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ShortList 2020: How ‘Girl in the Hallway’ Animates a Heartbreaking Tale of Abduction and Murder (Video)

First-time director Valerie Barnhart built her film around a wrenching monologue by slam poet Jamie DeWolf

“Girl in the Hallway” is the name of a harrowing animated short that is a finalist in TheWrap’s 2020 ShortList Film Festival. And for director and animator Valerie Barnhart, it’s also a big case of “I told you so” for a lot of people who discouraged her along the way.

“When I was in art school, I thought about going into the animation program or the film program,” said the Canadian visual artist-turned-filmmaker. “But everyone, including my teachers, said, ‘You’re not a good enough artist. No one will be interested in your stories. You’ll never make it.’ It took me quite some time, until I was in my 30s, before I thought, ‘I am gonna make a movie. I don’t need these people.'”

She paused. “The joke’s on them, I guess.”

Barnhart is right, though that’s the only context in which you could use the word joke in relation to “Girl in the Hallway.” The film is based on a monologue by San Francisco slam poet Jamie DeWolf, who describes living in a run-down apartment complex in the Bay Area town of Vallejo where he often encountered a 7-year-old girl, Xiana Fairchild, who was later abducted and murdered by serial killer Curtis Dean Anderson.

Barnhart was on YouTube when she ran across DeWolf’s emotional monologue, in which he shares his guilt over not doing more to help Fairchild when he saw her in the hallways. Although she’d never made a movie, she immediately thought that DeWolf’s work had to be turned into a film.

“I think it’s his honesty and accountability,” she said. “The story was really applicable to how a lot of silence is perpetuated in communities – people are just minding their own business and seeing something wrong and not doing or saying anything. That’s really what made me want to make a movie. I just felt like this needed to be said, and I could present it in a completely different iteration of the story.”

She emailed DeWolf had asked if she could turn his monologue into a film, and he agreed. (“He thought I was making a fan video,” she said.) Barnhart initially figured the animation would take her a couple of months, but the process stretched to three years as she had to start from scratch learning how to make a movie.

“I was limited by my learning curve and my budget,” she said. “I would break every sequence down to four-, five-second phrases, and then think, ‘What imagery would fit these phrases perfectly?’ And then I’d have to solve how to create that imagery, because I didn’t know.”

Because she didn’t have the budget to re-record the narration, Barnhart used the original recording of DeWolf’s monologue, which he performed in front of a live audience; it gives the narration a more heightened, theatrical feel than you find in most films, but one whose passion fits the material. “I like the rawness,” she said. “People shouldn’t be unemotional about this.”

To create the film’s rich, dark and haunted look, she used a variety of techniques, including 2D stop motion, chalkboard-style animation and cutouts. Her technique got better along the way, but she followed Tim Burton’s advice after he made “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” animating chronologically so that the film would also improve as it went along. “The first 30 seconds make me cringe,” she said, “but then it’s like watching a timeline of my growth as an artist.”

The subject matter, she said, was the toughest thing about sticking with the project for three years. “Animation is incredibly straightforward,” she said. “The material itself is what was difficult. And at the end of the day, it’s a true story – I couldn’t be comforted by the fact that it was fiction.” Now, she said, she has been bitten by the film bug and has a couple of other projects in development:”It’s been fun working with lighter topics and coming up with jokes. Now I can have fun with animation.”

And does she ever run into any of those people who told her she wasn’t talented enough to be a filmmaker?

“No,” she said. “They’re sort of gone. They’re in my past.”