In the independent film Alistair 1918, a social work grad student’s film project on L.A. homelessness becomes something quite other when she and her friends encounter a man claiming to be from another time and place. Written by Guy Birtwhistle (who also stars as Alistair) and directed by (mainly) theater director Annie McVey, the film debuted as an official selection of the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con Independent Film Festival.
Poppy (McVey) is a social work student working on her thesis. Her project is to create a documentary on homelessness in downtown L.A. During the filming she and her film crew encounter an odd man: filthy head to foot, and dressed in a British WWI uniform. His name is Alistair, and he insists that he, in fact, had been blasted through some sort of wormhole from 1918 to 2016 during a battlefield explosion. He’s quite matter of fact about it, but there’s no real reason to believe him. It’s easy to believe that he believes it, but neither Poppy nor her crew (especially them) believe his story is actually true.
But Poppy is a social worker, and a very classic d0-gooder, and it’s her inclination to help the homeless man, buying him food and checking in on him to make sure he’s okay, even if he might be crazy. As time passes, however, Poppy (not so much her friends, who really don’t buy anything Alistair’s saying) comes to believe that Alistair is what he says he is: a man who simply wants to return to his wife and his life in 1918. And she wants very much to help him return, giving him the tools he needs to become presentable–and research his fate, and a way to reverse it. And as we get to know Alistair, we, like Poppy begin to believe him, and he, too, becomes part of the filmmaking process as he involves the whole crew (some of them reluctantly) in his quest to rejoin his wife.
Alistair is no caricature WWI soldier, nor is he a stereotypical homeless man. This is a man who knows his story, is completely sane (and comes off that way). I thought it was incredibly smart for the filmmakers to make Alistair an educated, well-read man–someone who would understand what’s happened to him and adjust. We meet him, 30 days after he’s arrived in L.A., and he’s obviously come to terms with the fact he’s no longer in his proper time. We don’t get a lot of gee-whiz 21st Century moments from Alistair’s point of view. Thankfully! On one hand, his comfort in our time makes it entirely possible that he’s just crazy, but there are also enough clues that he’s really is a time-transported WWI soldier. I don’t want to give too much more of the plot away, so I’ll stop there.
Birtwhistle explained to me that the film was inspired by a photograph he’d found of his great-uncle, a machine gunner who died fighting in WWI. “I wondered what [Uncle] Fred would think about my life here in Los Angeles, 100 years in the future, and the story of a time traveling WWI soldier was born.”
I asked Birtwhistle where he got the time-travel idea. He explained that like most British kids, it started with Doctor Who. “I think in the DNA of growing up in England in the ’80s, you’re so immersed in it. Doctor Who was on every night. Mine was Simon Baker, he was my Doctor.” What better inspiration than the Time Lord himself! “You kind of grow up in England with this very rich sci-fi background and narrative,” he said, “or really sort of out-there storytelling. It’s part of our DNA.”
The film feels, intentionally, I think, like an amateur documentary shot with handheld camera. After all, Poppy isn’t a filmmaker, she’s a social worker! There are nice performances all around, from Birtwhistle’s heartfelt turn as Alistair to a nice performances by Amy Motta (Tentacle 8), Tom Cano, Devin Schiro, and director McVey.
Motta plays a French-speaking expert in wormhole theory, for which she (and Birtwhistle) did a lot of research. “It’s a vacuum inside a vacuum, and it opens up this space of negative energy which was like a tear in the space-time continuum. That’s really sort of what it’s loosely based on is that Alister was blown through,” Birtwhistle told me.
Motta added, “By doing that level of research I think you find out what is plausible and justifiable and then that can lead to other things rather than just sort of like believing something at face-value.”
Alistair 1918 is a lovely indie film made with care and, from talking with the cast after the screening, a lot of passion. It’s a nice take on the time-travel theme, and very much worth a look. It’s available now on VOD at the film’s official site.