Hometown: born in Bruges, lives in Brussels, Belgium
Why She is On Our Radar: Sofie Benoot’s first film after school, “Blue Meridian,” made its US debut earlier this fall at the Camden International Film Festival, where it received a special mention for Cinematic Vision.
Shot in various communities along the Mississippi River, “Blue Meridian” flows with the Mississippi from Cairo, Illinois to Venice, Louisiana, stopping along the way to meet various locals who inhabit some of the most isolated communities in the US. Interspersing long shots of members of riverside communities singing, talking, musing, with vibrant shots of the regional geography, Benoot crafts an outsider’s perspective of rural America.
The film will next screen at the Margaret Mead Film Festival at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, which runs November 10-13.
How did you decide to be a filmmaker?
I studied in film school in Brussels. I must have decided to pursue this during my last years in high school, but all along I knew I wanted to do something like that. My desire to do this grew when I went to Brussels for school. I’m now four years out of school.
What made you want to tell a story about the United States?
That interest has existed for a very long time. I always had this fascination with the United States. It started from literature — Cormac McCarthy — and Westerns [films]. That all made me decide to make my graduation movie on the border between Texas and Mexico — the culture, the music. I decided to make a trilogy about the US, I wanted to make the second part about another mythological region in the US; the deep South is another region that I knew from fiction.
How was it bringing the film to Camden for its US premiere?
I was a little bit nervous because it was about the US and you never know how people will respond to a European making a film about the US. There was a variety of people — all really interested — and for me it was a great experience. There were people sitting on the floors. In Europe, people are never motivated to go to the movies, sometimes people are surprising.
Were there anxieties about coming in to the communities you shot in as an outsider?
There’s a lot of anxiety, but I think that fillmmaking always starts with fascination. That’s my starting point. I’m not there to criticize. I always take a point of respect, even though there’s a critical point of view in the film. I feel like I’m always welcome in the regions that I visit. If I show my film in Europe, they see a picture of an America they don’t know.
I didn’t spent time there before shooting, but the year before I was going to shoot the film, I spent hours on the Internet searching for characters. I had these idea in my mind: I wanted to have a prison choir, a treasure hunter. I sent up most of my interviews through the Internet and phone calls. Most of these people live in isolated areas; they’re not easy to find on the Internet.
Do you work consistently with a team?
For this film, we were 4: myself, camera, sound, and an assistant. Enough for one car and one motel room. We’re planning on working together for my next film.
Did anything surprise you while shooting?
It started from a fiction in my head. That’s the nicest part about making documentaries, you get to test your image with a reality, make the link between them, and see what happens. That’s really fascinating for me.
I knew I’d be going to desolate areas with a lot of economic and social problems, but it surprised me that it was that bad. It was kind of shocking for me that way. The way that people stay there, still trying to live there. Their pride for their region really struck me. Europeans always have this image of Americans constantly moving, picking up and going to a new place ever 3 years. In these cases, people really care about the ground they live on, their society.
Why no close-ups? Hardly any medium shots of people?
I did that first of all because I was the outsider, and there’s some distance between me and my subject. I wanted it to feel like we were seeing them from the window of a car, from some distance. They way they’re framed, it’s almost like it’s fictionalized. They are isolated in their own background. I wanted to have these big large images, where the subjects look staged in their own theater.
Are you excited to screen at the Margaret Mead?
The festival is happening at a classic museum that we all know. I’m excited for another US screening, but I’m also excited to screen with the dinosaurs. I’m going to the festival, because my film is there and I’m excited to see a lot of the films that they’re showing.
What’s next for you?
I’ve got the third in my trilogy. It’s a documentary Western that follows a part of the old California trail, Wyoming to California. I’m revisiting the area: the myth of that region and the reality.
“Blue Meridian” Trailer: