Sunday, December 14, 2008

Preserving the Delta's Voice in 'Ballast'

Nearly every ideological or political issue involved in the creation of cinema and the observance of the filmic image falls within the tricky, sticky, convoluted parameters of a single concept: representation. What is being represented on the screen and how and why is it being represented in that particular way? What is the gap between the filmmakers and the subject or object? Whose vantage point occupies the horizontal expanse of the screen and why? Marxists argue that the materialistic dependence of cinema on expensive technology restricts the filmic voice to the “haves.” Feminists demand that the predominant male gaze be challenged by the cultivation of distinctly feminine visual language, unhindered by the repressive traditions of perhaps the most patriarchal of arts. Post-colonial critics harp on the value of minority filmmaking and the implicit representational contrasts between the cinematic perspectives of the ethnically dominant and dominated. And so on...

The debate regarding the political positioning of groups and individuals within the most pervasive, powerful and profitable artistic medium of the past 100 years has been perpetually posited within the confines of dialectical dichotomy: rich v. poor, male v. female, majority v. minority, gay v. straight, etc., the democratic assumption being that one group could never truly or accurately represent the other group – at least not at well as said group could represent itself. What’s missing from the above-stated formula is a sense of cooperation – the type of transcendence across political and cultural boundaries practiced by forward-thinking filmmakers such as Lance Hammer, writer-director-producer-editor of one of the most acclaimed (and rightfully so) American films of 2008: Ballast.

In the early 90s, Hammer began a series of pilgrimages to the Mississippi Delta, having found a landscape and culture of stunning fertility. Between intermittent jobs on large Hollywood productions as an art director and visual effects designer, Hammer, a white southern Californian with an architecture degree, built up a rapport with the predominantly African-American communities in the Delta region, engaging with the particular qualities of the Delta culture and absorbing the mood and tone of the land, eventually deciding to set his long-in-the-making debut feature, Ballast, in the melancholy wintry barrenness of the Delta’s icy floodplains. After scouting the region for locations, Hammer spent two years drafting a meticulous script, but decided from the outset that his extremely personal project, nurtured for over a decade, would be anything but traditional.

Conceptualizing a style influenced by the understated, minimalist work of European auteurs Robert Bresson and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Hammer began organizing his low-budget production around a set of principles: location shooting, natural light, handheld cinematography, no score, and, most importantly, the use of non-professional actors from the Delta region. In interviews, Hammer has repeatedly articulated his belief that a story about the Delta should be told, at least in part, by the people of the Delta, in their own language, a logic which led him to cast a batch of amateurs through local church groups and community centers in Mississippi. During a long rehearsal process, much of Hammer’s script – which focuses on the emotional and personal struggles of a black family in the wake of a tragic suicide – went out the window. Seeking to preserve the unique voice, what he refers to as “the idiom,” of the Delta and its people, Hammer encouraged his actors, especially primaries Michael J. Smith, JimMyron Ross, and Tarra Riggs, to improvise, change, and re-structure scenes and dialogue, blurring the line between subject and creator and enabling the actors to determine to a large extent how their own culture would be represented. Diminishing his own role from totalitarian author to co-creator, Hammer struck a compromise between presenting his own artistic vision and allowing that vision to be molded and altered by the very people he was representing.

Ballast, then, can be viewed as a film in which collaborative, democratic authorship and creative unselfishness enable Lance Hammer, a white, middle-aged, former Hollywood employee, to express himself alongside a black youth from rural Mississippi (Ross), a middle-aged African-American worker at a local utility board (Smith), and a woman born and raised in the Delta (Riggs), all with no previous filmmaking experience, while continually giving them the opportunity to represent their own culture and specific experiences. Hammer’s approach to representation, of stepping away from a story he is unable to truly tell by himself, suggests a politically responsible methodology that ensures the cinematic enfranchisement of his film’s subjects, not mere puppetry. Perhaps now that a black man is directing our predominantly white country’s political narrative (props to Obama) and a white filmmaker has so poignantly captured the predominantly black Delta culture on celluloid – both through intercultural, interracial, gender-inclusive, class-spanning cooperation – the simplistic dialectic of authorship traditionally posed by cultural critics will be muddled, blurred, and hopefully transcended. Idealistic? I’m sure it is. But goddamn, that idealism has produced one helluva fine film in Ballast.

by Brandon Colvin


Anonymous said...

