One of the great embarrassments of 2022 is that sad fact that we, as a society still have to decry Nazis as being utterly contemptable. While tiki-torch wielding racists and elite Eastern-suburb private school boys continue a dangerous flirtation with the iconography and slogans of the regime, mostly funnelled through ignorance and lack of originality, these pathetic renditions of an adherent ideally are far removed for the insidious proliferation of Hitler’s dark aspirations. One of the lesser known, and inherently vile policies initiated by the Nazis was the Aktion T4 campaign, a directive of mass murder by involuntary euthanasia of people with disabilities, either congenital, psychiatric or via misfortune. Implemented in 1939, T4 was in effect until Germany’s defeat in 1945, with an estimated 300,000 Europeans falling victim to the campaign.
The fear and desperation that many disabled experienced during this dark period is the foundation on which writer and director Ashley Eakin has built her latest short film Forgive Us Our Trespasses, now screening on Netflix as part their Emerging Filmmaker initiative.
Set in the countryside of a Germany in the grip of a harsh winter, the film stars newcomer Knox Gibson, an Australian teenager hailing from Orange, NSW who lost part of his arm at the age of three. Having connected with Ashley Eakin on social media prior to his casting, Gibson took the novel steps of producing an audition tape during the pandemics first wave of lockdowns, actively pursuing the role of Paul, a young boy whose disability underlies a creeping dread at the Nazi’s disturbing eugenics play.
“We looked into it a little bit, what the whole story was about, and we started to understand the size of it.” Explains Gibson, who freely admits that, as fourteen-year-old from rural New South Wales, much of the particulars behind the Nazi regime weren’t exactly on his radar. “As you watch the film, it focuses on Akiton T4, which is basically killing all people with disabilities. And obviously because I have just the one hand, I’m getting chased down. I felt like my motivation was all those people who were killed, they were kind of just like me. I wanted to get their story out there because I feel like it’s not spoken about enough when World War II is brought up. It’s all about spreading the word that one life is not worth more than another, and we are all the same regardless.”
Having only a handful of commercial experience under his belt, Knox delivers a remarkably layered performance throughout the fourteen-minute film, effectively encapsulating an emotional range that helps navigates it’s the audience through the horror, fear and determination of Paul’s desperate narrative as he is forced to suddenly leave his mother, home and safety as he is set upon by a band of soldiers whose only goal is to effectively murder him.
“When I was pitching this idea.” Explains the film’s director Ashely Eakin as we discuss the films origins and her casting of Knox. “I reached out to Kate, Knox’s mother and asked if I could use their images, because imagery helps so much in these pitches, and Knox has so many incredible photos of himself scaling rocks and jumping off cliffs and just doing all this physical stuff. And so I asked if I could use their images for the pitch.
“I’d been following Knox for about two years prior just because I follow a lot of people in the disability community on Instagram. That’s often how I get people for roles, I test them out. I’ll do a read and then I’ll work with them and see if they’re a good fit. And Knox, by far, had the best read. We initially tried to hire locally. Even here in the US, we did a whole search, but no one was quite getting it like Knox could.
“Knox was perfect. He had just turned 13 at the time, so he still had that really young boyish look, but then he could also shift into being powerful, enough to take down a Nazi. And he was such a trooper because we made him run in the snow a lot. And more often than not, even when I was like, “Okay, I think we’re good.” He’s like, “No, let’s go again.” And he’d just start running.
In fact, while most people were avoiding travel due to COVID, Knox, along with his mother Kate made the bold choice to fly from their reasonably isolated haven in Orange to the winter-burnt farmlands of Canada. A remarkable experience that not only christened Knox’s first film debut, but which played out as something of a unique adventure for the Gibson family.
“When they decided that they officially did want Knox, and that they were going to try and make it work, it was all systems go.” Explains Kate Gibson, who joins our conversation from isolation after testing positive for the Omicron strain sweeping Australia.
“And it was in the middle of the pandemic at the end of 2020, so we had to get special exemptions to travel because all the borders were closed. It was incredible that they actually made it happen. But it was a crazy, amazing experience for both of us. I feel so lucky that I actually got to go with Knox and be on the set.
“It was a really, really good experience.” Knox continues “They were all really professional people who we were working with. They had worked on massive films, like Suicide Squad and It. So, yeah it was really cool. And everyone was really professional on the COVID side of things. The hair and makeup people were all in full gowns and being really protective so that we wouldn’t get it. It was a really good experience.”
