By Teresa Reile
The film festival circuit is an incredibly competitive market. Each year thousands of actors, directors, writers, designers, and composers submit their work in the hopes it will gain acceptance and national notice. Only the best artists receive attention and Buffalo native Janel Tanna has received plenty. Tanna has gathered 9 Best Actress awards, 2 Best screenwriting, and another 5 nominations for Best Actress, and 2 Best Ensemble. It’s not luck, she worked for it. Tanna, who now lives in NYC, trained in method acting at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, and also trained in the Meisner technique with James Brill of the Neighborhood Playhouse.
Her recent award-winning film Sienna’s Choice, which she wrote and produced, is about a successful young woman faced with a life-threatening brain cancer diagnosis. When she first proposed the idea for the script she was often met with the question “who wants to hear about someone dying?”
“I said you’re looking at it the wrong way,” said Tanna in an online interview, “It’s not about dying, it’s about someone who wants to live and how they want to do that.”
The film gives us the experience of a person going through the last stages of life and helps us understand the complex personal choices they face and how they reach their decisions. There are many ways that people die suddenly, car accidents, heart attacks, gunshot, brain aneurysms, and so on. But a fatal diagnosis is so much more complicated and ushers in friends and family and conflicting emotions in one’s decision making.
End of life choices is a deep subject matter and Tanno is not afraid to wade in. In addition to her desire to address an important topic, artistically, Tanno, who plays the lead role of Sienna, said she wanted to challenge herself as an actress. In an interview with NYC’s DecayMag.com Tanna said, “Sienna’s Choice was definitely the most difficult role I have played to date. Some of my colleagues have asked if I am a glutton for punishment since besides being the lead in a very emotionally and physically trying role, I was also the writer on set, the Executive producer as well as the medical expert.”
In one of the early scenes, Sienna is dancing on pointe as a ballerina. Janel is not a ballerina––she took ballet lessons for a month prior to filming to be able to dance on pointe for the film.
Death from cancer was not unknown to Tanna. She had in the past done research work at Roswell Park Cancer Institute on DNA replication and repair, as well as working with hospice patients She has said the most gripping experience was watching the last days of a woman dying of brain cancer.
Tanna wanted a strong female cast and production crew. The film was directed by Linda Palmer, who has received several Best Director nominations for the film. Four of the producers are also female.
Growing up, Tanna confessed that originally, she had wanted to be an archeologist because of her fascination with pyramids and pharaohs but as she grew she became busy with gymnastics and then going to the University of Buffalo where she graduated summa cum laude with her MD.
She didn’t grow up acting, however, she did love creating characters and did love to draw as a child. She recalled a time when her mom found a whole notebook of her drawings when she was about 9 or 10. Her mom was amazed to find that Janel had such artistic ability at such a young age.
Janel wants people to be emotionally touched after watching her film. It touches people in different ways as they relate it to their own lives. One woman got back together with her ex because of the film. She realized that life is too short and she decided to make it right with him. According to Tanna, if everyone contributes their gift to the world, by doing their small part, the world will be enriched in ways unimaginable.
The film, cast and crew has a laundry list of awards and nominations awards and nominations including an international win in Vancouver, Canada and Sutter Creek festival in California. The film has won Best Film (Grove in New Jersey), Audience Choice (in Geneva, Switzerland at Eurocinema), Best Screenplay (Hudson Valley International Film Festival), Best Film (Grove in New Jersey), Excellence in Screenwriting (Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema), Best Score (also Idyllwild), Best supporting actor and actress and many more for the director, cast and producers.
Janel is working on a few more projects that are projected to be complete in 2018 and 2019. One of them is a hockey comedy that they are hoping to film in Buffalo and then perhaps create a series to pitch on Netflix.
In the movie, Sienna is choosing to live even though the family was thinking she wanted to die. Sienna chooses to live her way, and Janel does, as well.