Ahead of the 2024 Film Independent Spirit Awards which highlights the best in independent cinema, we spoke to AFI Conservatory Alum Vanara Taing (AFI Class of 2012) whose new docudrama THE UNKNOWN COUNTRY is nominated for the distinguished John Cassavetes Award. Starring Academy Award® nominee Lily Gladstone, the film centers on an Indigenous woman named Tana (Gladstone) who embarks on a cross-country road trip following the death of her beloved grandmother. Vanara earned a story by credit for the film–alongside Gladstone and Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, in addition to editing and producing this passion project spearheaded by director Morrisa Maltz and shot over four years.
Vanara’s editing credits include the new film MILLER’S GIRL – starring Martin Freeman and Jenna Ortega and theatrically released on January 26, SCOOB! and THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE. Her short film SAMNANG, which she penned, was a national narrative finalist for the Student Academy Award® and won Best International Short at the 2014 Milan International Film Festival. We spoke to her about her recent Spirit Award nomination for THE UNKNOWN COUNTRY, blending narrative and documentary elements as an editor and what she learned at the AFI Conservatory.
AFI: Congratulations on the John Cassavetes Award nomination. What does this honor mean to you at this stage in your career?
Vanara: It is tremendously rewarding and incredibly poignant that I was nominated for THE UNKNOWN COUNTRY, which really was a labor of love for everyone involved.
AFI: You wore so many diﬀerent hats on the film. How did you first become involved and what were you ultimately hoping to convey about the character of Tana as a woman, as a caretaker and as an individual navigating a profound sense of grief?
Vanara: Morrisa approached me about the project at the idea stage. She said she wanted to make a road movie where a young woman, after the death of her grandmother, ﬁnds a picture of her grandmother standing in an unknown, natural location and decides to start driving until she miraculously ends up at the same spot in the photo. The road trip that Tana takes is one that Morrisa has done countless times and was also an inspiration for the ﬁlm – the emotional experience of traveling alone, the freedom and the fear that comes with it, but also the characters you may meet or would like to know more about along the way.
For a long time while I was editing, the beginning of the movie opened with the lines: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/With your one wild and precious life?” They are the last lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day.” In the ﬁlm, Tana ﬁnds these lines printed on a slip of paper in Lainey’s grandmother’s bedroom. The slip of paper belonged to Lainey’s grandmother and was not production designed to be there. But Lily, as Tana, discovered it, and it just felt like kismet and fitting as a guiding question for the ﬁlm. What’s interesting is that when I went to read the entire poem, the line before this ﬁnal phrase is, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”
AFI: As an editor, what was your approach in marrying narrative and documentary elements to create a throughline, and also trying to seamlessly blend footage of non-professional actors with that of actress Lily Gladstone?
Vanara: Because there was no script, I wanted to make sure that there was material that could help us ﬁgure out the narrative as we shot. Morrisa wanted Tana to interact with diﬀerent people she herself had met though her travels, who are featured in the documentary vignettes you see in the ﬁlm. I encouraged Morrisa to record interviews with each person and, through learning about them, I thought we could come up with scene ideas and have Tana either ask them about their lives or parse a situation out of the material. But when I got the audio, I thought their stories were so strong and Morrisa and Andrew Hajek, our incredible DP, had shot this impressionistic test footage of some of the documentary characters already, so I started editing those into vignettes with the audio from the interviews. These vignettes became my way to give narrative anchor points to the ﬁlm. The real-life characters’ stories spiritually aligned with Tana’s journey and hopefully give the audience a way into Tana’s inner world, who for the ﬁrst part of the ﬁlm remains purposely mysterious.
In terms of blending ﬁrst-time actors and Lily Gladstone, I approached it in the same way I would with professional actors — looking for honesty within the performances, and they all gave me wonderful material to work with. Also, I’m sure it helped acting with Lily, who is not only tremendous as an actor, but also incredibly generous, kind and grounded, so her presence put them into the world of the ﬁlm very organically.
AFI: There is also a political undercurrent throughout the film as Tana is driving across the U.S. How did ﬁlming leading up to the 2020 election frame your editing and your way of thinking about and looking at the fractured state of the country?
Vanara: The political state of the country deﬁnitely was a strong undercurrent that Morrisa wanted to convey. She started recording the radio segments after 2016 and collected them for a few years. It was deﬁnitely on her mind, and she wanted the radio to be like another character in the film. Because THE UNKNOWN COUNTRY is built on a loose narrative, the radio broadcast was another tool to give the audience a narrative throughline, whether emotionally mirroring what Tana was feeling along the road trip, conveying simply geographical facts so you knew when she crossed a state line, or helping to voice themes or questions of identity, searching, fragmentation and comfort.
AFI: What ﬁrst drew you to editing, and what did you take away from your time training at the AFI Conservatory?
Vanara: What attracted me to editing is that it combines my love of writing while tapping into this other creative part of my brain that loves abstraction and putting images and sound together to evoke different emotions and my logical side that gets challenged by solving puzzles. I absolutely loved my time at AFI. It’s such a unique experience to be able to continuously be making stuff for two years. You don’t realize while it’s happening because you’re so in the trenches, but all those narrative workshops and editing courses when you’re articulating your choices or giving notes to others on their ﬁlms — it’s all preparation for the industry. You have to have the skills, but what sets people apart are those that can articulate their choices, perspectives and have a strong sense of story and structure.