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Filmmaker Jessica Yu's innovative documentary explores the parallel lives of legendary outsider artist Henry Darger. Reclusive janitor by day, visionary artist by night, Darger had virtually no friends but lived a rich imaginary life. Upon his death hundreds of watercolor paintings were discovered, along with a 15,000 page novel (bearing the same title as the film) detailing the exploits of seven angelic sisters who lead a rebellion against godless, child-enslaving men. Employing vivid animation and experimental elements, Yu immerses us in Darger's world and all its strange beauty, showing how he forged magic out of the bleakest of lives.

 The Room
  A Piece On Making In the Realms of the Unreal

It’s funny: someone invites you to step into a room, and for the next five years of your life you’re making a film about it.

Through a chance encounter, I had been permitted by Kiyoko Lerner, Henry Darger’s last landlady, to see the apartment where the artist had lived for over half his life.

While I was familiar with Darger’s startling artwork and his thumbnail biography— (usually recited with a giddy snicker): reclusive janitor who wrote a 15,000 page novel and illustrated it with paintings of naked little girls with penises!— I was unprepared for the emotional impact of standing in his room. It had been preserved since his death in 1973, and the artist’s presence was palpable. Everything was something he had foraged from the outside world, feathering his nest with pictures of children, religious relics, old books and newspapers, art supplies, knickknacks of every sort. Everything had aged with the same burnt-gold patina. It was one of the most beautiful rooms I had ever seen.

I knew in that moment that I wanted to make a film about Darger, to find the pieces and put them together, to get a sense of who the man was. On my next visit to the room, I snapped some pictures. There was so much to take in, and I couldn’t get it all in one shot. Hence the collage. It didn’t look like the room, but it felt like the room. Although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, the collage became emblematic of both the challenge and the goal of a film: the challenge of taking everything in, and the goal of capturing the essence of the thing, not the thing itself.

The research alone took almost two years. There was so much to see, read, digest. Late nights I burrowed in my office, in Darger-like fashion. I filled up stacks of binders, amassing my own 15,000 pages. Hours of reading Darger’s novel on microfilm left me temporarily blind and prostrate on the floor of the library. I found myself searching on eBay for such obscurities as a postcard of the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, where Darger spent half his childhood, or a duplicate of Darger’s ancient Remington typewriter. (To this day I’m not sure why I bought the latter; I think I found its anchor-like presence reassuring.) I was in heaven.

People ask why I felt compelled to make a film about Henry Darger. I’m still not sure, but I think it traces back to that initial moment of wonder and the impulse to bottle it and share it. With every film I find myself trying to re-create my own path of discovery, to reconstruct what moved or surprised me, or made it impossible to think of anything else. This collage is a reminder of that journey’s first step: that still afternoon on one man’s island, the dust in the air hanging weightlessly around me, undisturbed by my held breath.