FESTIVALS: DancesWithFilms Discovers "After the Flood"
by Fiona Ng
Touted as the "only" film festival in the U.S. devoted solely to films of the no-wattage variety, the annual DancesWithFilms ended typically last week with an awards ceremony honoring the jury's and the audience's picks of the best of the 5-day event (July 25 to 29).
Currently in its fourth year, the Los Angeles-based fest (held this year at The Lot in West Hollywood -- the studio lot formerly and better known as Warner Hollywood) has as its mission the promotion of "true independents" -- defined here as films with no "known" directors, actors and producers. And as a festival about below-the-radar discoveries, the concept did make for a unique opportunity of seeing a slate of films (no doubt representing just a small fraction of all the films under the same rubric out there) that more often than not would be shut out of the distribution food chain.
Of the 19 full-length features, two documentaries and 23 shorts showcased at this year's DancesWithFilms, what was remarkable, to this reviewer at least, was the undeniable talent of the many neophyte directors and non-marquee actors, but whose films, when all things considered, ultimately failed to stir. And the problem, ironically perhaps, was not the marginality of the filmmakers and actors, but how stiflingly mainstream (tame, un-provocative, safe, predictable) many of the films in the festival felt in content, sensibility and vision, however polished and competence the filmmaking happened to be.
There was one film, however, that I felt stood out on its own, an audacious work that showed tremendous talents in direction, writing and acting; a film unabashed in embracing certain stylistic and thematic risks, and one that almost got away with all of them.
Driven more by the internal journey of its lead character than by any necessary narrative arc, director Robert Saitzyk's maiden full-length feature "After the Flood" follows Simon (a mesmerizing performance by actor Shawn Andrews), a street kid, who at the beginning of the film, is seen doubled-crossed in a deal that would later come back to haunt him. Strapped for cash, Simon tries, but stops short of, pimping Gabriela (Ola Metwally),
a girl he got as payment to an earlier debt. Bonded by a deeper isolation, a tenuous kinship starts to develop between the two. But just as the pair decides to leave the city together, a freak accident kills Gabriela and sets off in Simon a certain descent into darkness and a desperate search for meaning in his senseless surroundings.
An obvious stylist and an aesthete, Saitzyk punctuates the film with surreal imagery to contrast the gritty realism of his anti-hero's lived reality. However, the film at times does feel a bit over-determined with its use of religious symbolisms as a mean to heighten the protagonist's embattled soul.
Intended by the director as a modernized portrait, based liberally on the poet Arthur Rimbaud, the film, in mood and motivation, also readily recalls Nietzsche (the main character dons a T-shirt emblazoned with the word "Zarathrustra" in half the film) and Dostoevsky's "Notes from Underground," though not slavishly so. Shadowed by so many references and intertextualities, the film nonetheless feels entirely its own.
Shot on 35mm and in 12 days time, director of photography Matt Siegel's harsh and subdued cinematography aptly mirrors the character's existential struggles. And actor Shawn Andrews, very Method, surely has the presence and charisma to carry the movie from start to finish, conveying a complexity that crisscrosses between utter indifference (to the point of egomania) and timid vulnerability.
A graduate of Cal State San Francisco's film program, Saitzyk had only a couple shorts and some music videos under his belt before setting out to write his first full-length feature, which later became "After the Flood." (According to the director, "Flood" was originally written as part of a larger film, but it was so developed that he decided to make it into a separate piece).
Within a year of the script's completion, the director assembled his crew (mostly by posting flyers and ads around the university and theater companies in the Bay area). And not unlike so many first films eager to get made, "After the Flood," was funded through the wallets of sympathetic family and friends and, of course, maxed-out credit cards.
"We just all piled in some money, and basically the plan was to get it in the can. We didn't know how long it would take to finish, so [we were just concentrating on] getting it in the can, getting it processed," Saitzyk said. And the budgetary cutback meant that the film had to be shot with shortends, among various cutbacks, some more inconvenient than others. "We couldn't even see what we had shot until three or four months later because we didn't have the money to telecine it," the director said.
In retrospect though, the filmmaker is realizing that getting the film made might be easier than getting it out there. Since post-production ended in January, Saitzyk has been shopping the film to various film festivals. He is now awaiting word from the Austin Film Festival coming this September.
Ultimately, Saitzyk is aiming for distribution. Amidst this time of woes for independent distributors, as evident by the recent collapse of the Shooting Gallery, the filmmaker admits that he is concerned about finding possible distribution, but remains faithful in the strength of his work.
"We were pushing some forms with the film, which I think threw some people off, but it was important for me to do that. "We've been worried since day one. But I do know we have an audience, and I am hoping that someone would just come in and say 'Hey, I admire that and I think we can try to get you guys out there,'" said Saitzyk.
And yet, it wasn't "After the Flood" that managed to float the jury and the audience's boat at DancesWithFilms. Going full-circle back to the festival's award winners: Best of DancesWithFilms Award was given to the drama "Shadow Glories." Directed by Ziad H. Hamzeh, the circuitous film follows a former kickboxing ace as he struggles to leave behind his violent past, complicated all the more when his prot