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Sundance filmmaker imagines society beyond the ‘American dream’

A view overlooking Park City is seen on the sixth day of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

SALT LAKE CITY — Is there anything beyond the “American Dream”? To filmmaker Jake Yuza, there must be. 

In his feature-length Sundance film, “After America,” Yuza depicts fictional characters each dealing with different struggles caused by the pressures of living in the U.S. The film merges documentary-style techniques with fictitious stories based on real-life experiences. 

“We see these characters escape the American Dream and get out from under those pressures that they are all struggling against,” Yuza said. “The ideals and ideas of what we’re supposed to be and that are kind of impossible to create.” 

Characters deal with the pressures of the American Dream

One character, who works as a criminal de-escalation worker, succumbs to the everyday pressures of her job and decides to abandon her life. As a result, her decision unravels other character’s lives such as a queer, deaf man who explores life as an underground model but dies later in the film.

The film takes place in Minneapolis, months before the death of George Floyd — a Black man who died under the knee of a police officer and ignited a summer of national protests. Although the film was finished before Floyd’s death, Yuza said certain aspects foreshadowed the moment because it wasn’t an isolated incident. 

Rather, it was something that’s been “bubbling up” in society for years. 

“[The film] is a time capsule of some of these things that I think have been bubbling up, and [those] pressures and asking the question of can you be free of America?” Yuza said. “Can you escape America? Is it even possible?” 

What does it mean to go beyond this ideal? 

The film directly questions the ideas that virtually define America: Freedom and liberty. What does it mean to be truly free as an individual — free from your own struggles and pain, Yuza asks. 

But beyond that, Yuza said he wants his film to challenge viewers to think beyond the idea of the “American Dream” that has remained somewhat unchanged since the conception of the nation. 

“We’re 21 years into this new millennium, but it still feels like we’re still living in the 20th century in some ways,” Yuza said. “I find that, at least in America, there’s this schism that we know things need to change but we’re holding onto the past.”

Instead, the filmmaker seeks to look at what comes after achieving this ideal. 

Although the film doesn’t wholly focus on issues such as race or criminal justice, Yuza said he wanted to create a snapshot that shows these issues influence other areas of society — creating a bubble under the surface ready to burst. 

To Yuza, Floyd’s death in 2020 was the eruption.

“In the last month, the title [of ‘After America’] took on all kinds of meanings that I did not expect,” Yuza said, referencing the siege of the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6. “I was like, oh actually, we might have a totally different thing. America might be over. That came faster than I expected.” 

Moving forward, Yuza said he hopes his film can act as a catalyst for change, reminding viewers they don’t need to maintain the status quo. 

“When you’re faced with two choices, you can always take the third,” he said. “If it feels you have one of two choices, there’s always another possibility and a potential to change things for the better in ways that you may not expect.”