'AWOL' Shows the Tender and Tough Reality of Rural Life

Sep 27, 2016

Film festivals around the country are known for showing independently made productions, both in short films and features. One film in particular showing at the Milwaukee Film Festival has had the unique history of being both a short and now, a full length film.

AWOL tells the story of Joey, a woman who seeks a different life than what her small Pennsylvania town offers. A visit to the Army recruiting office seems to present a way out, but a relationship with Rayna, an older woman who happens to be married with children, changes her path.

For director and co-screenwriter, Deb Shoval, AWOL presented the unique opportunity to revisit an already successful short and complete the characters' stories.

"The short is really sort of an abbreviated Act II and Act III - it's missing an Act I. It doesn't explain anything about how Rayna and Joey met and fell in love, why Joey joined the army," explains Shoval. "So I got together with a co-writer named Karolina Waclawiak and we really laid out the plot for a full length feature that would allow us to answer those Act I questions, and also just develop Joey's world further."

Shoval also notes that being able to be involved in both directing and writing allowed her and the whole cast to be engaged in telling an honest story. "You want to feel that every word your directing is authentic, so it makes sense to have been the writer. In that sense I think co-writing is the best of both worlds," she says.

AWOL can also be classified as a lesbian romance, but Shoval says it is so much more than that. "Yes, it's a love story, but it's also really a story about class and opportunity and the options that young people have and don't have."

The characters in the film exemplify the lives of real people in post-industrial towns who live along the poverty line. This setting was inspired by Shoval's own experience growing up in the rural Pennsylvania town the film was shot in.

Credit AWOL / thefilmcollaborative.org

"There's a tremendous disparity of wealth," she says. "There's a lot of stratification that you can even see between Joey, who's from a working class Catholic family, and Rayna, who lives on the edge of Appalachia in poverty. So what I wanted to depict was all of those classes that coexist in such a small area."

Compared to grittier depictions of rural America in cinema, Shoval wanted to display the positive aspects, such as community and family relationships, alongside the difficult reality they face. According to Shoval, the communities in Pennsylvania have responded well to her film.

"Shooting in my hometown was wonderful, people were so welcoming," says Shoval. "We shot at a local farm, and two local fairs and a local ice cream parlor. So all of that for me, personally, was really fun."

AWOL premieres Tuesday night at the Oriental Theatre, where Deb Shoval will be present. You can also see it on September 20th and October 6th during its time at the Milwaukee Film Festival.