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Filmmaker with Albany Roots Gives a New Face to Little-Known Condition

Ari Sigal, a 2001 graduate of Albany High and a winner of the 2011 Albany FilmFest, is writing, directing and editing a new short film about face blindness, the inability to recognize people's faces. Check out the video trailer below.

Ari Sigal’s short films include stories about a tree branch sprouting out of a man’s abdomen, grass growing through a hardwood floor, and a woman literally losing her head.

So it’s not surprising that the 29-year-old Albany native’s newest project, "Emily and Billy," is about a girl suffering from “face blindness” and a boy with a featureless face.

Face blindness is a neurological disorder known in the medical world as prosopagnosia. People with the disorder are unable to recognize faces and consequently struggle to identify others accurately.

“I just thought it was a really interesting condition, 'cause it’s just something we take for granted—that we can recognize people,” Sigal said. “I thought the psychology of it was really interesting as well, so I wanted to explore it.”

Sigal, a 2001 graduate of , is the writer, director and editor of "Emily and Billy."

The 10-minute film is about the friendship between two 8-year-olds who are both a little different.

The character of Emily, played by San Ramon’s 7-year-old Emily Kessel, has face blindness. The character of Billy, played by San Jose’s 9-year-old Everett Meckler, has a featureless face—achieved through make-up and postproduction special effects.

At the end of June, Sigal and her crew completed the first day of filming, using the in El Cerrito as the set for Emily’s classroom.

“The school just had a really great look, and they were really easy to work with,” Sigal said.

She admitted feeling nervous about working with child actors, especially with the prospect of having 20 third-graders on the El Cerrito set as extras for the classroom scene. But Sigal said the actors, especially Kessel, have so far impressed her. 

The scenes filmed at Tehiyah Day School will make up the opening minutes of the film. There are still three more shoot dates, which will take place in Clayton, Pinole, Richmond and Santa Rosa.

As “Emily and Billy” inches closer to its completion, set for sometime near the end of summer, Sigal said she is glad to see the script she has been working on for more than a year come to life.

“I guess emotionally I really like this project, because it’s ultimately a story about kids that feel like outcasts,” she said. “I guess I sorta like telling stories about people that feel a little outside or different.”

Sigal’s attraction to stories about unusual characters is apparent to her colleagues.

David Smith, the director of photography for “Emily and Billy,” has collaborated with Sigal on all three of her previous short films and numerous other projects. According to Smith, Sigal has a unique vision and style.

“She has a weird take on things,” he said. “There’s always something a little surreal about her films.”

And, so far, surreal has worked for Sigal. At the 2011 Albany FilmFest, for her project "I Love You, Houseplant," the story of a man who visits the doctor about a tree branch sprouting from his side.

A BACKGROUND ON STAGE

Though Sigal has spent the last two years concentrating on film, she grew up loving theater and acting.

During her years at , she was involved in both visual and performing arts. Sigal still recalls her art teacher, Edmund Hill, who passed away several years ago, as being an important creative force during those years.

Though she dabbled in the visual arts, the majority of her time was spent on the stage, acting in school plays and in productions at the .

“The school theater program was very small at the time but the people running it were very into it and there was a lot of heart behind it,” Sigal said.

Her mother, Naomi Lucks Sigal, an Albany FilmFest organizer, said Ari’s interest in theater and acting just seemed natural.

“It never occurred to me she would do anything else,” her mother said. “Every person has their own direction in life and that was really a driving interest of hers.” 

Looking back at her years in Albany, Sigal said she cannot remember a time when she was interested in anything but acting.

“I just always loved it—it wasn’t such a cerebral decision for me,” she said.

With the support of her parents, Sigal followed her passion for theater to New York City, where she studied drama at New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts.

From there, Sigal began acting with Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway theater companies—designated as such by their smaller size.

But often, she would walk away from auditions feeling irritated by the lack of roles written for women, and the lack of variety in the few female roles that did exist.

“You see a lot of the same parts over and over again,” she said. “I found that really frustrating, so I started writing my own plays.”

While working at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club and the Ensemble Studio Theatre, Sigal helped write and direct multiple plays.

But after a while, Sigal realized that her ideas and the scripts she was writing were geared toward film, not theater.

Seeking a change of scenery, Sigal left New York in 2009 and moved back to the Bay Area to pursue film.

THE CAMERA IS ROLLING

Within a few months of returning to California, Sigal began attending the Berkeley Digital Film Institute, where she learned and practiced all the components of filmmaking in a 16-month program. 

It was at the institute that Sigal met Smith, sparking a collaboration that has included two web series, four short films, and other smaller projects.

“I always feel like it's rewarding working with her,” Smith said. “I feel like she pushes me as a cinematographer because she has a vision in her head and I have to stretch to make that vision possible.”

Sigal also met fellow student Lyniel Dao, the producer of "Emily and Billy," during the program.

At the end of her studies, Sigal began developing the idea for "Emily and Billy" and writing the script, and Dao was one of the first to sign on to the project.

“Her work is so imaginative and artistic,” Dao said. “She has a great eye, and her stories are just so interesting. I was really drawn to that.”

Now almost a year later, Sigal, Smith and Dao are among a crew of about 15 who are working on the production of what will be Sigal’s fourth short film.

The production process has been helped by the fact that the crew is shooting with a high definition DSLR camera, meaning the footage is captured electronically instead of on expensive rolls of film.

For the many expenses that do need to be covered, Dao and Sigal are relying on kickstarter.com, a funding platform for creative projects, where anyone can donate to a project.

In the 30-day fundraising window for "Emily and Billy" on Kickstarter, the film collected $3,965, which will go toward the lighting, equipment and post-production costs.

Though most people think of being a director as sitting behind the camera on a shoot date, Sigal and Dao stressed all the pre-production, post-production and behind-the-scenes work that goes into making a movie.

“What I tell people is that filmmaking is a lifestyle, it’s not necessarily a career choice 'cause your whole life revolves around it,” Dao said. 

For Sigal, the constant variety of being a filmmaker is refreshing, and she said she has high hopes for the future. 

Aside from "Emily and Billy," she is working on a feature-length movie script and developing a television series with her writing partner, Brennan Brown.

Once "Emily and Billy" is finished, Sigal said she plans on submitting it to various local film festivals. With her story about two lonely outcasts, Sigal hopes she will find popularity for herself in the difficult film industry.

For more information about "Emily and Billy," visit the film's website or its Facebook page. To see Ari Sigal's past work, visit her website.

If there's something in this article you think , or if something else is amiss, call editor Emilie Raguso at 510-459-8325 or email her at albany@patch.com.

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