I had the opportunity to catch up with director Rodney Evans following the world premiere of his documentary Vision Portraits — in the second part of the interview, here’s what he had to say about the creative and production processes behind his striking film and some of the ways he translated thought onto the big screen. If you would like to read the first part of the interview you can find it here.
Flixist: I was going to ask you a little about the individuals that you chose to portray, including Kayla [Hamilton], John [Dugdale] — you mentioned in the Q&A that you spent a summer editing each of them, I imagine that’s quite a lot of footage! How did you go about narrowing it down into the timeframe that we have now, what was your impetus for framing their particular stories the way you did?
Rodney Evans: I think I did it the hard way, for me it felt like the right way to do it. I think a lot of times film editors and director-editors will work from transcripts of the material, and they’ll maybe do a paper edit of the things, of the subject matter of the conversations that they’re interested in.
Flixist: Do you think that gets in the way at all? Because I think it’s one thing to see it on paper and one thing to visualize it!
RE: Yes, that’s right, that’s why I chose not to do it, I didn’t have a ton of money! I didn’t want to spend money I didn’t have on these transcripts of very lengthy interviews, but I felt like it was really important for me to just sit and watch and listen to John’s three and a half hour interview and just really think about what was resonating with me on an emotional level, was translating emotionally, what was tied to the specific pictures that I had access to, and there were very specific pictures where he would tell the stories behind the pictures. So a lot of it wasn’t just the content of the interview but it was how emotional he was when he was talking about that specific subject.
Sometimes it was the case of, in the shots towards the end of his section, it was the quality of the light that was coming in the window, it’s like magic-hour light and you can’t really see him very well, but the light was on the book and the pages of the book and just the beauty of that kind of natural light. So I don’t know, it felt important to me to go through all that footage and know it really well and make my own choices. And it’s hard, you know? You go from three and a half hours — I would basically build a select reel where I would say, “Ok, these are the 45 minutes of what I’m interested in of what John was talking about”, and then it was basically like, what definitely has to be in his section that would make me die if it wasn’t in his section? What are those things?
Flixist: Yes, that’s a good way of going about it!
RE: And that just became, I think, an eleven-minute cut and then I started to layer photographs on top of it, you know, build in moments of rest and musical sections where you just look at the photographs.
Flixist: Yes, I adored it! I thought it was so fluid — very rhythmic, I think you’ve really paid attention to the pacing. I loved it. I was going to ask you a little about the colour palettes, actually, for the photos, because they have a blue tint?
RE: Yes, those are all his photos.
Flixist: That’s great, did he mention any reason as to why or perhaps his process behind them?
RE: Yeah, John is very interested in 19th century photographic processes. So all of those are cyanotypes, a specific type of photograph where the end photograph has this blue-ish tint to it, and so that was certainly part of, a component of his body of work. So I think even a little bit to — how would I put this? I would say that I was a lot more precious with the compositions of the photographs John had taken and being really careful not to destroy them, for lack of a better term.
And I think it was only other editors, that were just like, “you know what, this is a different medium, this is film, a photo can take up the whole screen, or we can go into specific details of the photographs that are ore abstract and we don’t quite know what these weird slashes are”, then ,maybe we do two of those and we realise that it’s a torso as this photo is revealed, and that becomes this kind of interesting strategy to keep the film alive and to keep the audience thinking about what they’re seeing.
Flixist: Yes, of course, rather than just these static shots. And you mentioned that film is a different medium — it feels so experimental, but also feels very unique the way you’ve pulled together title cards, photographs, stills, it almost feels at one point like being in the theater because you’ve got music and Kayla dancing — I would almost describe it as a genre, a new and emerging genre. I don’t know whether you have any thoughts on that, or whether that was the intention?
RE: Yeah, I do think that it’s part…. I would say just a new body of more artful documentaries that aren’t afraid to push boundaries and form. An example would be when I saw Hale County This Morning, This Evening — I thought, “I speak the same language as that filmmaker”, just in the way that you’re not necessarily spoon-feeding the audience, it’s not necessarily about the plot or the drama of what the character is going through, but it’s more nuanced portraiture.
It’s funny because I’m curating a year-long series at the college I teach at, Swarthmore College, we’re doing a year-long series called New Black Film Aesthetics. So we just invited RaMell Ross to show Hale County, and Terence Nance was the first speaker in the series, and he showed parts of Random Acts of Flyness which was his series and he also did — a personal documentary called An Oversimplification of Her Beauty that my editor Hannah Buck also worked on. So I also think there’s some kinship between the work that I’m doing and the work that Terence is doing. And it’s just people that maybe are less afraid of pushing cinematic boundaries and maybe using some of the techniques that might be seen as “high art”, or mixing found footage material with your own material, and using title cards and layering imagery in abstract ways that almost feel like moving paintings, or people that aren’t afraid of ambiguity. I feel like that, in relationship to films that deal with people of color, is a very small canon of films that do both.
Flixist: Yes, and interesting that, although you were talking about a niche way of looking at things, the film never comes across as pretentious! It seems to me very humble.
