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Theater + Arts

At the Academy Awards, a South Florida triumph

Interview: South Florida native @courtneynmarsh vies for an Oscar on Sunday night.

How much has Courtney Marsh's life changed in the past six weeks? In the manner of Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Winslet, she's under orders to maintain a vital secret: Her attire on Sunday night.

"Who am I wearing? It's so funny, I don't know if I'm allowed to say that," Marsh says, with a laugh. "I think I'm getting the OK today. I'm not even kidding."

In the remarkable denouement of a journey that began more than eight years ago in a back-alley Vietnam hospital filled with children disfigured by Agent Orange, Marsh will walk the red carpet as an Academy Award nominee for her first documentary film, "Chau, Beyond the Lines."

The Oscars ceremony, airing at 8:30 p.m. on ABC, will conclude a fast-paced week for Marsh, a former All-State cross-country star at Fort Lauderdale's St. Thomas Aquinas High School. Life since her nomination was announced Jan. 14 has been a nonstop crush of media interviews, picture taking, fashionable luncheons and celebrity-strewn cocktail parties.

She just did Diane Von Furstenberg's Women in Film luncheon for this year's female nominees. She found herself in a rewarding conversation about "Blade Runner" with one of her role models, director Ridley Scott. And she literally rubbed elbows with Jennifer Jason Leigh in the traditional group photo for all the Oscar contenders.

Marsh sounds slightly unnerved by these rituals, especially the recurring shopping trips. But she's not apologizing.

"Especially being a woman, dressing nice and being part of it is a huge thing. You can't ignore that. It's part of the game, and it's fun," says Marsh, 29. And being dressed by someone else for Oscar night isn't strange at all. "No, it's fantastic! One less thing I have to do and pay for."

Against the odds

"Chau, Beyond the Lines," directed by Marsh and produced by Jerry Franck, is a beautifully rendered profile of a teenager living in an understaffed Ho Chi Minh City facility for kids disabled by the Vietnam War-era defoliant Agent Orange. Chau, born without muscles in his arms and legs, gripping a paintbrush in his teeth, is determined to be an artist.

Marsh graduated from St. Thomas in 2004, and was one of 15 students accepted into the prestigious UCLA undergraduate film program. At the end of her freshman year, she and a classmate went to Vietnam to do a documentary on street kids. While there, a local TV producer mentioned the kids living in the back of a nearby maternity hospital.

Marsh, then 21, had never heard of Agent Orange, but was stunned at what she saw. Before ever pulling out a camera, she and her friend spent 10 weeks volunteering at the center, feeding, bathing and dressing kids with varying disabilities. Most of Marsh's time was spent in a room designated for the particularly helpless.

Once they started filming, Chau's noble pursuit of an unlikely dream — against all odds, against the remonstrations of the hospital's overworked staff — became the focus of Marsh's 34-minute documentary. Funded with grants, small fundraisers and donations, many from folks in South Florida, it took eight years to complete.

"Chau" screened at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival in November, where it won the FLIFF award for best short documentary. FLIFF is showing "Chau" this week at its Cinema Paradiso theaters in Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood as part of the Oscar Nominated Shorts package of live-action, animated and documentary films. Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale is hosting an Oscar watch party Sunday night.

FLIFF president Gregory Von Hausch says "Chau" was a last-minute addition to the 2015 festival, but still managed to pack the theater. And with good reason, he says: "It blew me away."

Marsh believes audiences and Oscar voters have responded to "Chau" because of its focus on its subject's aspirations, and not the villain, Agent Orange. The film is "very PG" compared to the gruesome scenes she witnessed, Marsh says.

"It's a pull-at-your-heartstrings movie," she says. "It presents a situation that was caused by a chemical, and then we're seeing the human spirit triumph over the adversity."

This focus does not surprise Brenda Natiello, a veteran St. Thomas instructor who taught Marsh's Latin classes for four years. Natiello recalls Marsh as a special combination of "charisma, humor, intelligence and genuine kindness," and a born storyteller. Natiello recalls the two bonding over movies and books such as Dennis Lehane's "Mystic River" and "Shutter Island."

"When she went to UCLA, she came back to visit and was telling me about a class taught by Alexander Payne, who was fresh off his 'Sideways' success," Natiello says. "She was so animated when talking about these other artists that I knew she was drawn to that world and wanted to be able to tell her own stories."

Chau today

Spoiler alert: In the latest chapter of Chau's life, not only is he a working artist, the Oscar buzz about the movie has made him a star.

"The guy is famous," March says. "I get so many inquiries from Vietnam asking for Chau's contact information. He had to take a two-week break and leave town because he had news people over at his house every single day."

At the end of "Chau," viewers interested in more information about Chau and the ongoing Agent Orange cleanup effort in Vietnam are directed to the film's website, BeyondTheLinesFilm.com. Many have used this to contact Marsh about acquiring one of Chau's paintings, and she's sold more than 100 works herself, at $300 to $400 each, a price she's told him to hike if they win an Oscar.

You can commission a piece from Chau on the website, but you'll be put on a waiting list with an average wait time of three to four months.

"I get three or four requests a day," Marsh says. "The demand is too much for me to handle, so I'm setting him up with an art dealer."

Marsh, meanwhile, is busy developing her next film, a scripted, narrative feature. And she expects to be working on Agent Orange-related issues for the next few years.

On Sunday night, Marsh will be joined at the Oscars by her parents, Kerry and Corinne Marsh, and her brothers, Michael, studying for an MBA at Cornell, and Carson, a junior at St. Thomas. Eight to 10 of her best friends from high school flew out this week, and are planning a big afterparty in a Beverly Hills house they're rented.

She's been invited to the famed Vanity Fair afterparty and another thrown by actor-comedian Kevin Hart, but Marsh expects to duck out early and spend most of the night celebrating with her friends. Win or lose?

"Oh, we've won," Marsh says. "It's changed my career, and it's changed Chau's life. Not to, like, toot my own horn, but it does feel good to know at the end of the day, that all the work that the crew and I did, it changed someone's life. C'mon, that's winning."

bcrandell@southflorida.com

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