Where are we headed?

Technology and reality intersect in ‘Heartworm.’

"Heartworm," 2023 sci-fi drama film. —Courtesy Miriam Louise Arens

Speaking to Miriam Louise Arens and her husband, Mitchell Arens, director and cinematographer respectively, about their work in progress, “Heartworm,” was fascinating. Just the concept is intriguing since, as Miriam says, “At its core, it is about our relationship to technology.” This sci-fi drama is a kaleidoscopic journey through reality, virtual reality, and memory about Avena, a bereaved mother, who battles to save her grief-stricken husband from NeuraLife — the technology that killed their 8-year-old daughter Zamira. To do so, she must confront her grief and devastating new existence, free him and herself from their guilt, and expose the poisonous nature of NeuraLife’s fabricated world.

Avena lives in a post-pandemic world dependent on NeuraLife technology, a virtual platform indistinguishable from reality, where all human interaction takes place. When Avena’s daughter falls into a coma while inside NeuraLife, Avena and her husband Mark go on diverging paths. Avena stays in reality to care for Zamira’s body, while Mark waits for Zamira’s consciousness to return to NeuraLife. When Zamira dies, the couple is left to grieve in limbo, each partner trapped in their respective realm.

“If you can conquer your grief, you can become a fresh person,” Miriam says. “You can learn from those you have lost. But you can’t do that with technology. At its core, the film is about identity, the insular nature of technology, and the fragility of reality.” Asked about the film’s title, Miriam explains that it is “Heartworm” because, “Grief eats away at your insides and eats you inside out, but so is our relationship to technology at this point.”

Asked how the idea for the film originated, Miriam says, “Years ago, Mitch and I were struggling as we watched our friends become more and more addicted to their phones and social media; how it was starting to change people’s relationships and humanity through their need to do everything through a virtual platform. Then, about six years ago, we had a miscarriage. It got us thinking, How do you grieve in a world when it’s stripped of authentic human connection?

“Also, when Mitch and I conceived of the idea for ‘Heartworm’ six years ago, we had no idea that Facebook would be rebranded into Meta, that ChatGPT would be writing our high school kids’ English papers, and that our surgeon general would declare America in a loneliness epidemic, all by the time the film was coming out. These technologies are changing the fabric of our society, and it’s vital that we question if we want that for ourselves, and that’s what we set out to do with the film.”

It turns out that “Heartworm” has a double Vineyard connection. Miriam grew up on the Island, and she and Mitchell decided to film it here in 2021. They realized that in comparison with Los Angeles, where the couple live, there would be greater community support here. And indeed, there was. “It was such an outpouring. We worked with Circuit Films as our fiscal sponsor, the Vineyard Arts Project, Featherstone, the Playhouse, the Scottish Bakehouse, and Morning Glory. All these touchstones came out and helped us. Plus, all the extras in the film are Islanders.” Various individuals, too, allowed them to use their houses for shooting.

Miriam and Mitchell wrote “Heartworm” together, and each played a vital role in bringing it about. Miriam says, “Mitch’s and my working relationship is very unconventional. We embark on filmmaking much like we tackle parenting. Together. ‘Heartworm’ has very much become our third child. And like any child, it has taken on a life of its own, and we are simply in service of that life, striving to make it the best, most well-rounded film it can be.”

Miriam speaks as well about the larger role of technology in our society, that virtually all of us have some form of digital presense. She believes that while for some, this is a useful tool, for many it’s an augmented version of their true identity. Miriam tells me that since the genesis of Facebook, teen suicide has increased by 30 percent, feelings of isolation affect more than 50 percent of Americans, and the average adult checks his or her mobile device 144 times a day, averaging 4.5 hours of usage.

“As our necks are craned downward, our environment is deteriorating. Instead of smelling the flowers, we’re envying our best friend’s cousin’s Insta-photo of the flowers,” she says. “We are sitting on a precipice. Can we rediscover the strength and importance of physical connection, or will the convenience of a virtual lifestyle win out? ‘Heartworm’ is a deep exploration of what society stands to lose if the virtual realm continues to take us captive.”

Ultimately, Miriam wants viewers to question their relationship with their phones. And, apparently, the virtual realm in the movie is an allegory for the device. Mitchell queries, “Yes, what of our humanness is at stake with our dependence on technology? How does it change your ability to feel? What do we stand to lose if we complacently go along with transferring our lives into the digital space?”

“Heartworm” will screen as a work in progress, and Miriam and Mitchell Arens will discuss their work afterward, on Thursday, August 3, and Friday, August 4, at the Grange Hall. For tickets, visit circuitarts.thundertix.com/events/213740.