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As an artist and a filmmaker, it isn’t always easy to negotiate a relationship between the two forms. Of course, filmmaking is a form of art; but when we talk specifically about studio art and how it applies to filmmaking, the relationship becomes more complicated.
My formal education has had a major influence on my work. For my undergraduate degree, I went to film school at California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB), which was almost a trade school in the sense that it placed a great deal of emphasis on learning the formal aspects of filmmaking. In contrast, the graduate program in fine arts that I attended at the University of California, Berkeley, focused predominantly on conceptual art.
Together, a formal and conceptual education has enabled me to understand how to make a movie while also thinking critically about the medium. I make mostly narrative work with my collaborator Robert Machoian. When we screen our work at film festivals, we are oftentimes placed in the experimental section of the program. At SXSW this year, our film “God Bless The Child” was screened in the “Visions” section. When our work is displayed in an art gallery, however, it is perceived as commercial and square. In other words, we are not weird enough to be artists and not commercial enough to be filmmakers. I like the fact that our work embodies a contradiction.
It is always difficult to “make art,” no matter the type of budget. Robert and I work on the lowest of budgets. Although challenging, low budget projects have their fair share of benefits. One such benefit is that it usually forces us to not only accept imperfections, but to also find beauty in them because we are making films about everyday people and life. What we are after artistically is to capture the rawness, the messiness and the imperfections of human existence. Even with a bigger budget, we would probably make films that look just as unfiltered and real.
I think this is how our backgrounds as artists (Robert is also a photographer) come into play because even though we have the technical skills, we see the films from a non-filmmaking perspective.
Throughout pre-production for “God Bless the Child,” Robert and I talked about how we wanted the film to feel like a mixtape, which helped shape the way we approached shooting each scene as self-contained, with its own beginning, middle and end. This approach provided us with the opportunity to induce an emotional response through the juxtaposition of scenes — similar to the ordering of the tracks on a mixtape.
Case and point: A scene depicting two boys engaged in a boxing match that ends with one of them injured and crying, is followed by a scene in which a baby boy is being sung to whilst being bathed. The placement of these scenes side-by-side generates an interesting emotional response that is not evident in either scene on its own.
Our hope with this approach was to focus the audience on a specific moment rather than allowing them to become captivated by an overarching narrative. There is, in fact, a narrative that runs through the film, but we wanted it to exist in the background and only come around when needed.
By freeing the apparatus of cinema from the burden of narrative, we were able to invest our time in each individual scene. We always try to step back from the fundamentals of filmmaking to take in the whole canvas because, after all, we’re making art.