According to the award-winning documentary short “The Gnomist,” magic can happen wherever people need it most.
Even in Overland Park.
In the spring of 2013, filmmaker Sharon Liese came across a news story about an odd phenomenon along a walking path south of 135th Street between Antioch and Switzer roads.
Early walkers on the Tomahawk Creek Trail were discovering tiny fairy houses that popped up overnight like mushrooms. Many of these carefully crafted creations were nestled in the hollows of large trees. Their brightly painted doors swung open to reveal rooms outfitted with tiny furniture.
“At first I thought it was just kind of a cool idea,” said Liese, who earned national attention in 2008 with “High School Confidential,” her eight-hour cable documentary about teenage girls attending Blue Valley Northwest, where her daughter was then a student.
“I figured I’d make a cute little mystery about who was behind it all. But then I got out on the trail and saw that people were being really moved by what they were encountering.”
Strangers would mingle in the so-called Firefly Forest, sharing their sense of wonder. Some left behind notes of gratitude for the way the ”gnome homes” had lifted their spirits. Others bared their souls, revealing agonizing personal struggles.
A devastating divorce.
Crippling health problems.
The death of a child.
And the fairies often answered with notes of their own.
“As soon as I realized how big this backstory might be, I knew there was a chance to capture something special,” Liese said.
She began leaving messages in Firefly Forest for the project’s anonymous creator, whom she dubbed the Gnomist. She decided to center her 19-minute film on four women for whom the fairy houses were especially cathartic.
“The Gnomist” made its debut last month at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. After the screening Liese was surrounded by audience members, many weeping, who raved about her movie.
Since then the film has played at festivals in Boston and Newport Beach, Calif., at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto and in the Twin Cities, where it was named best documentary short at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival.
Plus, after the Tribeca screening “The Gnomist” was purchased by CNN films, which this fall will offer it online and possibly air it as part of the news network’s cable programming.
Local audiences can get a look at the little film that could when it screens Saturday at the Jewish Community Center.
Liese did track down and befriend the Gnomist. With her film crew she even accompanied that mysterious individual on midnight runs to add new buildings to Firefly Forest.
It wasn’t until the film played at Tribeca before an audience of 500 who didn’t know what to expect that Liese realized she had a small hit on her hands.
“Watching people laugh and cry. Discovering humor that even I didn’t realize was there. And to see it on a really big screen, when before I’d only seen it on a TV monitor or an editing bay. It was a great experience.”
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
“The Gnomist” will screen at 7 p.m. Saturday at the White Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, 5801 W. 115th St. in Overland Park. After the screening: a Q&A with the filmmaker and a reveal of the real “gnomist.” Tickets are $12-$25 through thegnomistfilm.com.