On June 10, filmmaker and Santa Rosa Junior College graduate Miles Levin pitched his film, Under the Lights, to AT&T’s Untold Stories judges at the Tribeca Film Festival, and in a sweeping of fan votes, was awarded $50,000.
Untold Stories is an inclusive film program in collaboration with the Tribeca Festival, that awards $1 million, mentorship and distribution support to help systemically underrepresented
filmmakers produce films.
Levin’s idea was selected from the year’s submissions as one of the five finalists. It landed the Fan Award of $40,000 during a live voting process, along with $10,000 from Untold Stories to further the film’s reach and production opportunity.
Under the Lights tells the story of Sam, a 17-year-old boy with epilepsy who, desperately seeking to feel normal, attends his high school prom, even though he knows the lights will trigger a seizure.
Levin, who both wrote and directed the film, lives with epilepsy. He is one of 60 million people in the world who live with this condition. Levin sits on the board of the The Cameron Boyce Foundation and the Epilepsy Foundation of Northern California. His work as a filmmaker is inspired by his goal of raising awareness around epilepsy and creating more inclusivity in contemporary society for those living with the disorder.
Levin came to the Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) in 2013 and began taking digital filmmaking classes with instructor Brian Antonson.
“Miles stood out almost immediately as someone who was very passionate about filmmaking, very into the technology and the mechanics of storytelling,” said Antonson. “All of his projects he worked on with high levels of enthusiasm. He had already made a feature film when he was in high school. He was very ambitious.”
While at SRJC, Levin took almost every production class offered and became Antonson’s PAL—Peer Assistance and Leadership, the equivalent of a teacher’s assistant at SRJC—for a term.
“Miles was constantly pushing himself to make more films, to make them better and better. In retrospect, you can see him building up these skills which got him to the point where he is today. Filmmaking is so incredibly difficult—it requires an understanding and a mastery of so many different art forms, and it requires the participation of big groups of people (cast and crew) and resources (both financial and technical). To be successful, one needs to put in this kind of long-term investment of your time and focused attention,” said Antonson.
Not only is filmmaking extremely rigorous, it’s also generally inhospitable to those living with a disability. Levin has spent the last 10 years curating sets that accommodate his disability and don’t compromise his filmmaking.
But it wasn’t always easy to be an advocate for epilepsy. Levin, like many who live with the condition, spent the first part of his life endeavoring to feel normal. The highly-stigmatized nature of epilepsy made him fearful of sharing his story and facing negative consequences.
“Epilepsy very much stole my childhood. I didn’t get to be a kid,” Levin writes in his 2022 Untold Stories pitch. “So I wasn’t sure if I wanted to come out in front of the internet with my story, and maybe have it limit my adulthood.”
Then, Levin was approached by a 15-year-old boy with epilepsy, who told him he had never made a friend before. It was a shocking wake up call for Levin.
“I became a filmmaker at 15 because I believed in the power of movies to put a person in another person’s shoes and that that act builds a better world. It took me 10 years of making movies to realize that in putting my feelings first, and hiding my story, I was ignoring the reason I became a filmmaker in the first place,” Levin said.
Under the Lights, the short film was released in 2020, starring Pearce Joza and Alyssa Jirrels and running 11 minutes and 27 seconds. Almost immediately, it became a symbol of hope and representation to the epileptic community.
International fan art was sent daily to Levin and his crew; people living with epilepsy used the film to come out; and one organization sent Under the Lights prom kits to kids who were unable to attend. Levin also received significant video responses from those with epilepsy, thanking him for his work and sharing how much the short film had changed their lives.
The film has received multiple awards and selections, including Best Humanitarian Short from Sedona Film Festival in 2021; Best Alternative Film, Nominated Best Short Film and Best Director from the New Hope Festival in 2020; and Best Short at SCAD Savannah Film Festival.
This is perhaps the first film of its kind, representing the epileptic community in contemporary media.
“The journey of his protagonist is one that lots of people are identifying with,” said Antonson. “And the epilepsy community is getting behind Miles’ film in a big way. So, in a way, Miles is on a mission, trying to affect real change and help other people with epilepsy.”
The purpose of this film, along with affecting change in the lives of those with epilepsy, is to highlight the value of an often unheard perspective.
Films like Under the Lights and directors like Miles Levin invite reality into the film sphere, using cinema as a tool for information, inclusivity and acceptance, as opposed to a vehicle conveying hyper-perfectionism.
This film is an invitation to traditionally non-disabled people to deepen their knowledge and empathy. It’s an invitation to those with epilepsy to be the main character, the protagonist. It’s an invitation to anyone struggling with a disability, physically, mentally or emotionally, to know that they are not alone.
Levin’s directing is paving the way for those with disabilities to make their mark on a world that is long overdue to hear their voices in contemporary media. Levin’s belief is that a widely-accessible film about epilepsy could do more to end the stigma than any campaign in history. Under the Lights is the beginning.
“I want to make the things that I’ve been through worthwhile. And that’s my path,” said Levin. Watch ‘Under the Lights,’ the short and learn more about the feature film at www.underthelightsfilm.com.