Every academic year at Southern Adventist University ends with a showcase of the best work from students in the School of Visual Art and Design (SVAD). To open the multimedia show of fine art, graphic design, film, and animation, faculty members create a top-secret introductory film. When finally revealed, this piece sets the tone and builds anticipation for the evening to come.
In 2015 that film was Elegy, and it served a bigger purpose than being an opener for the end-of-year show, at least for Nicholas Livanos, as director and SVAD professor. “I got the news of my father’s death in January of 2015 and processed my grief, in part, through making the film,” he says.
The loss left him with a lot of questions. His father, Jason Livanos, had been a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, but had broken his vow of noncombatancy by taking the lives of Vietcong in order to rescue American captives.
Late in life, when Livanos asked him about how he dealt with the trauma of the incident, his father said this: “I just don’t think about it.” Through tears, he wondered out loud if God could forgive what he had done.
“I still don’t know if my father ever reconciled his guilt with God’s loving forgiveness,” says Livanos. “But I do know that art often provides a path for asking questions that language struggles to articulate.”
Livanos’ personal goal for the project was to wrestle with some of those hard questions, rather than just arrive at conclusions. He recalled Job’s desire to question God in the midst of his suffering, but in the Bible, God does not provide Job with direct answers.
As a result, the film is especially poetic and symbolic. There are elements left intentionally ambiguous enough for personal interpretation. For Livanos, the girl’s coin represents those things we must let go of in order to be reconciled with God. God takes our burdens on Himself, if we let him. He doesn’t force grace on us.
An elegy is a sort of funeral poem, but the inspiration for this short piece doesn’t begin and end with death. The imagery also evokes Elijah’s encounter with God from 1 Kings 19, when God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in a still small voice.
At the end of the film, a whispering Hebrew voice asks the same question God asks Elijah in the cave, “What are you doing here?” “I think there is a connection between this moment and my father’s story: Elijah ended up hiding in a cave because he was afraid of Jezebel, even though he had recently called down fire from heaven on Mount Carmel. He had experienced God’s greatness, but had lost sight of it,” says Livanos. His dad grew up an Adventist believer, but doubted God’s ability to forgive his actions in war. He had experienced God’s greatness, but had lost sight of it.
The film also contains a poem, in voice-over, that incorporates text from Ecclesiastes. Solomon’s lament on meaningless existence merges with Livanos’ original poetry. Of course, in mourning it becomes easier to feel that life is meaningless. Elegy, however,makes efforts to end on a hopeful note—imagining a dramatic transformation for the lead character. She emerges at the end of the film visibly different because of her sacrifice to self. Livanos shares this same hope for the end of his father’s life.
All these fine details inject an intentionality into the whole film that he hopes will move audiences. No one needs to agree with the meaning, but it is hoped that viewers take some time to think about what it means for themselves. “A lot of people worked extremely hard to make the film a reality, and each of them rose to the occasion, adding their own details and owning a piece of the story,” says Livanos.
Production for Elegy took one and a half days on location with SVAD students and faculty working side by side as crew. In order to capture all the footage on such a short time line, SVAD professor and film program coordinator David George led two camera teams at once. There are a number of stunning special effects visuals, and everything was done practically on set. When you see fire, that’s real fire, every time. Licensed pyrotechnicians helped keep the crew safe and the explosions dazzling. Makeup and wardrobe created unique looks from scratch, including blue glitter for the finale. The lead actor, SVAD graphic design alumnus Rachel Rupert, performed her own stunts—falling backward off a 15-foot tower into a foam pit below. Locations manager Tom Smith (42, Water for Elephants) secured an abandoned steel foundry for the primary shooting venue.
Since its premiere at the 2015 SVAD end-of-year show, Elegy has made the rounds throughout the United States, connecting with Christian and nonbelieving audiences alike. At the International Christian Film Festival, Livanos was nominated for best short film director and won second place for best short film. Elegy earned gold elsewhere, as well as several official film festival selections.
Livanos recently re-edited the source footage into a music video for the song “Omega,” by Swedish band Immanu El. “I don’t know how they heard about it, but I guess they liked it. Seeing the same material take on a different tone and form was an unusual experience, but it was kind of a beautiful thing. Just at the end of its life, this film about death was reborn—you might even say ‘resurrected,’ ” Livanos adds.
He began another collaborative student production in February. The film is still untitled, but revolves around themes of trust, faith, and the notion that we as humans must actively choose what we believe about God’s character. It’s also a sci-fi comedy. Livanos hopes to continue to create stories with spiritual themes that have the ability to connect with nonspiritual audiences. “After all,” he says. “Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds.”
Wilona Karimabadi is an assistant editor for Adventist Review. Nicholas Livanos is is a professor of film production at Southern Adventist University’s School of Visual Art and Design.