The Society for Visual Anthropology’s Film & Media Festival screens work by students, professional anthropologists, and professional filmmakers at the American Anthropological Association’s annual conference. This year’s festival is hosted in the beautiful city of Vancouver, and I can’t wait to present my film alongside other works of visual ethnography at such a critical event. This year’s theme, “Changing Climates,” invites anthropologists and their collaborators to examine how we engage with communities around issues of change over time, including climate change, to envision and build a more equitable future.
Sometimes in a university classroom, other times in a theatre, screening Ghost Tape #10 has given me the opportunity to quietly reflect in the back row, in darkness. After sharing my film this afternoon with the students of UC Riverside, my memories of making it and of my gratitude to one particular individual, came to the surface.
Filmmaker Pham Thu Hang, director of The Future Cries Beneath Our Soils, was gracious enough to guide me through my noble stumbles in Vietnam, summer of 2017. Her patience and grace in how she sees the world is reflected within her work, her camera capturing light like a painter's brush - in this, a her film about five men enjoying an odd friendship in Vietnam's Quảng Tri province, a site still bearing the scars of war.
Cảm ơn, Hang 🍟your spirit always finds its way to say hello to me during each screening of mine. Here’s to the next time we see each other!
Timothy Asch's (1932-1994) impact on documentary filmmaking was profound, as was his role in continuing the legacy of the USC Center for Visual Anthropology at the University of Southern California, the same institution that incubated and supported the development of my most recent documentary, Ghost Tape #10.
On November 9th, 2018, DER (Documentary Educational Resources) 50th Anniversary Symposium provided a unique opportunity for all those in attendance to reflect on Asch's pioneering work of incorporating audio-visual media into anthropological research and teaching. Accompanied by a special screening of excerpts from the beautifully restored Yanomamö film series, Asch's vision and generosity of spirit were celebrated by those who knew him and admired his work.
It was an honor to guest blog for DER in covering this event - my own small way of showing tribute to the USC CVA, an institution that has meant so much to my professional growth & development as a documentary filmmaker.
A finely-tuned short, Bloodlines is the rare type of film that showcases its assuredness and strength of vision through restraint. Executed with grace and delicacy, it rewards the viewer for listening and leaning into its quiet spaces, disclosing subtle moments of conflict and tension. From PBS Film School Shorts: “Two brothers suffer a crisis of conscience while trying to impress their gruff father in this quiet film about a Native American family.” A film by Christopher Nataanii Cegielski, co-starring Jon Proudstar.
Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe (Gulp Splash) are masters of the comedic slight of hand, concealing acerbic commentaries on the maniacal obsessions of domesticity beneath their whimsical comic fantasies. Having just returned from SXSW 2019 with their feature adaptation of Greener Grass, a dizzyingly off-kilter suburban nightmare, Buzz is the perfect example of their craft’s deliberate pace and control, trading simple punchlines for the types of laughs you’re afraid to make in a crowded theatre. From the filmmakers: “A codependent woman’s life is disrupted when her servile best friend wants to move out of their isolated mountain home to be with a man. She hatches an unusual plan to ensure she will never be alone.”
Created by: Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe (“Greener Grass” Sundance 2019)
Directed by: Mitch Magee (“Welcome To My Study” Funny or Die Presents, HBO)
Written by and Starring: Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe
With Patrick Carroll as Buzz and James Pumphrey as Hank
Gulp Splash Productions & Alpen Pictures
Producer: Nate Vaughan
Supervising Producer: Matt Pittman
Executive Producers: Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe
Director of Photography: Daniel Kenji Levin
Production Design: Traci Hays
Editors: Taylor Gianotas, Chris Punsalan
Costume Design: Michelle Thompson
Hair and Makeup: Veronica Sinclair
Music Composer: Samuel Nobles
Sound Designer: Brian Goodheart
This Friday, at the world premiere screening of my USC MVA (Masters of Arts in Visual Anthropology) cohorts' thesis films, Ghost Tape #10 will be shared with its first audience. Its screening will mark the one year anniversary of my first midnight in Vietnam, its cloak of night shrouding the miles I had left before me, miles before I could fully grasp what story I was trying to tell. The humidity was so intense that summer, the combined heat and moisture had eroded the black fabric coating my headphone's earmuffs, leaving its flakes clinging to my neck like pieces of dead skin. Each time I fished them out of my backpack to record an interview, there was less of it left, and each time, I felt like a fool.
