. studying at the American Film Institute Conservatory, suggested Billings as a location for filming, and also shared with Waksman his family’s experiences growing up Jewish in Billings. Granger was 2 years old in 1993 when an object was thrown through his family’s living room window during the uptick of violence and anti-Semitism in Billings.
“I wasn’t processing any of it as a 2-year-old,” said Granger. As he grew older, he recalls receiving an illustrated children’s book about the incidents, and he was also in a play about that time, staged at what was then Venture Theater.
“I had this tale of how Billings stood up and the positive outcome of what happened,” said Granger. Yet, he said that tension never really went away. While scouting locations for the film, Granger said he began to remember more of his youth, including being bullied by other kids at school for being Jewish.
“I was remembering these things that I pushed aside,” he said. “I had this idyllic, happy ending story from childhood, and a personal experience that I had never really connected until I started relaying all of this to Alana. Harassment has always been my experience in some way growing up in Billings.”
Granger grew up wanting to be a filmmaker, so bringing a film he produced to the big screen in his hometown is a triumph.
“I feel really proud of it and excited to be able to show it to Billings in such a beautiful theater that I always looked at in awe as kid,” said Granger. “At the time, it was just a site downtown, so to not only have it functioning but be a perfect spot to host this movie, that’s exciting to me.”
Billings proved to be a good canvas for the storyline, which places the characters overdrinking in bars and in seedy motels doing drugs and traversing the industrial landscape, blight, and strange character of the city. The story also positions Montana in a way that its not often seen on screen, a contrast between the rural beauty of the state and the rough industry of places like the Berkley Pit and the refineries of Billings.
“There was definitely a bank of places and visuals that have been in the back of my head that would be great to use in the movie,” said Granger of the Rimrocks, the refineries, and some of Billings more characteristic bars, like The Crystal Lounge and 1145 Club.
Not so scenic
Madeleine Coghlan, who plays Rae in the film, grew up in L.A. and found herself buddying up with a group of Montanans who moved there, which is how she was introduced to “We Burn Like This.”
“They sent the script, I read it, and I tried to hold back, but I was invested. I really love this character. I love this role,” said Coghlan, whose recent work includes a role on ABC's "The Rookie" and as the lead in the Facebook Watch series "Mira Mira."
Like Waksman, the script prompted Coghlan to reconnect with a part of her family’s past that wasn’t that talked about or present in her life. Her grandfather escaped the Holocaust, but his parents didn’t survive. “It was hard to confront at times because it is so horrific that you don’t want to think about it.”
Coghlan embodied the confusion and anger that Rae experiences throughout the film, and said she would get into character by emotionally battering herself before shoots.
“It was a lot of self-talk before scenes that wasn’t healthy, stuff that my therapist was trying to get me to unlearn,” she said. “I would say things to myself about what I deserve, which is not much. Saying mean things to myself before going into something like that, it really does a number on you. Words are so powerful, and another psyche takes hold.”
This was Coghlan’s first time in Montana, and she said there is a rhythm and grittiness to this place that makes it special. The crew filmed in bars and at Butte's Our Lady of the Rockies, as well as for several days at the infamous Lazy KT, a crime-plagued motel in east Billings that was recently torn down.
“The nights we were at the KT were the wildest experiences,” said Coughlan. “That is part of the magic of making a movie on location. I tend to gravitate toward projects where I get to be in another location or something that feels uncomfortable in the best way.”
When Waksman moved to Missoula, she wasn’t interested in telling the story of a Jewish woman, nor of digging into her own family’s historical trauma. Her fictionalized story was centered on a woman from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
Yet, sharing her family’s story became a way to open doors, Waksman said.
“People were more willing to connect to me when I shared my history,” Waksman said of meeting with some of the members of the Northern Cheyenne Nation. “It felt like they relaxed around me once they knew who I was, and that I was coming from a lineage of historical trauma.”
Waksman had some hard conversations with people, some who questioned her choice to center a story on a Native American character, an idea that originated as a short story she crafted as an undergrad at Connecticut College. She pursued an MFA from University of Southern California, graduating in 2014, and afterward returned to the script.
“The idea had occurred to me early on that I could change it to be my identity, but it wasn’t interesting to me," said Waksman. "That’s how I felt about myself: my story isn’t interesting, and someone else’s story is.”
Then came the 2016 presidential election. In the wake of the election, Waksman saw an uptick in anti-Semitism, including neo-Nazi flyers delivered to the doors of the Har Shalom Synagogue in Missoula, the city where she was living at the time.
