About Ava DuVernay’s Film ‘Origin’ & Its Roots in the Book ‘Caste’

On a mild Sunday night in February I had the honor to sit down on Zoom with Mary Anne Knefel from our respective Brooklyn homes to discuss Ava DuVernay’s masterpiece film, Origin. Currently screening at select movie theaters, the film follows the epic research project of journalist and author, Isabel Wilkerson as she attempts to find the epistemological link between the treatment of Black people in the USA, Dalit people in India, and Jewish people in Nazi Germany. By acknowledging the social stratification of inclusion and exclusion, Wilkerson uncovers a world predicated on caste.

With Mary Anne Knefel

Mary Anne (a self-identified retired librarian plus wife, mother, grandmother, sister, mentor and friend) shared her thoughts, feelings, and speculations about the film, Origin (by Ava DuVernay), and the book on which it is based, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (by Isabel Wilkerson).

Taylor Beckman: What differences did you notice between the film, Origin, and the book, Caste?

MARY ANNE KNEFEL: In my past life I was a reference librarian, and an instructional librarian, and then the director of an academic library. The fun part of my job was the research, reference, and teaching students… Helping them understand the question that you’re asking is the most difficult part of any nonfiction. What is the question? What can you bring to a research question that is unique?

Isabel Wilkerson doesn’t insert herself into the book (Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents), but her voice is there. Origin (the film) is about Isabel going on this journey. Origin almost created its own film genre. I loved the intellectual process personified. You could see the embodiment of Isabel’s genius.

TB: You bring up how much the researcher can bring in her own point of view. Were there moments in the book where you noticed Isabel’s voice?

MAK: Caste begins with a metaphor of a reindeer near Siberia that was frozen; it unthaws (probably due to climate change), and then the local children start getting sick. Scientists determine that the cause of their sudden illness is Anthrax.

Isabel’s controlling metaphor is that this strain of Anthrax was last found in 1941. She says that these toxins can be buried for a long time, but they don’t go away. She is precise in excoriating former President Donald Trump. That’s her exigence. It’s obvious that Isabel sees Trump as a “pathogen.”

At the end of Caste, Isabel says: “But we are responsible for what good or ill we do to people alive with us today. We are each of us responsible for every decision we make that hurts or harms another human being.”

The last line of the book is, “A world without caste would set everyone free.” If you didn’t get that message from the movie, you fell asleep. In Origin, Ava makes the same case which Isabel also explicitly makes in Caste.

TB: How has reading the book and seeing the film informed how you navigate the world?

MAK: I read a lot of history. I was a history major. I did not know the through line between Nazism and the Jim Crow Era’s racism of the South. Ava captured the horror of that beautifully. This book has stayed with me just like Isabel’s first book, The Warmth of Other Suns. You just are a different person after you’ve read her books… I can’t say that it’s a joy because it’s so upsetting, but it feels like you’re in the hands of a master in both cases.

TB: It’s almost like the film Origin provides a holding for the audience to let that discomfort set in, countered with each layer of the story as it gets revealed.

MAK: It’s never a polemic. Both Origin and Caste set us so that we can open our minds and our hearts to this story. I don’t think a MAGA person would go to the film or read the book, but anybody who would open themselves to a point of view and be willing to learn, it’s a life changing thing.

Click on image to enlarge

With Jakob von Eichel

As I immersed myself in what Mary Anne describes as the “heart of the story” of Origin, I could not help but recognize the distinct and familiar voice of my fellow drama therapy cohort member, Jakob von Eichel. When I investigated further, he confirmed that it was him and he was kind enough to share some anecdotes of his time on the Origin set.

Originally auditioning for one of the German roles, Jakob was told that it would cost too much to fly him out to Germany. Feeling dejected, Jakob was surprised when Ava (having been so impressed by his audition), reached out to him personally to offer him the role of the pastor in the funeral scene.

Jakob von Eichel: To have someone actually mean it that they wanted you in their project and if something comes up that they’ve got you in mind… I’m getting kind of emotional. She [Ava] is not typical. She is very unique especially for someone with as much clout and success as she has. 

Here’s what Jakob had to say about his time on set:

I think Ava is special. It sounds cheesy, but I felt held and supported by her in a way that I do not often feel by a lot of directors. I love acting and working but I also hate it sometimes because being on set can be pretty stressful, kind of a hostile environment. This was the best experience I’ve ever had. I was treated so kindly and then when I got to meet Ava (on the day), I just felt held. She was just so kind, but it was not like she was coddling. 

We were in this beautiful old church in Savannah (GA). It felt like a play because I was there on stage delivering a eulogy and I had my lines, but Ava was like “Can you also throw in a few things here?”

It was a little bit like “Oh s***! She wants me to improvise as a pastor,” so that was kind of exciting. As an actor you want to have all your ducks in a row and not have any curveballs, but this curveball was fun. I was in this church speaking to the congregation and it felt kind of magical.

© Taylor Beckman (2/28/24) – Special for FF2 Media ®

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Click here to view the full Origin Trailer.

Click here to read the Stephanie Taylor’s FF2 Opinion Piece on Origin

Click here to buy a copy of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured photo: Director Ava DuVernay at the Venice International Film Festival for the premiere of ORIGIN.  Photo Credit: Daniele Cifala (9/6/23) / NurPhoto SRL / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2RR557M

Middle photo: One-sheet poster for the film ORIGIN (2023) directed by Ava DuVernay and starring Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor. Photo Credit: BFA / Neon / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2WDNA7M

Bottom photo: Isabel Wilkerson at her home in Atlanta (GA) just before the publication of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Photo Credit: Erik Lesser (9/7/10) / ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: CACNX5

Tags: Ava DuVernay, Black Women Filmmakers, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Dalit, Holocaust, Isabel Wilkerson, Jakob von Eichel, Jim Crow, Mary Anne Knefel, Origin, Racism, Taylor Beckman, The Warmth of Other Suns

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Taylor Beckman (she/her/hers) is a sister, daughter, friend, avid baker, and adorer of Regency-era British television shows. After graduating from Muhlenberg College with degrees in both Psychology and Theatre (acting and directing concentrations), she flew to Europe where she performed as a theatre artist, teaching English in Belgium and France. Once she returned to the States, Taylor pursued a career in acting until the pandemic happened and she changed the trajectory of her life. Taylor is now a student at NYU getting her Masters in Drama Therapy where she hopes to combine her love for theater with the inherent therapeutic qualities that stories possess. When she isn't writing theatrical reviews or profile pieces for FF2, Taylor can be found drinking mint tea and reading a Charlotte Brontë novel. Thank you to Jan and the FF2 Media team for the opportunity to critically engage with people and the art form of performance.
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