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Not me, her

In 1987, I found myself trying to write about a high school girlfriend that had been molested by her father when she was a child. I was 19 years old, struggling to find my way through a screenwriting assignment about delivering character. The idea was to describe messy young love between two Sid and Nancy want-to-be's. But that failed, as I could not stomach oversimplifying her complicated past, events that shaped her life as a 16 year old with a mohawk, a smart mouth, a lingering stare. I understood that I had to start at the very beginning.

No one wanted to hear the story. When it was my turn to read in class, it even came to be that some of the other students asked to stand in the hallway before they heard another description of what happened in that lonely little house in the middle of nowhere. I was trying, and failing, and trying again to get things right, to explain how this happened, how it could happen to this girl, how this man found his way to acts of selfishness and d…

the lens never lies (simple and messy)




The children are waiting. Their teacher is all smiles, a great ring of keys on his desk. I build the camera, pulling each accessory from the case as they follow each movement. 15mm rods. Follow focus. Top grip. Monitor. There are no lights with us because of the giant windows in each room. The sun is soft and pale, wrapping around their faces.

The concept of this film is so dense, so odd that they simply think our work today is "the daily life in a school". The fact that there are only four children in it, does not inspire any follow-up questions. We shoot a series of long, wide takes of a history lesson and then an English one. E is at the front desk, as this is really her half of the episode. Her face is serene, lost in thought as the other children wiggle hands in the air, or rock back and forth in their chairs.

I like this idea, to have the girl sitting next to her pass a note. It is actually the girl's invention. The camera hovers above the scratched surface of the desk. The note is scribbled, a paper folded once and it slides towards E, who reaches out and takes it. One gentle, continuous movement. This is inspired by a scene from Bresson's Pickpocket, now that I see it through the lens. All hands and seamless gestures. I try to explain this to the teacher, but maybe my fast speech and excitement are confusing. He gets it, I am happy, and that is all that matters.

We shoot a boy who chews nervously on the edge of his shirt next. He has freckles.

There are shots of them going down stairs, and going up stairs. Shots of them walking down halls, and running down halls. It is the everyday, in a wide frame. To me, this speaks volumes.

The last shot of the children is a long take of them getting dressed at their lockers. The light is behind them, and they are silhouettes, snapping and chattering with that ease that only children possess. The lens never lies.

And then, I send them home with handshakes and thank you's. I ask if the last two hours were anything like they thought it would be. I hear a great no from them. They thought I would shoot handheld, with a giant lens on the camera.

Now it is just E and the camera in a giant, dark cafeteria. She sits with her head on a table. The light is perfect. There is soft chrome and empty tables all around her. She raises her chin, staring off at nothing particular. She mumbles a few words to herself, clasps her hands in prayer and then says "amen". A peanut butter and jelly sandwich wrapped in white paper crackles open and she takes a bite. This is her character in the film, a young woman that copes with her strange life by improvising prayers, not that she has any religion or church experiences to rely on. It is the fruit of her own construction, simple and messy.







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