Ghost Creek shimmers in the fog of our pandemic-fatigued minds

Shereena Rae Honary as Ghost. — video still

We’re in a pandemic, in case you haven’t noticed.

And in a pandemic, especially as the parent of a toddler, time (to put a fine point on it) gets a bit — slippery. So on this past rather innocuous Tuesday night, when Ghost Creek premiered, I accessed the website at “about 7” rather than at 7 p.m., and found that I’d missed my chance.

The following night, with toddler firmly snuggled beside me, at roughly the same time — that intentional, ostensible quiet half hour right before she goes to bed — I pulled it up and dove in. Again, with a toddler, in a pandemic, things that I am used to doing alone have become family affairs. So I’ll start with the 3-year-old’s “review”: Despite being live action and yet not part of the MCU, she was enthralled.

In fact, she’d been enthralled by the trailer when she found me watching it several days ago, but I’d had my doubts about the full thing, since her tolerance for real people on screen seems to top out at about 45 seconds. She was engaged from jump. She asked questions, occasionally, but not the ones I expected.

I think that’s because the film had something of a child’s logic to it: immersive, narrative-yet-disjointed, casting our Iowa City as something akin to Wonderland, a place we’re not quite sure whether or not we’re only dreaming.

Lily DeTaeye on stage at the Englert (the Ghost Creek wardrobe, by Misty Blank, deserves special mention, and this is the place). — video still

Ghost Creek is a short film experience produced by the Mission Creek Festival team. Last year, when COVID-19 was just beginning to establish its kudzu control over us, the cancellation of Mission Creek 2020 was what shook many of us in eastern Iowa out of our illusions of isolation and personal safety. Now, almost a year later, Ghost Creek is telling us gently that illusion is OK again — that it might not yet be safe to gather, but it’s safe to dream of gathering. It’s safe to hope.

Unlike the filmed performances and conversations that made up last fall’s virtual Witching Hour presentation, Ghost Creek didn’t feel at all like a Mission Creek Festival experience. Not even a little bit. Witching Hour was wholly Witching Hour; even watching it alone in my darkened living room at 3 a.m., it felt at every moment “just like being there.” But Ghost Creek was wholly new. You’ll notice in reading this that I’m not even italicizing it; that’s because I’m still not sure whether it’s the title of a short film or the name of an entirely new designation of experience. It wasn’t “like Mission Creek.” It wasn’t even something you’d find on loop in a stumbled-upon basement during Mission Creek.

Shereena Rae Honary as Awira, at work at the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History. — video still

The narrative of the film, based on a story by Rachel Yoder (who also does some voiceover work) follows a woman through two days of janitorial work and the night between them. It begins, appropriately, with a drive through derecho damage — perhaps the most visually dissociating experience of many of our lives. From there it spins into a world where fantasy, dream and longing all intertwine.

The first song, the one you’ll recognize from the trailer, is “Teacher,” sung by the inimical Mary Bozaan. There’s no better voice they could have chosen to kick off this testament to the power of the arts to sustain us. Bozaan’s voice could carry water from a well, could carry the weight of the world, could carry a child to term. It’s the perfect complement to the longing and loneliness present in every movement that Shereena Rae Honary, as the lead, Awira, makes.

Breakdancers Raud Kashef, Nick Mendoza, Ben Poss, Chuy Renteria. — video still

There’s no good description for how Ghost Creek made me feel. Benjamin Handler, who adapted and directed the piece, has a distinct knack for this kind of storytelling: the kind that invites, if not outright forces, the viewer to overlay their own experiences, that exists more as a conversation than a declamation.

I both ached and cringed at the break dancers’ closeness to each other.

The brief shots of shoppers, musicians and diners sparsely scattered on the Ped Mall are still weirdly haunting, a gesture toward a not-quite-normal that I’m not even ready to experience yet.

Even my daughter’s questions weren’t out of place, didn’t feel like interruptions, but like echoes.

“I had this dream,” Yoder narrates. “I was searching — for anyone.”

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The uncertain divide between dream and life. — video still

For the moment, tickets for Ghost Creek are still available for purchase on the Englert’s website. Once you purchase, you have 72 hours of access. There is a Community Access level for $5, Standard Access for $10, a full package including T-shirt and poster for $30 and a $75 “Friend of Ghost Creek” level that also includes a 12-month Friends of the Englert membership. Catch it now before it fades away.

And if you’ve already seen it, keep the conversation going. Don’t stop asking questions and seeking answers about the significance of the arts in our community and our individual lives. Talk to each other — please, talk to me! — about your vision for the future of our city, of our scene and of our sanity. We can manifest this dream together.