Have you ever wondered what it would be like to come back to your hometown as a changed person? Even if your family accepted and loved you despite your changes, how do you recreate yourself as an adult and reckon where you came from and where you are now?
These are the questions 2019 Wright State University motion picture graduates Ben Evory and Hannah Blair endeavor to ask with “Sheltered,” a web series they created with several other Wright State alumni.
The series received accolades at the Cindependent Film Fest in September. The series was nominated for several awards through the festival, which celebrates independent filmmakers, screens their work, and offers master classes on filmmaking techniques and concepts.
“Sheltered” won the award for Best Ohio Short. In addition, Evory was nominated for Best Director, and Wright State graduate Jared Levy, who plays Nathan, the main character of the series, was nominated for Best Actor.
Evory also received a 2022 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award for writing “Sheltered.”
Starring Levy and Mark Antony Howard, another Wright State graduate, “Sheltered” tells the story of a gay man named Nathan who comes home from his first year of college to Appalachian Ohio to go on a mission trip to Honduras through his church. Throughout the series, Nathan and his father come to a deeper understanding of each other as Nathan questions and withdraws from his father’s faith.
Evory said the series explores a community tied to his own life to the point where his father plays the father character in the series. Evory said the tone and overarching mood of the series were important to him.
“It’s a father-son love story. It was a way for me to play with my upbringing in a fictional way,” he said. “It’s a story where two men talk and speak with consideration for each other. That was important to me when writing this story, that two gentle, intelligent men from Appalachia can carry a meaningful conversation. You can make your peace. You don’t have to share faith, but you can still be a family.”
The series was filmed in Evory’s hometown of Waverly, Ohio. He filmed in places and areas where he grew up, which was a positive, affirming experience for Evory. He said that portraying Appalachia as a varied, diverse population and region was important to him.
“Appalachia is an expansive region, it’s not just one group. You can have progressive Christians and conservative atheists,” he said. “I wanted to explore a story where queerness and Appalachia are not in conflict with each other. I wanted to create a loving story that depicted the foothills of Appalachia and my hometown with sincerity and warmth.”
While Evory began collaborating on the series with Blair in 2020, “Sheltered” premiered in 2023 at the Atlanta Film Festival.
Submitting a series or film for a festival can be a lengthy process. Evory said not every film festival has categories for web series so that affected where he submitted his series. Atlanta, Evory said, felt like a fitting place to air the series.
“Premiering our series at the Atlanta Film Festival was an honor. Not only is it a fantastic American festival, but our narrative’s themes and setting made Atlanta a great match,” Evory said.
Evory and Blair attended the premiere at the festival. Evory said the experience gave him immense pride as a filmmaker.
“We felt really encouraged,” he said. “Film festivals are so exciting. You get to meet people from all over, all genres, all pathways of film. We had a really good time showing the series and got a positive response.”
Attending the Cindependent Film Festival was another validating experience for Evory. Both Evory and Blair had screened thesis projects at the festival, so being back was almost a nostalgic experience.
Blair said screening a web series at the film festivals was an incredibly positive experience.
“With a lot of web series, you never get to see it with an audience, so having that experience twice so far with Sheltered has been incredibly rewarding,” she said. “I really enjoyed getting to see the work of other filmmakers that it was programmed with, and the themes and throughlines that connected us with them.”
Evory said that his experience in the Wright State motion pictures program played a large part in the series. In particular, Chinonye Chukwu, former assistant professor of motion pictures, was a good influence.
“Chinonye taught me how to use film as a visual medium, driven by action,” Evory said. “From Chinonye’s feedback and encouragement, I learned how to write and direct a story full of subtext and things going unsaid. Those lessons proved incredibly useful when Hannah and I approached a story about religious deconstruction.”
While Evory served as the director and writer for “Sheltered,” Wright State talent is weaved throughout the series: Hannah Blair served as cinematographer, editor and producer; Olga Wagner served as co-producer; Abigail Johnson served as production designer; Mickey Staver as art director; Cameron Henderson as camera assistant; Patrick Maloney as gaffer; Joey Becker as a grip; Dan Kiwacka as sound mixer; Paula Kinsel created graphics for the series; Levy and Howard acted in the series, and mentorship and support came from alumnus Ian Cook and former faculty members Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar.
Evory said he hoped the series would bring some peace to people who grew up in religion and have since moved on and their families who remain religious.
“Almost everyone has a point in their lives where they think critically about what they believe in, and those who separate themselves from their childhood faith sometimes feel ashamed or conflicted about their past,” Evory said. “A viewer told me that the series gave them some peace. That’s my favorite takeaway, that this series felt like a hug to them.”
Blair agreed, saying she hopes the series might help start difficult conversations.
“One of my biggest hopes for the series was always that it could be a starting point to discuss something that’s not always easy to talk about. That fact that’s actually happening means quite a lot to me,” she said. “In conversations after screenings, people have been so open and honest in their response to the series, even sharing elements of their personal stories and experiences. It’s given me the opportunity to have some really great discussions with a lot of wonderful people.”