I got the "no longer in service" recording when I called Christopher E. Brown in April, and a more shocking response to my e-mail. "I am no longer doing filmmaking," the local director wrote from the West Bank. "I've decided that I am no good at it. It's better that I move on and do what I do best, which is human rights activism." I can think of several directors who wouldn't be missed if they pursued other interests, but Chris Brown isn't one of them.
A disciple of John Cassavetes and Rob Nilsson, the self-taught artist made four independent features and a short. The high-water mark, he said when we met in a downtown cafe last week during a brief hiatus in S.F., was Metal. A starkly realistic story of an unemployed black auto mechanic and his family, it earned comparisons with Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep when it played the 1999 Mill Valley Film Festival. "Some people can direct films," Brown said. "I can direct actors."
Brown reunited with producer Adryenn Ashley on Jesus of Cinema, an emotionally naked portrait of a single-minded director. Shot in 10 days on short ends (the unused ends of rolls of 35mm film left over from bigger-budget productions), Jesus premiered at Mill Valley in 2001 -- but titled Making Metamorphosis, and without Brown. Contractually, he didn't have final cut, and Ashley re-edited the picture. "I felt like I was deceived," Brown recalled, "and I went into a very dark depression for about eight months." Now when he sees a movie that knocks him out, like Wonderland or Bloody Sunday, he thinks, "I bet they had great relationships with their producers."
Brown joined Christian Peacemaker Teams, a group that intercedes in an effort to reduce violence in hot spots around the globe, and returns to Hebron in a few weeks for another five-month stint. When I suggested that given the long incubation periods of his scripts, it's conceivable that he'll make another film down the road, he said, with a smile and a shake of the head, "I just don't see myself headed that way."
High HopesDaniel Gamburg went down to Los Angeles with his S.F. State film degree, but was quickly disheartened by studio moviemaking. "Everything was very structured toward profit and the master/medium/close-up," he says. "There was no spontaneous creativity. The hierarchical, patriarchal nature of film was hard for me to swallow." Back in the city, he hooked up with several graduates of Bennett TheatreLab, an actors' training school, to form an ensemble, Bare Witness Productions. With some 30 shorts to its credit, the group is in post-production on its first digital feature, 2400 Mission.
"I'm a big fan of Dogme 95," Gamburg says, referring to the list of symbolic filmmaking rules ("The camera must be hand-held," etc.) invented by director Lars von Trier. "I have to just go one step further -- no script." Inspired by the dot-com crash, the troupe devised an imaginary company. "We rented an office space in the Mission and came up with a fictitious business plan," he explains. "If you walked into the office, you'd think it was a real company." For six weeks of rehearsals, Gamburg and the Witnesses applied the Stanislavsky method of acting. "Everything is based on physical analysis, [with the actors] on their feet, instead of emotionally and mentally [analyzing]," he says. "Instead of writing out the story, we created tableaux for the film. I don't block the actors for the camera, ever. I block the camera for the actors." As it happens, Philip Bennett retired this year and handed his school over to Gamburg. The renamed Theater and Film Lab/SF presents its Graduate Festival of Plays in August; find info at www.theaterfilmlab.com.
DogmaPeter Mullan, the fearless Scottish actor and director of The Magdalene Sisters (see review above), welcomes controversy. "That whole thing about religion being in control is what really fired me," Mullan declared during an S.F. visit two weeks ago. "No regime that combines the church and the state will ever create good people or good things. They oppress. That's all they do. And that's all they see themselves as doing, because it's all about the afterlife. It's not about this life."
Mullan admits that Magdalene drew on early Cagney flicks like White Heat as well as Berkeley producer Saul Zaentz's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. "It's possibly the best film of madness I've ever seen," Mullan said about the latter, then chuckled ruefully. "You don't impress people at parties with Cuckoo's Nest. It's much better to recall a film that nobody else has seen." The Magdalene Sisters opens Friday.
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