Animated film Girl in the Hallway is a hand-made success for Ottawa artist Valerie Barnhart

A scene from Girl in the Hallway by Ottawa animator Valerie Barnhart.

In 1998, a seven year old girl named Xiana Fairchild was taken by a predator and serial killer named Curtis Dean Anderson. and murdered. The little girl was known to the performer and writer Jamie DeWolf, who told her story in a powerful podcast that also talked about his own failure to protect the child who was often left alone by her parents.

DeWolf, who just happens to be the great-grandson of L. Ron Hubbard, was a neighbour who often saw Xiana by herself. (DeWolf is not a Scientologist and often speaks against it.)

For Ottawa artist Valerie Barnhart, Xiana’s story touched a chord.

She is the adopted daughter of a Mohawk man and she comes from Vancouver where the stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls are all too present.

Barnhart explores issues of silence and inaction as a form of violence in her art.

She studied to be a printmaker at Vancouver’s Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. But these days her focus is on animation.

Her very first film Girl in the Hallway is based on DeWolf’s podcast. It’s now finding its way into six (and counting) animation and film festivals from biggies such as the Annecy Film Festival in France and Stuttgart, Germany to boutique events such as thin line in Denton, Texas. She just won an award for best animation at the AmDocs festival in Palm Springs, California.

“I’m hoping it will get into the Ottawa International Animation Festival, but I won’t hear back officially until August.”

Valerie Barnhart

You live in hope when you are a first-time animator.

What is most amazing about Barnhart’s 10:30 minute long film is that she has basically learned animation by doing. She was not trained in the discipline at a school.

These days she lives in Ottawa with her husband, two dogs and two cats surrounded by books and cacti. 

“I’m kind of a homebody as an animator so I have a lot of animals in my house,” she told ARTSFILE in an interview. “They keep me out of trouble.”

She found the story of Xiana online.

“I was on the podcast that had his live performance and I watched it over and over again.

“I couldn’t get over the story and I decided to contact him through his email and ask for permission to make a film about the story.”

DeWolf is in San Francisco area and Barnhart’s email was definitely out of the blue.

“He honestly thought I would be making a fan piece. I said I would gift it to him to use for whatever purpose he wanted in exchange for access to his copyright.”

It was free, she said, so he said yes.

“If it sucked, he would just move on, if it was good it was like ‘Yeah, got a free thing.”

He’s pretty happy with the result, she said.

DeWolf and Barnhart conducted several interviews but otherwise DeWolf had little to do with the film.

“He holds copyright on the writing and the performance. I hold copyright for adaptation (of the story) and Snap Judgment, the podcast, holds copyright on the actual physical recording.”

She is doing animation, in part, because she moved to Ottawa.

When she graduated from Emily Carr, her grad panel suggested she consider a different medium as a way to advance a career in the arts.

She moved to Ottawa because of family issues but once here she was not able to get access to the presses she needed to be a printmaker. Meanwhile SAW Video was an available artist-run space that had gear that she could use and workshops she could take.

She started and found film equipment intimidating. So, she said she thought, “I have this drawing background” and that would help with animation. She grabbed some textbooks and “went with it.”

“I figured that if I needed to learn any of the principles of animation it would come up naturally while doing the project. I was learning on the job big time. I didn’t know what I was getting into until it was too late to stop.”

What she was getting into was hundreds of hours of work and “a million different images produced.”

Girl in the Hallway is all hand drawn. It is what is called a 2D Stop Motion film.

“It was draw, take a photo, draw take a photo. I actually destroyed every frame as I made it. I spent three years destroying everything I made. It was a really interesting relationship to artistic practice.” One minute of the film took about seven months of work, she said as an example of the demands posed by Stop Motion.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf are metaphors that play a role in the film.

The story of Xiana resonates with Barnhart.

“This is a murdered and missing indigenous women and girls story. She is native Hawaiian.

“One of the primary issues with these victims is the fact that no one cares — the women and girls are invisible. I wanted to talk more about inaction and silence.”

Over the past four or five years, Barnhart has been making her film and figuring out a career path. Because she is self-taught she has needed to network — a lot, especially at OIAF.

“I have received zero dollars. My family is helping me go to the festivals” but now she needs to find a job.

She wants to be an independent animator and to keep making films, “I have to keep networking.” It helps a lot that her film is being seen in important festivals because that opens doors to agents and producers.

Ottawa is the home of a large and growing animation sector and Barnhart has hopes that she will be able to make a go of it here, especially because her husband’s career is well established.

She has a feature script in her briefcase and an idea for another short film. But for the time being she’s travelling to festivals and enjoying the ride.

“My head is spinning right now. I’m constantly going forward into situations I have no idea how to handle.”

She has learned animation by figuring it out as she goes, so why change now.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.