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