Currently streaming globally via Netflix, Forgive Us Our Trespasses was born from the streaming giants Emerging Filmmaker initiative that saw Eakin, along with two other young filmmakers, Marielle Woods (Heart Shot) and Hebru Brantley (Erax), pitch and secure funding, distribution and mentorship for a series of relevant genre-based stories.
An active member and advocate of the disabled community herself, Eakin’s inclusive aptitude and willingness to bring darker themes to light without cloaking her narratives in victimhood or pity is a direct result of her personal trials within the Hollywood system, validating her talent and innovation as filmmaker and personal growth as a creative force.
“My husband [Shawn Lovering] and I, who I brought on as a co-writer, when we were talking with Netflix, they allowed us to pitch three projects.” Explains Eakin. “At the time, Shawn was reading a book about a resistance group, for a project that he was working on. And we had just watched, probably two months prior, A Hidden Life by Terrence Malick, which was beautiful. So I began asking myself the question of what was happening to disabled people during World War II in Germany with Hitler. His goals felt like they wouldn’t align with the disabled community or helping disabled people. We started to research, and it was something that we both didn’t really know anything about, and that shocked and alarmed us, that we didn’t know about it at all.
“It really upset me. I mean, I definitely would’ve been one of the victims. With my bone disease, I’ve had 30 surgeries that have helped me be able to walk better and fix different areas. And it would’ve definitely been something that would’ve been seen as scary or potentially hereditary. With research, at the time, no one knew which disabilities were hereditary and which were not. So it was a wide blanket of anyone with something that could be passed down to another person.
“It hasn’t really been widely discussed, especially in the west. I have European friends who are also filmmakers and they’re like, “We knew about this.” And so that was another reason why we chose to have the film in English and not German.
With a new wave of awareness and accountability taking root in the entertainment industry, the disabled community is starting to see representation and acceptance penetrate its traditionally ignorant culture, gaining massive ground thanks to filmmakers and advocates such as Eakin. However, while the LA based writer, producer and director acknowledges the social shift, she admits that the end goal for inclusivity lies with the experience Knox will face once he truly enters the Hollywood arena.
“I’ve been in the industry for about 10 years, 12 maybe now with COVID. But I came up assisting producers and directors. And initially it was interesting. I really would go to great lengths to downplay my disability and not really talk about it, to just try and show that my personality and my work ethic and all that would be good enough to hire me. Though as I grew and started really leaning into this side of my life, I realized it’s not a disadvantage, it’s an asset, because I’m super adaptable. I’ve lived this life with an adversity that has made me really resourceful. And I don’t know, I think it can be used as an asset.
“In LA there’s a big community, that I’m surrounded by and people, of people with disabilities who want to get into acting.” Continues Eakin, speaking of the vibe she currently sees taking place in Los Angeles. “There’s a lot of commercials happening which feature actors with disabilities, who are out there and doing it.
“Just look at Ryan O’Connell who created a show on Netflix called Special. He’s amazing. I mean, it was about his life and he starred in it. So it’s definitely is possible. But it’s definitely limited as well, if you know what I mean? In so far that when you have a specific character in mind when you write something, it’s you that has have to shift who your character is at times to fit an actor. When I was planning Forgive Us Our Trespasses, I always thought of Knox in it. So that was really helpful.
“There’s definitely people out there, but it’s not this wide huge net. There’s a ton of people in LA who want to act, but it’s a hard skill. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do. And I commend actors because I am certainly not one. But I think one of the biggest hurdles for Hollywood is they have to give people the chance first. For so long, they were just using really established actors to play disabled people. And that’s problematic because it makes us part of a myth. It’s almost like were not real… And when they’re not even given a chance to see that they can do a particular job or role, it gets a little tricky.
While Eakin has risen through the ranks, utilizing her life experience to draw from and help guide her growth as a real player in the Hollywood ecosystem, her unique perspective has been influenced and baptized from firsthand experience of the cultural shift. Whereas, for newcomers like Knox, although new doors are now open, the challenge of keeping the industry accessible and further evolving will determine the limits of success. A challenge that, thankfully, looks ready to be met.
“Look, I think it’s definitely getting better than it was.” Considers the young actor “But I still feel like we’ve got a fair way to go. I don’t think there’s still enough representation, but over the past few years it’s picked up a little bit more, and I do see that they’re casting more people with actual disabilities as well.
“The Rock did a movie, Skyscraper, and he was missing a leg. And I mean, it was a good movie, but the authentic casting obviously wasn’t there. So yeah, I think there’s still a fair way to go, but we’re getting there.”
Forgive Us Our Trespasses is streaming now exclusively on Netflix.