It seemed, for a time while I was there, that everything was slowly falling apart. Deaf and dumb to the language that surrounded me, my exhaustion found new ways to undermine my assuredness, always keeping me off-balance. Thankfully, I was blessed with a remarkable group of guides, artists and craftspeople who helped me find my way, some of whom will be joining me in my school's darkened theatre on Friday. Under the mentorship of my professors who challenged me to take the right road instead of the easy one, I look back on a year and a filmmaking journey that still feels impossible. But then again, most dreams are.
ABOUT THE FILM:
Created by the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, "Ghost Tape #10" was one of many tapes engineered as part of "Operation: Wandering Soul," a psychological operations campaign designed to intimidate and demoralize the North Vietnamese Army. These audio tapes would echo throughout war zones, their soundtracks consisting of actors portraying grieving family members, or voices from the dead, longing to be reunited with their loved ones. Exploiting the traditional Buddhist belief that, if denied a proper burial in their homeland, the dead wander the world aimlessly, these recordings were originally conceived of as attempts to weaponize an opposing culture's religious beliefs against them. Ghost Tape #10, the film, focuses on unearthing and re-examining this weaponization of belief through the context of modern day Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American religious practice. Through dreamlike visualizations and interviews in Vietnam and Los Angeles, reactions to this obscure piece of American propaganda lead to larger discussions about how modern day relationships between the living and the dead are carried out, and what truths, if any, still echo within this recording.
Sean David Christensen
Sean David Christensen
Translation & Transcription
Ca Dao "Cookie" Duong
Music & Sound Design
Supervising Sound Editor
Miniatures & Animation
Sean David Christensen
Jedadiah (Joseph) Cracco
Field Guides & Interview Translators (Vietnam)
Thành Hoa Nguyễn
Pham Thu Hang
Margaret B. Bodemer
The Nguyễn Family
Thich Dao Tuong
USC MVA Production Faculty
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Produced at the Center for Visual Anthropology, University of Southern California
Copyright 2018, Sean David Christensen & the University of Southern California
After clearing its final sound mix at Chapman University last week, I'm excited to begin sharing more images and sounds from my upcoming film, Ghost Tape #10, with you all. A visualization of the effects of audio propaganda during the Vietnam War, this figurine of a North Vietnamese solider (designed & sculpted by Jedadiah Cracco), represents one of the central conceits of the film: unearthing the past. Through dreamlike visuals, I hope the film can explore this connection between the living & the dead that I experienced in Northern Vietnam, and what stories still lie underground, waiting to be pulled up into the light.
What a joy to create this bright new color combination for my latest miniature, a recording studio from the mid-1960s. Partly historical, partly fantastical, this set was designed for my latest film, a documentary which utilizes archival recordings from the same era. I've always gravitated towards bending the rules of visually representing the past, and hope all of these pieces I've gathered come together as neatly as craft wood; Albeit, with some of their most endearing human imperfections imprinted upon the final product.
One of my all-time favorite movie openings that elegantly incorporates hand lettered cinematic titles belongs to Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia. Masterfully pairing the film's theme (performed by Bruce Springsteen) with warm, cursive script, this sequence beautifully captures the shifting harmonies and subtle cruelties of an American city, one which claims brotherhood as its namesake (or brand), rather than an embodied ideal to strive for.
