Dreams Come Alive For Sick Keiki

James Anshutz
Project director for Lemuria Project

What got you interested in using your photography and filmmaking talents to help people with life-threatening illnesses?

I am a freelance commercial photographer and Photoshop artist by trade. Outside of work, I’ve always given back to the community. It began when I was young. My mom volunteered all over the place and I had to go with her. At the time, most of it wasn’t much fun for an 8-year-old, but I saw how it really helped people. Since then, making people smile has been one of my favorite hobbies.

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Through Lemuria Project, director James Anshutz helps two-time cancer conqueror 10-year-old Xander Van Den Berg's dream of becoming a bonafide dragon rider come to life PHOTO COURTESY LEMURIA PROJECT / HEADSHOT BY TRACY WRIGHT CORVO

How long have you been volunteering with Hawaii Children’s Cancer Foundation and what inspired you to do so?

In 2010 I was asked to do the HCCF Awareness Campaign, which was intended to show the faces of Hawaii’s children and families who are battling cancer. As soon as I was asked, I said yes. I knew it would be one of those life-changing experiences, and I was right! Being a parent myself and seeing what these children and families have to endure broke my heart. The other side to it is that these children forge through it like heroes, usually reassuring the adults that everything will be OK. And when a 5-year-old can do that, that inspires me.

Can you describe how your book The Survivor Spirit came about?

I published The Survivor Spirit with Cynthia Y.H. Derosier in 2009. It began with my 2007-2008 Portraits of Survival series, which featured breast cancer survivors and provided them a full makeover photo shoot if they would share their photo story during Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October). In 2009, we shot the series for the book with the intention of sharing the beauty that women found within the struggle, not the heaviness of the struggle itself. Beyond the national awards the book received, I saw how the experience uplifted these women, and at that moment I knew the next one would be for children.

You used that concept to launch Lemuria Project. What is Lemuria Project?

Lemuria Project is a film-making experience designed to give children with life-threatening conditions a creative escape from their hospital stays and medical routines. Each child works directly with a small production team to design their costumes, props and the fantasy worlds they travel to.

The outcome is a professionally produced short film that represents each child’s personal journey. This project is similar to The Survivor Spirit, just amped up on creativity and production quality, providing the most magical escape possible.

Lemuria Project is much more than a day of dress-up ― the process provides an experience that engages imagination and empowers children’s creativity during the two months of designing their animated short film. It’s like extreme play therapy through filmmaking.

Why “Lemuria” Project?

Lemuria is believed to be the sister civilization to Atlantis, and encompassed most of the Pacific Ocean during its time. Many authors wrote about this mystical civilization in the late 1800s. Lemuria was believed to be a land of spiritual beings free from all ailments and diseases. In some circles, Hawaii is believed to be the last remnants of Lemuria that are still above water. These stories inspire my imagination and similarly describe the type of worlds that we are creating with Lemuria Project.

How many videos do you plan to make and how long will the project last?

We have featured two children so far. With Queen Kaela, our first participant, it began as a fantasy children’s book, a follow-up to the Survivor Spirit book, but for kids. Once we filmed the behind-the-scenes, we knew these stories couldn’t really be told in a children’s book, and the film production team was assembled. The filmmaking experience began with Xander the Dragon Rider, who is also a two-time cancer conqueror and amazing artist. We have completed his video and have since increased the production team for the next two children.

I am hoping to do this full time from here forward because I have seen how this fun process helps children heal despite their diagnoses. In the next few years, we plan to transition into a nonprofit and are already on our way with fiscal sponsorship through Fractured Atlas, a national nonprofit arts service organization. When we have the support network in place, we plan on flying families here to Hawaii to participate. This would include an all-expenses-paid trip. To answer your question, I hope many more children.

What is in the works for Lemuria Project’s official launch Nov. 7 at Chinatown Artists Lofts (1120 Smith St.)?

I am excited about the launch because it has taken me five years to get the project to this point. On display in our gallery will be the amazing costumes, professional props and fantastical artwork that the Lemuria Project team has created. Snippets of the film also will be showing throughout the night. From 6 to 10 p.m., we will have our launch upstairs while our building has its First Friday night of music and gallery walk-throughs.

Anything else you’d like to mention about Lemuria Project?

This project is much more than just making some cool films. As Lemuria Project grows and gains support, I hope to prove that this creative experience directly affects children’s diagnoses. I have seen firsthand how Xander the Dragon Rider conquered cancer a second time during production ― just like the true warrior he is! Since participating, he also has found a passion in acting and was even featured on Hawaii Five-0, with a speaking role. This project empowers imagination and inspires children’s “hero within” when they need it most, and that’s why I will continue to do this. The films are already magical with the limited resources we started with, and they’re just going to get more epic the further we go. It’s something you have to see to experience.

Lemuria Project currently is accepting submissions from children facing any life-threatening medical condition as its next participants. The project is looking for one boy and one girl from Hawaii, between the ages of 7 and 13, who are creative and outspoken. Deadline for submissions is Dec. 7. For more information, visit lemuriaproject.com.