For months, Sharon Liese had staked out a spot on the trail that runs through Firefly Forest in Overland Park, Kansas, fascinated by the sudden appearance of ornately decorated elfin homes that would seem to suggest that the area had been populated by fairies and gnomes. As a documentarian, her natural inclination was to spend mornings talking to those who were similarly enchanted by these miniature manses and the evenings in search of who might be responsible.
“I was able to find [them] by leaving a note for the fairy,” now beams Liese, using the method of communication that so many others had, often expressing messages of thanks, as well as confessions of great personal turmoil. “I left three notes for the fairy and then one of them was answered.”
While (Liesle) plays that mystery for all its worth in “The Gnomist,” the resulting short that premieres this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, she also conjures the magic of the moment for the community that finds inspiration in the fantastical creations. Though the local Parks and Rec department may be a little frustrated by the unpermitted gnome homes going up on their real estate, “The Gnomist” hones in on three women whose lives are changed by their time in Firefly Forest — Robyn, whose husband’s work took her family to 13 cities in 15 years before he left her with their two sons; Alex, whose hip injury has constrained her to a wheelchair and feels compelled to blog about the park, and Kelly, a young mother who lost her three-year-old daughter whose love of owls gets back to the powers that be in the forest.
Shortly before the film’s premiere, Liese spoke about finding such an incredible subject in her own backyard, making the park feel as bewitching onscreen as it did in person, and seeing the power of kindness firsthand.
How did you first learn of this?
It’s not far from my house and I first saw a news article in the paper, then there was a story on television because the city was trying to find out who was doing this. It was like a big mystery and as a filmmaker I thought, “Maybe I’ll just go out there and see if I can find out who’s doing it, and that can be a really interesting job.” When I found out all that was going on there and how many people were being moved by these houses, that was the story that was really unexpected to me.
Your last short film “Selfie” dealt with the subject of beauty through the relationships of mothers and daughters and I couldn’t help but notice all the main subjects here are also mothers in it. Is that a coincidence or is it something you gravitate towards?
I’d like to say it was coincidental, but then I also believe there are really no coincidences. I think that those are the stories I’m drawn to. I also did a documentary series called “High School Confidential” where I followed 12 girls through high school for all four years in two different locations – Overland Park, Kansas and Chicago. Stories of women and empowerment just seem to be what I love.
How did you decide which people to follow for “The Gnomist”?
The little owl story was just so powerful that it was a given. There were other stories, some really interesting and compelling that actually didn’t get fully told, but I felt the woman with the hip injuries not only had a story to tell about how she was personally being impacted by the appearance of these homes, but she also was doing the blog [about the homes], so she really became a nice narrator for the story of what was going on with the gnomes for the film.
Is there anything that didn’t make the cut that you particularly miss?
Yeah, I could have made this feature-length. These things go on and off but we filmed for what was probably a good year-and-a-half. There was a 14-year-old girl who had Type 1 diabetes, which can be really scary and life threatening. She got very bullied by kids at school because she has a pump and has to check her blood sugar and sometimes has to eat candy when the other kids can’t, but she was very moved by the houses. That was one of the stories that I had to let go of [because] it took a lot of time to explain it. Also, when you have another story right up against a woman grieving the loss of her child [in the little owl story], it’s hard to have anything else seem that important.
Was it natural to structure this as a mystery or did you come around to that later?
The first idea was for it to be a mystery and to have it resolved at the end. That would be the payoff – to find out who did it. But when I found out who it was and discovered that their backstory was so compelling, I wanted that to be part of the film so that’s why I included [the reveal] a lot early than I originally thought I would.
The swooping camera moves and the way you film inside the houses also gives the movie a magical feel. Was that always the idea to give life to these houses?
It really was talking to other people because I would just take a chair out here and hang on the trail and talk to people. Here we are in the middle of Kansas and I discovered people believed it was an enchanted forest when they were there, so I really wanted to capture that in the way we shot it. We could go inside the little doors in the little houses to get the perspective of the people and the wonder on their faces when they opened up those doors. I just thought that was so amazing, so the crew and my [cinematographer] wanted to really capture the essence of that because the place really was just magical.
There is a bit of a dark side in the film, however, when the Parks and Recreation Department starts to remove the houses. When you interview Greg Reuther, the director of the department, he didn’t look too happy to be there. Was that a tough interview?
It was. Actually, one of the things I had to do was I had to get an ordinance change from Overland Park to even be able to bring the cameras on the trail and that took a while to get that approved. Then Greg wasn’t so sure he wanted to do an interview, but he finally did.
Gosh, they’re really protective of their parks there.
Yeah, they really are. You could tell by that little smirk he has at the end [of the interview] he didn’t really want to be the bureaucrat that he is, but that’s what he had to do because that’s his job.
You follow someone as they remove one of the houses and yet you were following who was putting them there. Was that interesting to be on both sides?
We filmed the meeting where they were told [they were removing a house]. It didn’t belong in the film because it was a like an administrative meeting and it took us too much out of the magic, but that’s how I found out and it was a really hard day.
Is there something you want audiences to take away from this?
It’s just so inspiring when you see what the power of kindness can do. [This one idea] really opened up people and helped them feel there was some entity out there, believing in you and wanting you to have joy, that they could create in their own mind whoever they wanted it to be – a fairy, a gnome, a person – I just think people ought to know that. It’s very powerful and they can inspire other people to do acts of kindness. As a filmmaker, especially as a documentary filmmaker, I’ve done my share of [films on] all the challenging issues and social injustices in the world and what I love about the message [in “The Gnomist”] is it’s just so simple. It’s not like people have to be inspired to go to Africa and cure some disease or some social injustice where somebody is imprisoned. All they have to do is think of how they can be kind and make people’s day. I just love it.
“The Gnomist” will play the Tribeca Film Festival as part of the Shorts: Home Improvement program three more times at the Regal Cinemas Battery Park on April 21st at 5:45 pm, April 22nd at 5:30 pm, and April 25th at 9 pm.