Written by Matt Packer
In December last year, a group of Avatar fans appeared in an episode of How To with John Wilson – the HBO documentary strand in which the eponymous Mr. Wilson explores a range of thought-provoking topics through his uniquely oblique lens.
Titled ‘How to Remember Your Dreams,’ the episode was widely hailed among Avatar fans for providing arguably the first truthful representation of what makes us tick. Plus, many non-fans on various social media channels remarked on how touching they’d found the episode – and that it had led them to rethink their ideas on Avatar fandom.
One of the fans who appeared was Tobi, who now joins us to talk about life as an Avatar fan – and how the episode’s shoot went down…
What’s your biggest memory from the first time you watched Avatar?
It was my first date with a boy or girl! I went with a lovely guy named Wesley, and we dated for another two years – but sadly, Wesley got really sick with a form of cancer and, in 2011, we lost him.
I’d been excited about Avatar for the previous four months – I was totally set on going and, like me, Wesley was really into sci-fi. We were huge Stargate fans… we were into Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, the Sci-Fi Channel show Eureka – you name it. So, we went along to Avatar as a date and, no kidding, we could not tear our eyes away from the screen. We just sat there the whole time with our shoulders touching and our jaws on the floor. It was so impressive to me.
There are a couple of interesting side-notes, here. First of all, we lived in Maryland, so our biggest theatre had just six screens and most of the time showed either kid’s movies or films aimed at adults – it hardly ever showed PG-13 blockbusters, so yeah – Avatar was probably bound to make a huge impression on me. But the catch is, I have a rare condition where I can’t perceive 3D properly – I see a completely different focal distancing range, and it’s hard to correct it to the point where seeing in 3D is possible. So, Wesley and I saw the 2D version, and we were still completely knocked out.
I didn’t see Avatar in 3D until we filmed the How To With John Wilson episode last year. I’d gotten my new contacts just two days before the trip, and John Wilson brought a 3D TV into the room where I met up with a group of other fans for the shoot. They actually had to edit out a lot of audio from my contribution because I was crying so hard! I’m now putting off my next eye exam until after the Avatar re-release – we have a 3D theatre where I live now, in South Carolina, and I don’t want to be on a different visual setting when I watch it!
What does Avatar mean to you – what sort of place does it have in your heart?
For me, Avatar represents the transition from childhood to adulthood. I was 15 when the movie came out, so it marks a kind of bridging point from the wonderment and innocence of youth into a recognition that we need to protect what we have. The film really spoke to me on that level through its themes and, to be honest, still does – but on a much sadder scale. Especially when I think about how things have changed since 2009. The health of the planet is crumbling around us, and – to quote the Styx song ‘Show Me The Way’ – “All the heroes and legends I knew as a child have fallen to idols of clay.”
I didn’t realise how huge the Avatar community was in the months after the film came out. When I got involved with the community, it was nine years later, and I was homeless. That part of my story didn’t make the final edit of the John Wilson show, but others in the Avatar community are aware of it. I was living out of a hotel that was being paid for by a local civic group, because I was a young female who would otherwise be on the streets, and I basically stumbled upon the Discord group for the Na’vi Language. I’d been using Discord for years by that point – but once I plugged into the group, my life really began to change for the better.
The Avatar community gave me the inner momentum to push forward with my self-recovery. I got out of homelessness, moved into a group home for people with disabilities and, from there, I’ve come a long way. I’ve been in this apartment for 18 months now, and it’s mine. Four years ago, I was homeless – but thanks to the strength, will and motivation I’ve acquired, I’ve been able to get my life back on track and medicate some of the issues that were preventing me from living my life normally.
I’m particularly thankful for how the community helped me cope with my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which I didn’t receive until two years ago. All told, I can’t say enough about the calibre of these people and how they’ve helped me change my life.
How did the Avatar-fans episode of How To with John Wilson come about, and how did
you get involved?
At first, I wasn’t part of the group they selected – they were looking for another female to take part, and since I now identify as non-binary, I didn’t immediately show up on their radar. But someone recommended me, and Mako at Kelutral got in touch with me and said: “Hey – this is gonna sound really weird… but would you be interested in coming to New York and filming for this HBO series?” And I was like, “Wait… what?!” And he said, “Yeah! They want to interview a bunch of us about Avatar and the language, and they’re gonna pay for all our expenses. What do you say?” I was pretty taken aback!
I had about two weeks’ notice, but it was only when I boarded the plane to New York that it began to feel real. I was shocked to actually be able to access the plane, and also to find that the hotel reservation wasn’t fake!
There were signs up in the hotel saying ‘Kelutral meetup,’ so I was like, “Okay – this is legit.” But it didn’t fully sink in until I got down there the next morning for the shoot and saw another person in an Avatar shirt waiting for everything to start. And one of the most powerful moments right then was when I met Txawey, who’d taught me in my first few weeks of being part of the community. He’s one of the people I look up to most. Sadly, Tekre – another wonderful member of the community – was unable to come due to the pandemic restrictions in her country.
How did the filming play out, and how were you encouraged to open up about
your Avatar fandom?
It took some of us a while to open up – I only recognised one of the five other faces, and most of us had never met face to face before. We were super-tense at first, but then the crew started asking us questions and then they brought in the 3D TV to show us part of the movie, which is when I cried. And once we began to open up, everything was on the table. We went for a walk in Central Park where the team asked us more questions and we told our stories of all the different factors that had led us into the community and gotten us involved.
After that, we got into small groups and they asked us more questions and we shared lots of experiences. One core member of the group, Pamìrìk, had gotten involved purely because of the linguistics, which was interesting to hear. He’s now such an expert on every aspect of the movie that if you have a question about anything and he can’t give you an answer, it pretty much has to go to James Cameron himself!
I’d describe John Wilson’s personal and filmmaking style as 100% whimsical. He definitely went for interesting and unusual angles for his shots, to create a sense of curiosity. And he leant into that whimsical nature to help us feel more comfortable and make it easier for us to talk. He was fun to work with.
What sort of effect would you say the episode had, in terms of perhaps sparking a
reassessment of Avatar fan culture?
This may not be 100% accurate as I don’t know the exact figures, but based on my own observation it has sparked a real interest in learning the language. I’ve seen many more new faces in the past six months than I saw over the previous two-and-a-half to three years. Plus, I’ve seen more interest out there in the cosplay side of things. There’s definitely more of an awareness that there’s a community around the movie and, now we’ve had the trailer for The Way of Water, too, people are wanting to catch up on anything they’ve missed and get some learning under their belts ahead of the next film.
One thing that really stands out for me about Avatar fandom is how different it feels. We tend to be quite introverted or ambiverted, and the vast majority of people I’ve interacted with in the community identify as neurodivergent. Being autistic, I’m no exception. To me, that all makes heaps of sense as so much of the film is concerned with the sensory world and body language. You see Jake biting into that fruit when he first links into his Avatar body, and you can feel what it’s like to take that bite and awaken into a brand-new self. Neurodivergent people can really relate to that sort of stuff. So, I think the John Wilson episode was quite important for showing people how different the fandom is.
What excites you most about the Avatar sequels?
A group of us fans is planning to get together in Florida for an AvatarMeet – we’re all gonna watch the movie and then go to the Disney attractions, which will be amazing. I’ve never been to Walt Disney World before, so to go there and interact with fellow fans at the same time will be a truly special moment. I can’t wait!
A community blog for language updates, AVATAR news, and community happenings, maintained by the members of Kelutral.org