“That shook me. I had never encountered anti-Semitism in my life,” said Waksman. “I felt scared for the first time.”
Such reflections are mirrored in “We Burn Like This,” as the lead character Rae comes to understand this underbelly of hatred.
“I thought this kind of thing didn’t happen anymore,” Rae expresses in one of the initial scenes of the film, when she’s sitting on the Rimrocks overlooking Billings with her roommate, Chrissy B, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation. A flyer placed on their door with rhetoric from the “Jewish run media” had prompted the discussion.
“None of this has ever gone away,” replied Chrissy B.
Because Waksman’s script was initially centered on an Indigenous lead, she cast Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, of the Kahnawá:ke Mohawk Nation, who plays Elora Dana on the FX series “Reservation Dogs” and has appeared in sitcoms including “Rutherford Falls and “American Gods.”
Waksman saw Jacobs perform in the film “Rhymes for Young Ghouls” and was so taken with her acting that she reached out to ask Jacobs to be part of the film. At the time, the character of Chrissy B was the lead role, but Waksman changed her script to better reflect her experience as a Jewish woman.
“She understood why I made the change and saw there was value and still wanted to be part of the film,” said Waksman.
There were plenty of challenges writing the perspective of a Northern Cheyenne woman into her work, and Waksman said she consulted with members of the tribe as she was writing, as well as asking input from Jacobs. Though the role was downsized, the intertwining of the historical trauma of the Northern Cheyenne pushed from their homelands is discussed in the film.
“The film community — I feel like they’ve woken up to asking and questioning who is telling the story,” said Waksman, who acknowledged she felt like part of the problem. “I’m just like everyone else in this case. I went back and forth with so many different people … but it felt more valuable to be transparent about my perspective and my voice, especially with my first feature.”
The intertwining of experiences becomes central to the movie, and the deep bond the roommates share becomes more pronounced as Rae comes to understand the historical trauma and struggles of her Indigenous roommate and her Jewish mother and her parents.
In the film, Rae is told she "has survivor blood," and she is hesitant to accept this. "It's a beautiful thing to say," said Coghlan. "A lot of the things I face today are nowhere near what my grandparents and ancestors had to face. As I child, I didn't want to hear about it. It's so hard to fathom. Now, as an adult, how can I not honor the survivor in here?"
Waksman interspersed her experiences and Jewish culture into the film, including Hamsa, the “hand of God” described in the film as being able to ward off evil spirits, which is then given a high-five by a non-Jewish character. And yes, someone actually did high-five Waksman’s Hamsa.
“Part of what I have become passionate about is making the Jewish identity more visible,” said Waksman. “We all know the stereotypes of Jewish culture and identity that is portrayed in New York City or major metro areas, but what about people who don’t live around a lot of other Jewish people? That was my experience in Iowa. And, I haven’t seen that in a film.”
In the movie, Christian missionaries come to the family’s door and are shocked to meet a Jewish family. That experience did happen to Waksman, she said, including the description that it is “interesting” to meet her.
“I did always feel like I was a little different. There are other people who are like me, so I would love to make that experience more visible so people can understand a little bit more what that feels like.”
Photos: Movies shot in Montana
'Shot in Montana' — 'Forrest Gump'
Shot in Montana — 'Thunderbolt and Lightfoot' and 'Heaven's Gate'
Shot in Montana — 'What Dreams May Come'
'Shot in Montana' — 'The Missouri Breaks'
Shot in Montana — 'Missouri Breaks'
'Shot in Montana' — 'A River Runs Through It'
Shot in Montana — 'Beethoven's 2nd'
'Shot in Montana' — 'Far and Away'
'Shot in Montana' — 'The River Wild'
Shot in Montana — 'Disorganized Crime'
'Shot in Montana' — 'The Untouchables'
Shot in Montana — 'The Untouchables'
Shot in Montana — 'Hiding Out With the Hutterites'
Shot in Montana — 'War Party'
Shot in Montana — 'Telefon'
Shot in Montana — 'Amazing Grace and Chuck'
Shot in Montana — 'Firefox'
Shot in Montana — 'Love Comes to the Executioner'
'Shot in Montana' — 'Rancho Deluxe'
Shot in Montana — 'Stacking'
'Shot in Montana' — 'Evel Knievel'
Shot in Montana — 'Powder River'
Shot in Montana — 'Bright Angel'
Email Arts and Entertainment Reporter Anna Paige at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @penandpaige.