“In my darkest doubtfulest moments, you know, we’re doomed, humans,” Donovan Zimmerman says at the beginning of the new documentary video “We Are Here.” “They won’t destroy all life on earth, but a fairly large number. It’s just a matter of how big of an extinction we’re going to face. Or create, more like, because we’re are literally creating it. When I see some of the worst of people’s behavior, I doubt that there’s any way back.”
Zimmerman and Jan Burger met in 1998 and began what became Paperhand Puppet Intervention, an activist theater company based in Saxapahaw, North Carolina. They create environmentalist and anti-capitalist spectacles from masks, giant puppets, stilters, shadow puppetry and music. “Our vision is inspired by our love for the earth and its creatures (including humans),” they say. “We will use this puppetry, performance and creativity to undermine and eradicate greed, hate and fear and promote justice, equality and peace.”
“We Are Here,” by Marc Levy and Marc Salomon of The Marcs, documents the creation of Paperhand’s 2019 summer spectacle called “We Are Here,” an outdoor pageant about polluted cities, developers felling forests, and the beauty of nature—animated by enormous trash monsters and tree spirits. The Marcs’ film “about artists trying to save the world” premiered at the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw on Aug. 6, 2021. They’re scheduled to screen it again at the Varsity Theatre in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on Thursday Sept. 9. Then Levy aims to bring it to film festivals. (The film is not yet available for online screening.)
Levy, who resides in Carrboro, North Carolina, moved with his family to the state from Los Angeles in 2015. (He now has two daughters and a son between the ages of 7 and 11.) “One of the first things somebody told us—we had younger children—is you’ve got to check out Paperhand Puppet theater,” he says.
Paperhand performs their epic summer shows for thousands of people outdoors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Forest Theatre, a stone amphitheater built into a wooded hillside. The shows are populated by “archetypical characters—big bad guy, good nature, big bad capitalist,” Levy says.
“It really did hit me and every year we went to see the show,” Levy says. “…It was so unique to me from where I was coming from.”
Levy was drawn to Zimmerman—thoughtful and laid back, but also worried about the world, driven to make great work, and pushing the company to this goal. Seeing Zimmerman at the shows, Levy was inspired to see him “moving people in the way he does for such a good cause.”
As Paperhand was developing its 20th annual summer show, “I went out with my camera and started filming them.” Levy videoed most of it himself during summer of 2019, over roughly four months in which the show was made at an old gymnasium in Saxapahaw and then at the Forest Theater in Chapel Hill, focusing particularly on the last month, plus a couple more shoots about four months later, including the company’s participation in an Extinction Rebellion protest at which activists chant: “We won’t let our planet die.” Then Levy and his partner Salomon co-directed while they edited the video.
Paperhand cancelled their 2020 summer show to help stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. This summer’s show “Unfolding Seeds: Invocations of Transformation” is scheduled to be performed at the Forest Theatre from Aug. 27 to Oct. 3. The company says the show is a story “that honors the things that are lost, that adorns the Earth, and that offers forth avenues for regenerative repair.”
On the first day of shooting “We Are Here,” Levy asked Zimmerman what motivated him. He recalls Zimmerman responding: “I’m doing this because this is the only thing I can think of doing that would change where we are.”
In the documentary, Burger takes his young daughter to a participate in a global warming protest: “I’m trying to be one of those parents [who work to stop it] so that she feels capable of doing things instead of helpless.”
In documentaries and interviews and public talks over the years, Burger and Zimmerman have often spoken about their concern about the damage our society is doing to the earth—and, in particular, their worries about the threatened devastation of global warming. In “We Are Here,” their worry feels more urgent, their sense of dread and doom more palpable.
“I don’t know if it’s an extreme point of view,” Levy says. “Maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s not extreme. … Maybe they’re seeing the truth and maybe we’re not seeing the truth.”
“At the most grand scale we’re in the fight of our collective lives,” Levy says. “…Human-caused climate change is the issue. It appears that we have a very limited time to change course before the earth will become less and less habitable for humans and all life.”
Paperhand shows “always end with a jig,” Levy says. “The world is always better at the end of a Paperhand show. Everybody is happy. Everybody leaves feeling good. … I wanted to really hone in on the stakes and the sense of the darkness in some of their themes and also the awareness of the darkness that Donovan and Jan have that stayed with them all the time.”
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Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s performance of “We Are Here” in 2019: