Tuesday, June 2, 2009

In Review: LDSFF '09 Part 7: Rick Stevenson and Life-affirming Cinema

One of the highlights of the festival for me was seeing Rick Stevenson's Expiration Date followed later by his presentation. Stevenson was notable for being the only non-LDS filmmaker speaking this year. In fact, he began briefly discussing how he knew Christian Vuissa and by wondering aloud why he was asked to speak at an event where he so clearly didn't fit the niche. He is not wholly unconnected with the Church, however; his wife and family are members.

Perhaps because he has the perspective of an informed outsider (both in filmmaking and Mormonism) the audience's expectations were high. While Stevenson didn't speak much about the LDS film movement itself, his comments were interesting and, I think, important in that they demonstrate a kind of solidarity that can be had between LDS and non-LDS filmmakers.

Expiration Date

This dark, funny, romantic, and charming film is about Charlie Silvercloud, a 24-year-old Native American young man who believes he is under a curse. Charlie's father and grandfather, you see, were killed by milk trucks on their 25th birthdays. Only a few days away from his own expiration date, Charlie is settling his affairs and making arrangements for his funeral - doing such things as looking for a comfortable coffin, selecting burial a burial plot, etc. He is completely resigned to his fate, having grown up his whole life being taught by his mother to expect it. While both of them would like to avoid it (they have every milk delivery route in the city mapped out with red zones indicating unsafe times and places), both view the event as inevitable.

In the course of his preparations, Charlie meets a young woman named Bessie Smith, who is also coffin shopping, though she says it's for her mother, who is dying of cancer. Bessie also happens to be a daughter of the family that owns the city's milk production plant. The movie shows the development of Charlie and Bessie's relationship and how, together, they face issues of life, death, tradition, fear, and love.

I couldn't possibly say what the best thing about this movie is. I was personally struck by the message portrayed in the film's bookends, which frame the story of Charlie's curse as a morality tale being told by an elderly Native American man to a younger tribe member who is trying to get away from the reservation and therefore his heritage. Apparently, the Silverclouds' history of being killed by "pasty white" milk trucks began when the first of them left the tribe to live in the city. The old man telling the story is a humorous but wise character, and racial prejudice is not the point of his comments. Instead, they point out that by turning our backs on our cultural heritage, we reject not only our ancestors but our identities - our very lives. Having served a mission among members of an Indian tribe that has all but disappeared, I found these scenes accurate (per my experience) and deeply moving.

In his presentation, Stevenson spoke about films being culturally true, saying that the purpose of our storytelling tradition is to pass on our values and traditions. Hollywood, while faithful at first, has done this in ever poorer fashion, he claimed, and asked those there to consider their "celluloid footprint," which is not so much what they are taking from the world through film as what they are leaving it. Are we creating "fast food cinema," or producing something more wholesome, sustainable, and true?

Stevenson shared an anecdote that describes another of the film's strengths. After screening Expiration Date at a previous festival (this was the film's 84th - no, that's not a typo) he was approached by a woman whose 12-year-old child was suffering from a terminal illness. With tears in her eyes, she explained that she had been coffin shopping for her son only earlier that day, and thanked Stevenson for his film because it gave her hope. In her words, "it affirms life."

"That moment gave me all the reason to be the filmmaker I am," said Stevenson. He recalled feeling unworthy to be in that woman's presence, but grateful that his film could bless her in such a way. The real reason for making films, he said, is embodied by that experience and countless others like it. The payoff is not monetary.

Other Topics

A few other themes Stevenson discussed were community among filmmakers, the availability of independent film, and how LDS cinema can succeed. Regarding the first, he said that those who want to make good films should support each other. "Send a filmmaker $20 if you've seen his film." Gestures like that make all the difference in keeping people going, and develop a sense of common cause that is strengthening to everyone.

On the second topic, Stevenson gave some eye-opening statistics. He said that about 25,000 films are made around the world each year. About 500 of those are Hollywood productions. Only about 600 films per year get wide distribution, including all 500 made by Hollywood. So good independent films are getting made, but they are not getting to us. In order to help rectify this, Stevenson and some associates have started a group called Official Best of Fest, which offers collections for sale of fourteen to twenty award winning independent films, both short and feature length. Current collections include Chick Flicks, Films that Will Make You Laugh, Films that Inspire, Films about Love, Short Films for Children, and three smaller Date Night collections that come with chocolates.

Finally, Stevenson encouraged LDS filmmakers to focus on their storytelling abilities, seek a narrowly defined audience, and find a neutral storyteller for their films. He gave the example of a child, saying that since a child's primary question is "am I safe?" children make good universal narrators. Everyone can relate to the perspective. He views the current LDS market not as sparse or disinterested, but hungry - very hungry. Finally, he encouraged LDS (and all) independent filmmakers to embrace piracy. Anonymity, he said, not copyright infringement, is our enemy.


Th. said...


Anonymity, he said, not copyright infringement, is our enemy.


Adam K. K. Figueira said...

He meant we should be happy when our movies get pirated because that means they're being seen. Having our IP rights stolen isn't nearly as big a deal as nobody being exposed to us and our work.