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Riding a river of grief

Adrian Gomez | Albuquerque Journal
April 30, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s been a four-year journey for David Garcia.

The hard work is paying off for the filmmaker with a series of screenings of his latest documentary, “Hearts on the Gila.”

The events take place on Thursday in Albuquerque at the Guild Cinema; on Friday at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos; and on Saturday at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe. There will also be a question-and-answer session after each screening.

Garcia didn’t take the project lightly.

In 2014, Michael Sebastian Mahl, Ella Sala Myers and Ella Jaz Kirk – all teenagers and students in the eco-monitoring program at Aldo Leopold Charter School – were researching the effects of fire on forest health when a single-engine plane they were traveling in crashed near Silver City.

The documentary focuses on three mothers, four years after losing their teenage children in the 2014 plane crash, as they journeyed 38 miles by boat down the Gila River and into the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico. The three mothers also traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with congressional leaders and advocate for Wild and Scenic designations for portions of the Gila River.

“The best thing we can possibly do to honor our children is to protect the river. While doing so, we benefit ourselves and all the creatures that depend on it. As parents, we continue our children’s legacy when their love for the land inspires others,” said Patrice Mutchnick, mother of Ella Jaz Kirk. “This film project is a tribute to our children’s love of nature. We expect ‘Hearts on the Gila’ to convey all the reasons to protect those things we hold most precious: our children, our wild places, and our future.”

Garcia said as the women traveled on kayaks down the river, their physical journey mirrored a journey of their souls through extreme grief as they pass through the heart of the Gila.

“Sitting with the parents doing interviews, Ella, Michael and Ella were people in the room. The weight of the parents’ grief and the sheer excellence that the kids represented in their lives just grabbed a hold of me. They lived in sync with the natural world and had dedicated themselves to its study and protection,” Garcia said. “I had a vision of filming a journey by the three mothers boating down the roughly 36-mile stretch of the river running through the wilderness, and ‘Hearts on the Gila’ was born. The river became allegory for the grief journey and at the same time was the main character in a story about these three women coping with unbearable loss.”

Garcia said the journey was highly emotional for the parents, who are still dealing with the deaths of their children.

All three felt closer to their children during the experience.

“Michael was a beautiful young man. He was a lover of all things living; from the smallest insect to the vast wilderness itself. I know without a shadow of a doubt that my amazing son is proud of me and the work we have begun in his honor,” said Jennifer Mahl, mother of Michael Sebastian Mahl. “He was with me through every moment of this project and will continue to be in my heart and everything I do as we continue to do the work that he was passionate about and to share the beautiful Gila with the world and preserve it for generations to come.”

Logistics was one of the biggest obstacles in the filmmaking process.

“You have no access to power, and it’s about a five-day run down the river,” Garcia said. “Carrying all the batteries and hard drives, we took all the power we could use. We did lose one of the red cameras in the river. It’s been an interesting process.”

Garcia said the film is put together in an unconventional way.

“The film’s structure tells the story of the kids, the story of the river and the story of each mom’s grief journey,” Garcia said. “All of them are parallel journeys. It was a huge challenge to tell this story in a complete way.”

This article originally appeared in the Albuquerque Journal