RE: Yes, my hope is that it’s always honest and engaging and relatable. Because the stories and the experiences — because not everyone is visually impaired and everyone has their own specific way of seeing the world, that’s unique to themselves, and that’s part of what makes the film universal. What I choose to look at around the room is going to differ from what other people choose to look at. We are just severely limited in the breadth of what we can take in the room and so, just finding visual corollaries to what that imagery is, and what that perspective is, was really important.
Flixist: Yes, of course. And on the production side, did you have any troubles translating this idea of changing people’s perceptions? You mentioned in the Q&A that the film industry is typically very racist, very homophobic — did you face any challenges in that way?
RE: I wouldn’t say anybody actively opposed it. I feel like there are such a small amount of films that deal with disability at all that it just — in this time where everything is suddenly about diversity and inclusion, and all those conversations have started to come to the surface, I feel like the disabled community has sort of been left out of that conversation a little bit. And so it is my hope that this adds to the canon of representation of disabled members of the world, and the fact is that one out of five people lives with a disability, and I think because that isn’t reflected in larger film and TV world that we have, we still live in a place of stigma and fear and shame, and so I think the more that becomes recognizable in what we see in films and television, the less stigmatized people will feel and so I’m hoping the film is kind of doing that work.
Flixist: Yes, and I think from my point of view, it definitely is, it opens up a new way of seeing and I hope more people get to see it because it’s so powerful.
RE: Yeah, and that’s my hope, also that it’s not just an either/or, that there’s a spectrum of one’s capacity to see, and a spectrum in between blindness on the one hand and fully sighted on the other, and that vision is a complicated, nuanced process, it’s not just taking in information through your eyes, but it’s also a mental process, an emotional process.
Flixist: And a philosophical process!
RE: Yes, and an imaginative process. And so my hope would be that the film helps to define a larger definition of what vision is for more people.
Flixist: Definitely! I really liked the fact that you don’t dumb it down, you don’t oversimplify it — it’s honest but not afraid to engage with weightier themes and I thought it was really powerful in that way.
From inception to completion, how long would you say the time frame has been on this film?
RE: I’d say about four and a half years. But I wasn’t continually working on the film. It was done in these specific sections and I raised money as I was shooting, as I was editing, which I think is a lot easier to do on a documentary, and a lot of documentarians work like that, so I think about halfway through shooting the Ford Foundation came on board, so that was really helpful, it was a programme called Just Films that was under the umbrella of Ford Foundation, and they were actively thinking about representation of disability in film, and they were really excited about it. It certainly took a long time, I met them in the summer of 2016 and they didn’t decide to fund the project until the late summer of 2017.
Then I knew that I could finish it the right way, I could bring my friend over to shoot for those 11 days that I was doing that treatment. And because Kjerstin Rossi, who was the DP for that section, and I, are such close friends, it would be a very honest conversation between friends.
And I was able to bring on Hannah Buck as the editor that could take it from my first assembly and ask the really important questions about structure and balance, and me being both the filmmaker, and what we would find out would be the main character of the film, and she definitely knew that and pushed that, and pushed the fact that the film would have more cohesion and more of a through-line if I were in conversation with the other artists throughout the film. So I was speaking to some of the questions that were raised in their chapters in the following interstitial sections, and then building up to my section at the end. So Hannah was great with shaping all of that material, with shaping some of the text and figuring our how much text to use, what was going a little bit too far, where people were having to read too much.
Flixist: Can I ask whether you’re considering working on something else in the future and where you see it going after this?
RE: Well, there’s a script that I wrote that is a fiction piece that I might return to and try to make, that I’ve been trying to make for a while. I kind of reserve the energy that it takes to talk about it to actually make the film… [laughs] and that’s not a cop out! It’s just that I’ve been trying to make that film for a really long time so hopefully that will happen in the next year or so. But then there are documentaries that I’m thinking about that are related to vision and I’m definitely interested in concepts like face blindness and that is a whole world to accept that people don’t know a lot about or understand.
Flixist: Yes, important just to show people something they’ve not seen before. Like you say, it’s just that incubation process of developing ideas. And my final question, are you happy with how it’s turned out? Is there anything you’d change or do you think ‘’No, I’m happy!”?
RE: I’m really happy with the way it turned out! I’m lucky enough to have always have had final cut on every film that I’ve made, so I’ve never had someone hovering over me and telling me what kind of decisions to make. And I think that’s a freedom you get from working at a low-budget level, you don’t necessarily have all the money to throw at every problem but you do have as much time as you need to figure out what the film needs to be, and that’s going to change organically over a long period of time if you don’t have a lot of money.
And I think you have to find creative solutions that aren’t about a higher budget way of fixing what you have, and what are the different incarnations that the material can take, and when is the film rejecting something that you’re trying to push into it that it doesn’t want. And so, you get information. We had two test screenings with really smart friends who were just really honest about what their reactions were, and those were really important screenings just to take it out into a wider audience of trusted fellow artists. So the film changed shape in the last couple of months it felt like the film I wasted to make with the right people.
Flixist: I’m so pleased — I think it’s such a wonderful film and I’m really glad we got a chance to chat about it. It’s a real privilege and exciting, I hope it gets the distribution it deserves because it was so affecting. So thank you!
RE: Thank you — I hope so too!