As someone who has spent some time in the Mississippi Delta, I can definitely say that your article has sparked even more interest in Ballast. It was already on the list of "most anticipated"; now it is at the top. If any location deserves cinematic representation after years of disenfranchisement and devaluation, it is the MS Delta. It's an incredibly sad and insular location that even the surrounding regions of the state view with either antipathy or apathy. That the Delta finally has some share of historical and cultural authorship through this film constitutes a small miracle for a people who have continually been denied a voice.

In short, Ballast sounds like a brilliant film -- and I can't wait to see this movie and contribute more intelligently to this ongoing dialogue.

A brilliant write-up on what looks to be an extraordinary film.

Brandon Colvin said...

I didn't even get into the the film's stylistic perfection and emotional beauty . . . just so much to talk about with this movie.

Anonymous said...

This was a very nice write up Brandon. You've worked me up, I want to see it, and now it's not playing in New York. Hopefully it will stick around the belcourt after christmas.

Joel Bocko said...

Interesting review of what promises to be a very interesting film.

With the advent of cheaper and more widely available technology and, with the Internet and DVD, wider opportunities for at least some kind of distribution, I foresee the possibility of a cinematic revolution on the horizon. Two more things would have to take place: 1) filmmakers have to step up to the plate and create a diverse body of films, true to themselves which nonetheless don't fall into self-defeating marginality nor "offbeat" cliches. 2) audiences have to emerge which will give these works a popularity to at least challenge, if not rival, that of mainstream entertainments. I worry that audiences no longer really care about films, though - that the feature film is on its way to becoming passe, of marginal interest like the theatrical drama or even the novel - how many of those, outside of the entertainment exception, like Rent or Harry Potter, have had widespread cultural impact in the past 40 years? If better movies are made (by those outside the Hollywood system) and audiences are interested, then I think a new era can indeed be born. I wonder if the conditions are there for a revitalization of film as both a popular and artistic medium...I hope they are.

Incidentally, I've put up my 20 Actresses meme, you can read it here:

I didn't tag anyone, but you guys can definitely consider yourselves tagged, should you wish to accept it.

Joel Bocko said...

I should add that my previous comments apply to any future movement as a whole, not necessarily to the individual film (except for the idea of avoiding indie cliches...that should apply to everyone). I couldn't, and wouldn't want to, hold individual films to the idea of avoiding "marginality," as someone who counts among his favorite films of all time some widely unseen (if that makes sense) avant-garde works...including the one that gave your blog its title...I'd be remiss not to add that marginality is not always self-defeating.

But amongst the films which could emerge if a groundswell of amateur filmmaking arrives, I hope that there will be Godfathers and Casablancas as well as Dog Star Mans and, well, Out 1s. And perhaps some that tread across boundaries, like a Breathless or L'Avventura. And that, above all, marginality is not sought for its own sake, but rather as an incidental side effect of a unique, personal vision.

Brandon Colvin said...

I think the the key to all of this - and indeed to the "crisis" in independent cinema - is innovation and enthusiasm regarding distribution. Not only are audiences responsible to step up and support these films, and filmmakers to make them, distributors have to work to carve out this niche more effectively and facilitate the communication and exchange between filmmakers and audiences as much as possible.

Not surprisingly, Lance Hammer has engaged with this idea when distributing BALLAST, going totally DIY after rejecting a contract with IFC that would've limited his autonomy when distributing the film. Lots of people are talking about the validity of his model and if you want to read something REALLY great about the way distribution factors into all of this, go pick up the Fall 2008 issue of FILMMAKER magazine.

Here's a short sample of the full article: