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A special benefit at the Michigan featuring 'An American Opera'

BY SHERI JANKELOVITZ
Daily Arts Writer
Published January 26, 2009

"An American Opera" Benefit Premier Screening
At the Michigan Theater
Tomorrow, 8 p.m.
Tickets starting at $10

Tom McPhee believes strongly in doing nothing halfway and that every endeavor he undertakes will be the crowning achievement of his life. A self-described entrepreneur, the Dearborn native has since moved into documentary filmmaking with the same ambitious fervor in which he lives his life. McPhee spent over a year in New Orleans documenting Hurricane Katrina’s horrific effects on abandoned pets. The result is his documentary “An American Opera,” screening tomorrow night at the Michigan Theater.

Like the rest of the country, McPhee watched the news in awe as Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Though touched by the stories he witnessed, McPhee didn't realize he had to go to Louisiana to help until he Mayor Ray Nagin's radio speech about the hurricane.

“It took me having that grown man break down to let me know that I had to go down there. We loaded up the car with two still cameras and video cameras; we didn’t know when we would be home,” McPhee said in a recent interview at the Michigan Theater.

Like many other volunteers inundating the area, McPhee was unsure as to what he could do to help. Upon arriving at the Lamar-Dixon rescue site, McPhee and his girlfriend discovered the site had become home to hundreds of pets that had been apprehensively abandoned by their owners, who were forced to evacuate. At that point, McPhee’s purpose became clear.

“We knew that’s where we should be. We were there at that point in time for a reason.” McPhee said.

At first McPhee took pictures of all the abandoned pets to post on the Internet hoping to reunite them with their owners. After several days, during which the number of animals swelled to almost 600, McPhee decided to film the heroic attempts of volunteers to save the pets that were left behind, many of which were still trapped inside their homes. McPhee knew that he could showcase another side of the story — one the other media outlets were ignoring.

“A lot of local newscasters wanted to focus on rescues and reunions, but that’s not what I was really interested in doing,” McPhee said. “I wanted to tell a story of what was happening. … I really wanted to see the human spirit.”

The resulting film focuses on the struggles faced by these volunteers, in particular those like Jane Garrison, who single-handedly saved 1,300 animals.

“Jane is the epitome of 'one person can absolutely make a difference,' ” McPhee said, with evident admiration in his voice. “Jane took charge. … She wanted to do the right thing.”

“An American Opera” displays both the heartache of the undertaking and the joys of successful pet-owner reunions. McPhee wishes to express both sadness and elation to his audience.

“People will feel something. The movie should be a visceral experience.” McPhee said.

Watching the documentary, it’s hard not to feel the same wrenching emotions experienced by all those featured. McPhee himself even admits to breaking down from the pain and struggle of it all.

“The whole thing was really emotionally difficult for me,” McPhee said. “From February until about June or July in 2006, I probably cried every day.”

McPhee’s documentary was produced with several goals in mind. First, McPhee hoped to convince others to help with this effort.

“We all need to be doing something more than what we are doing,” McPhee said. “I expect to motivate (the audience) to do something.”

Secondly, and more simply, McPhee wanted to inspire. A lofty ambition for sure, but one he’s pretty confident he can carry out.

“You will be inspired,” McPhee said. “I guarantee it.”

A question-and-answer session will follow the screening of "An American Opera."