When Alex Suszko decided to turn his script into a feature film, he didn’t own a camera.
Now that the project is complete, Suszko said, he’s one of the first people with a disability in Minnesota to self-finance their own movie. Suszko, who’s 26 and from Stillwater, has epilepsy.
The film is called “Dolwa,” which is also the name of the movie’s fictional moon that passes by Earth and cosmically connects the lives of the three leading characters, played by local actors Jennifer Prettyman, Janet Mondloh and Nadya Anderson.
Suszko came up with the idea for the film in 2016 when he was studying film production at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. After graduation, he finalized the script but wasn’t able to sell it to a production company, as he’d hoped, so he chose to tackle the project himself. He put out a casting call in 2018, shot the film between 2019 and 2020, and finished editing late last year.
“I’d spent too much time on this idea to just not do anything with it,” he said. “So I bought a camera, and decided to be the director, producer, cinematographer, editor, visual effects designer, supporting actor.”
Now, Suszko is submitting the movie to film festivals, where he hopes it would gain exposure and be picked up by a distribution company. Certain festivals require films to be premieres, though, which means Suszko cannot hold any of his own public screenings of “Dolwa” without jeopardizing the film’s festival eligibility. You can watch a trailer on the movie’s Facebook page, though.
Unlike a traditional film budget, which is largely determined in advance and apportioned across the whole movie-making process, funding for “Dolwa” came piecemeal. Out of every paycheck Suszko earned from his day jobs, a portion would go toward the film — often, he said, to fund the very next shoot.
This meant Suszko couldn’t necessarily pay for specific lighting equipment or location fees to shoot the film how he initially envisioned; in a way, he said, the limited budget actually served to heighten the emotional impact of his cinematography. Big-budget special effects for the plot’s science-fiction elements were out of the question, so he honed in more on the characters’ inner conflicts. With tight close-up shots of actors’ faces, coupled with stark shadows and occasionally surreal colors, he hoped to convey a sense of “metaphysical influence” and almost claustrophobia.
“There was a certain reward in being limited that way, because it forced me to be creative in how I approached filming the scenes and making the movie,” he said. “Some of the scenes actually came out better when I recognized, ‘Our backs are up against the wall, but I can do this really cool thing I never thought.’”
Ultimately, the film’s price tag landed in the $7,000–$8,000 range.
These constraints also helped Suszko and the cast become more familiar with the characters’ psychology, he said. Actors had to be particularly expressive, especially with their faces, and Suszko said he was “astounded” by the actors’ talent in embodying and enhancing characters’ perspectives.
The film was truly a team effort between Suszko and cast and crew members, he emphasized, and he had community support. He was able to film scenes in Stillwater at the Zephyr Theatre, Ziggy’s On Main, and St. Croix Preparatory Academy, Suszko’s alma mater.
Living with epilepsy, Suszko brought his own perspective to the characters, too. Suszko said his epilepsy is not so severe that he has “the constant concern that I’ll drop down and have a seizure,” but it manifests in his social interactions and difficulty simply being on the same wavelength as others, he said.
Even though the characters in “Dolwa” aren’t necessarily written with disabilities of their own, Suszko said, his experiences show through in their relationships with one another. In particular, he wanted his film’s script to include elements of both communication breakdown and empathetic connection that he finds relatable. And he wants the film to be a celebration of local artists and performers accomplishing things they thought they could not: A call to take that leap of faith.
“Having a disability shapes your worldview, and it’s a worldview that is, I think, inherently isolating — but doesn’t always have to be, if you understand that other people are also going through conflicts of their own that you may not see or understand,” Suszko said.
“It’s the idea that we are both experiencing stressors that we don’t have to fully understand, as far as the physical effects, but that we can gather empathy for someone else from having gone through our own experiences with those obstacles.”