When a Delta airliner dumped roughly 15,000 gallons of jet fuel on multiple neighborhoods and schools in southeast Los Angeles, Walter Thompson-Hernández was more than 5,000 miles away from home.
The writer and director—who was visiting Brazil at the time—grew up in Huntington Park, one of several communities impacted by the January 14, 2020 incident.
As a child, he and his friends would race the planes flying over their school. Sometimes, he’d gaze at them with his aunt from the porch of her home. And when he was alone, he’d think about traveling somewhere far away.
But the jet fuel dump—in which 60 adults and children were treated for skin irritation and breathing problems—reminded him of the hazard that planes have long posed on neighborhoods lying underneath LAX’s flight path. This wasn’t the first time an airplane had dropped jet fuel onto his community, which is regularly exposed to toxic fumes from the busy airport, nearby industrial facilities, freeways, and a rail yard. This exposure eventually caused him and many of his neighbors to develop asthma, he said.
“These sort of toxic fuel dumps have been happening over southeast L.A. for ages now, but this one really did something to me,” Thompson-Hernández, 36, told Los Angeles.
The Delta incident prompted him to make his first short film, IF I GO WILL THEY MISS ME, which has been selected to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival taking place virtually from January 20-30.
Thompson-Hernández, who wrote and directed the film, worked on it with two of his longtime friends, Michael “Cambio” Fernandez who served as the film’s cinematographer, and Susu Attar who was the production designer.
The 12-minute short explores Thompson-Hernández’ paradoxical relationship with airplanes. For him, the irony of living in southeast L.A., a region made up of mostly working-class Latino families, is that it is one of the most economically under-resourced communities in the city.
“You have groups of children who are imagining flying and imagining being in these airplanes, but yet might not ever get the chance to fly,” he said. “… And we’re also being impacted by them in ways that we are breathing in these toxins and these gases, and they’re impacting our bodies, and I don’t think children are supposed to experience that. But yet that’s what we experience.”
IF I GO WILL THEY MISS ME is centered around the life of a family, specifically a father and son, who live in the Imperial Courts projects in Watts, which is located below the LAX flight path much like Thompson-Hernández’ childhood home. The film follows a 12-year-old boy—played by Anthony “Lil Ant” Harris Jr. of Los Angeles—who is obsessed with the Greek mythical creature, Pegasus, as well as the airplanes that zoom over his neighborhood every day. The boy and his loved ones are able to call out the names of the various airliners based on their size or color because they are so embedded in their community.
“That was me,” said Thompson-Hernández who now resides in the northeast region of L.A. “I was literally that kid.”
Thompson-Hernández was raised by a single mother who at the age of 14 migrated to L.A. from a small rural town called Magdalena in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. She later went on to pursue her PhD in literature at the University of California, Los Angeles while juggling several other gigs to make ends meet.
For a majority of his early childhood, Thompson-Hernández—who is an only child—and his mother shared a home in Huntington Park with his aunt, uncle and his wife, and two cousins. Thompson-Hernández was the youngest child in the household, and also the only person in his family and at his predominantly Latino school to have a Black parent. He often spent his free time watching his friend’s older brother work on his lowrider cars, playing hide-and-go-seek outside with other kids in his neighborhood, and marveling at the planes that flew above their heads every few minutes.
“That’s how it was growing up in southeast L.A. The airplanes had a big part in the experiences that my friends and I had,” said Thompson-Hernández, who is the podcast host of LAist’s California Love and Lemonada’s Written Off. He’s also the author of THE COMPTON COWBOYS: The New Generation of Cowboys in America’s Urban Heartland, which is being adapted into a film for Fox Searchlight.
IF I GO WILL THEY MISS ME emphasizes themes including fatherhood, imagining possibilities outside of your own circumstance, and the freedom of leaving home to pursue a higher calling.
It was predominantly shot in the main characters’ home and it draws heavily from the Italian Neo-realist era of filmmaking, a genre that Thompson-Hernández fell in love with as a child after his aunt—who majored in Italian Studies at UCLA—showed him several Italian films. Much like this style of filmmaking, IF I GO WILL THEY MISS ME spotlights first-time actors who play fictionalized versions of their lives. In this case, he casted one of the central characters from COMPTON COWBOYS, Anthony “Big Ant” Harris, who plays the role of the father in the film, as well as his family.
The film is also rooted in magical realism as it takes place in the real world but utilizes fantastical elements. This is best depicted through the airplane characters in the film. The ‘airplane people’ don’t have wings coming out of their backs and they’re not hovering in the air. But they are dressed plainly in white t-shirts and black pants, and they stand with their arms extended backwards to model airplanes. They eerily loom in the main character’s home, in their front yard, and they can only be seen by the father and son. At times, they even talk.
“The ‘airplane people’ are a collection of dreams, of hopes, of desires of folks in the community,” Thompson-Hernández said.
He adds, “They feel so real and so tangible that it really makes us question whether they’re real or not. And I think I’m hoping people realize that they aren’t real. They’re actually just apparitions who live inside of the Imperial Courts projects.”
While IF I GO WILL THEY MISS ME highlights the Delta fuel dump episode and subtly calls attention to environmental racism, Thompson-Hernández said he and his team wanted to avoid making a “trauma porn” film.
“It feels like people are really invested in seeing Black and Brown bodies in pain or in spaces where they are hurting or in plight,” he said. I’m more interested in subtext as a filmmaker [and] as a storyteller.”
He hopes the film, along with the work of community members and activists will provoke change when it comes to these issues, he said.
Thompson-Hernández coincidentally got the news that the film was selected to be shown at the Sundance Film Festival, which is taking place virtually this year due to rising COVID cases, while he was visiting his aunt’s house in Huntington Park.
Mike Plante, a senior programmer for short films at the Sundance Film Festival, said his team selected IF I GO WILL THEY MISS ME as one of 59 films—out of an all-time high of 10,374 submissions—to show at the virtual event because it took risks stylistically and had a particular point of view.
“Walter Thompson-Hernández has unique touches in his short that really stood out, enhancing the emotions and thoughts of the short that we think will really resonate with the audience beyond the run time of the film,” Plante said.
Thompson-Hernández said he’s currently exploring avenues to make the film available for as many people as possible, and he’s already started working on the script to adapt it into a feature length film.
In the final scene of IF I GO WILL THEY MISS ME, “Lil Ant” is seen wearing a pair of handmade wings that resemble those of Pegasus. He runs down what looks like an airport runway, leaving the viewer to wonder if he actually takes flight or not.
“I think [that is] a larger conversation and commentary on life itself, on the ability to attempt to fly and to attempt to pursue our dreams,” said Thompson-Hernández, who has made a career out of traveling the world and telling stories about various subcultures for publications like the New York Times.
“It really doesn’t matter if we succeed or not. It just matters that we attempted.”
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