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“I Think the Funniest Things Are Truthful”: Akanksha Cruczynski on Her Student Short Film Showcase Winner Close Ties to Home Country

The downtown digs of a wealthy couple become a source of luxury and languish for a displaced dog sitter in Akanksha Cruczynski’s Close Ties to Home Country. The Columbia College Chicago MFA grad stars as a version of herself in the short, which allows her to reflect on many of her own anxieties about her overarching place in the world. Born in India and raised in Saudi Arabia, the filmmaker has grown accustomed to ignorant remarks ever since relocating to Chicago to pursue higher education. Many of these comments have been repeated and parodied in Close Ties to Home Country, which at first uses humor as a coping mechanism, until protagonist Akanksha can’t bear to laugh anymore—in truth, what she really needs is a good cry.

In keeping with the filmmaker’s oft-fractured sense of identity, her last name is, interestingly, a self-appointed one. When her parents divorced during her teenage years, she rebelled by adhering to neither parent’s name after their separation, deciding instead to adopt (and slightly modify) the name of one of her favorite film characters: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘s Clementine Kruczynski. Close Ties to Home Country is one of five winners of the 2022 Student Short Film Showcase, a collaborative program from The Gotham, Focus Features and JetBlue that is available to stream via Focus Features’s YouTube channel and offered in the air as part of JetBlue’s in-flight entertainment selection.

I had a conversation with Cruczynski over email, which covered a curse one of her screenwriting professors cast upon her, the idea that American dogs live better than most global citizens and the unexpected involvement of a disgraced pet food company during the film’s shoot.

Filmmaker: First off, what led you to pursue an MFA in cinema directing at Columbia College? Since graduating, your short has screened at Sundance, Telluride and various other festivals. Do you think that your film school education has adequately prepared you for your current career trajectory? 

Cruczynski: I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since as long as I can remember. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, watching movies was both a respite and also a haven: In all of these worlds, I could imagine a life better than the one I felt oppressed to be living as a kid. I studied screenwriting in college, but I just didn’t think that women got to direct films. After all, none of the movies I saw growing up had a woman’s name in the “directed by” title. Fortunately for me, Columbia only has a directing and a producing program, and no writing program, so I ended up having to study what I would absolutely come to recognize as my calling. 

Filmmaker: Clearly, this film is rooted in autobiographical truth. You share a name, origin story and liminal cultural struggle with your protagonist. What was it like infusing your own personal experiences into a wider fictional narrative?

Cruczynski: In college I was writing short stories and screenplays about white men with white names, white (upper middle class) origin stories and white (upper middle class) personal struggles. It was all I saw on screen, and it was the material my favorite movies (mostly indie comedies) were made of. My screenwriting professor took me aside one day and said, “You’ve lived such an interesting life, so different from that of any of your classmates. Why don’t you write about any of the things in the world you’ve seen?” I was shocked. People were interested in my weird cultural experiences? People actually wanted to see that stuff? I’ve been writing stuff from my own life ever since—almost to a comical degree in how literal I can sometimes be. I feel like that screenwriting professor put a curse on me that I can’t escape. 

Filmmaker: The dog that your character baby sits, Timothée, is such a great fixture in the film. He’s maddeningly cute, but also represents a lot of ugliness surrounding the wealth and privilege of his owners. What felt important for you to capture through his presence and the lavish world he lives in? 

Cruczynski: A lot of dogs in America live better lives than most people in the world do. As a dog sitter, I was regularly exposed to this sort of outrageous spectacle. I read somewhere that if dogs were in cages at the border—instead of, you know, brown children—that white people would probably already have gone and taken care of that. Don’t get me wrong, no one can love dogs more than I do. But these dogs eat better than I do, sleep better than I sleep, live better than I live. It was hard not to be jealous of that. 

Filmmaker: Additionally, what was the location scouting process for this film? The house your character dog sits in is incredible, and the decor feels perfectly curated as well. 

Cruczynski: Most rich people’s homes have some sort of theatrics going on. I stayed at the apartment of one such lady, and it was decked out in so much white that it was blinding. I became obsessed with finding a space that matched that. Fortunately for me (and unfortunately for my producers), I can get pretty obsessive, so I scoured location after location looking for the right space. I probably saw what felt like 10,000 Airbnbs. Then it was just about twisting the owner’s arm to let us use it, which was its own ordeal. They demanded to be on set while we were filming. They owned some sort of pet food brand that had had a bunch of lawsuits against it (for, like, poisoning dogs), and I struck a deal with them that if I got to make the film be a commercial for their pet food, we could shoot. We ended up shooting some of their pet food stuff, but it hasn’t seen the light of day since being on the cutting room floor. 

Filmmaker: Your short is immediately so funny, but gracefully shifts into this existential melancholy that delivers an unexpected gut-punch without feeling misplaced at all. How did you navigate the film’s emotional trajectory, and what went into that balancing act? 

Cruczynski: I think the funniest things are truthful, and I think truth exists in vulnerability. It was always the immigrant’s story, but I wanted to capture some of the irritating things people have said to me over the years about my name or accent so that I could show you what my world is like. It didn’t feel like a balancing act to me. Both things are inseparable and happening at the same time in my daily life, so it wasn’t hard work to emulate that.

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