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'The Sensei' shines light on tolerance

Film set in Colorado town deals with themes of tolerance involving gays, Asians

By Joe Nguyen,

Dec. 20, 2007

DENVER – A nearly packed audience battled snowy weather and harsh driving conditions to see the showing of actress and director Diana Lee Inosanto's “The Sensei” during the Untitled Film Festival on Dec. 8 at the Starz FilmCenter.

“The Sensei” is a labor of love for Inosanto, who spent seven years working on the project. She said the murder of Matthew Shepard and her cousin's coming out had a strong impact and inspired her to write her screenplay.

“I kept looking at a storyline about a straight couple dealing with the whole AIDS issue,” she said. “ ... The storyline wasn't working ... and when Matthew's case came around, I thought, that's it.”

About half of those in attendance consisted of the movie's cast and crew, as it was primarily filmed in Colorado. The film takes place in 1980s Sterling, Colo. and follows the story of hapa Karen O'Neil (Inosanto) who returns to her hometown after a five-year absence. After a gay high-school student named McClain, played by Michael O'Laskey II, is severely beaten by his peers, she agrees to teach him martial arts in secret.

“I wanted to play with the themes of tolerance and go around the issues of hate and how we all deal with it and how we, maybe, overcome it,” Inosanto said during the discussion following the movie.

O'Laskey said it was surprinsingly easy to get into character. He said he was confused about how a gay person would live in a setting of a small town with the AIDS scare, but figured that's what McClain was feeling as well.

“Approaching the character, I was more or less concerned with the fact that McClain's problem is not that he's gay, (but) that he's being bullied,” he said. “I'm sure we can all identify with bullying at one point in our life.”

Inosanto had been involved with the Matthew Shepard Foundation for some time, but in order to get the film ready for the festival, she and her husband, Ron Balicki, worked throughout the night to finish it.

“I was in an editing bay working on this until four in the morning last night,” said Balicki, who also produced and acts in the film. “I got to shut my eyes inside the editing bay for about an hour then I got up and got to the airport and got here.”

But working around difficult situations wasn't something new to the crew. He said the couple had to figure out a way to make up the funds when an investor pulled out midway through filming.

“My thought, I'd never be able to live with her unless she was able to make this movie,” said Balicki, who also produced and acted in the film, “because I knew she wasn't going to be happy.

“So we did the second mortgage thing – we funded pretty much this whole thing.”

During the questions and answers session, Inosanto said that she had a difficult time getting permission to film in a high school. The Associated Press reported that Jefferson County school officials said that they were concerned filming “The Sensei” at Alameda High School would remind people of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings. Alameda principal Dale McCoy argued that it would be a good learning opportunity for his students.

“We had it set up where (the students) would earn independent-study credits by means of real-life experience application,” McCoy said.

Unfortunately for McCoy and the filmmakers, the school board rejected the idea and the movie had to be shot at another school.

“(Alameda High School principal Dale McCoy) fought so hard for this film and for us,” Balicki said.

After battlling through numerous obstacles, the film is finally complete with the exception of a few minor tweaks. Balicki said that they're now preparing for the festival circuit in hopes of being picked for distribution.

“Now it's submission time,” he said.

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