Even as a young child, I appreciated the feeling that came over me as I recognized titles on screen that weren't rigid and streamlined. Like in Philadelphia, these were deliberate, yet imperfect artistic choices. Handmade, preserving all their flaws. Their inclusion almost seemed like a clever trick, as if each card was an intruder, too sloppy for the big screen. Yet every time I'd come across this artist's work, whether I knew it or not, he evoked notes that I still can't describe. Going back through his resume, it's illuminating to realize his craft framed some of my favorite films as a child, my most formative to how I approach titles today: Dr. Strangelove, Harold and Maude, Men in Black & The Addams Family.
I'm speaking of the great Pablo Ferro, whose unmistakable style is still as bold and fresh as it was right off the page in the mid-60s. As I've learned, in creating my own handmade titles for my upcoming film, this approach takes time and a great deal of patience, much like re-fueling a B-52 in midair. Starting with a ruler, paper and some technical pens, I've reconnected with that childlike fascination of the bond between the hand and the page, an artistic choice that is imprinted with as much care as setting up a shot or smoothing out a piece of audio. Every bit counts.
What a stimulating challenge to design a film poster for another filmmaker's vision! Many thanks to directors Wenting Deng Fisher & Luke Fisher for their guidance and faith in my abilities. The sumptuously shot and heartbreaking short, Empty Skies, coming soon!
One of microcinema's treasures is the joy of discovering nuance just beneath its surface on repeat viewings. Much like the delight you experience upon discovering a new instrumental flourish buried within your favorite song after revisiting it, the comparable brevity of a short film sharpens its audience's senses, refocusing them to engage with, and pick up, new details. A short film's runtime tacitly demands a heightened level of awareness from its viewers, knowing there's only so much time to tell its story. You can always hit “repeat,” though.
On such repeat viewings, the impishly clever hide of Sacred Shit wears away, its clever skin belying its truer nature: a meditation on friendship, dependency & loss. Filmmakers Machete Bang Bang & Erin Granat (dear friends of mine for transparency’s sake), weave their individual talents together to express their own unique artistic stake in the process, while never sacrificing the volume of either voice to placate the other. Without spoiling the film’s revelatory ending, it’s clear that this sense of mutual collaboration speaks to more than simply the mechanics of making art, but a deeper need for each friend to support the other in the face of mortality and its humorless smile. Life, after all, has a runtime too, though we never know how long we’ve got until it’s too late to demand a repeat button. Now that’s some “sacred shit.”
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Starring: Erin Granat, Machete Bang Bang & John Weselcouch as "Friend on Phone"
Created by Machete Bang Bang and Erin Granat
Edited by Machete Bang Bang
Sound Design & Mix by Tim McKeown
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I'm thrilled to be counted among the year's best at NewFilmmakers Los Angeles's "Best of NFMLA Awards." The Duel has been nominated for Best Short Film - Documentary, an honor I couldn't be more proud to share with my friends at the RISK! podcast and my unbelievable cast & crew. Now...what to wear on the red carpet?
A haunting, sharply comedic tale of one man's craven manipulation of public tragedy, I Was There Too is a claustrophobic morality play, or in Darius's case (played by DeMorge Brown), a trap of his own making. Estranged from his daughter Max (Sunni Salazar), Darius is a father on the sidelines. Frustrated. We're introduced to his character arguing with referees at Max's soccer game, his outburst mollified by his ex-wife's new partner, Eric (played Eric Dadourian), with a weary sense of responsibility. "You can't come anymore, you know that, right?" Faced with the potential of being pushed further away from his daughter in an increasingly decaying orbit, Darius fabricates a story of narrowly escaping a mass shooting late one night, breathlessly describing it to Eric and Beth (Beth Lisick) at their doorstep.
Once inside, there's a sublime moment that occurs in-camera during a pivotal scene. Adrenaline still racing, Darius's pulse softens as he recalls a fond memory of his daughter Max's birthday, shared in the same living room he once again finds himself a guest in; Albeit, a self-imposed one. A bead of sweat rolls down his right temple at the exact moment he looks up at Beth for what sympathy he can wrestle from her concerned expression. It's a disturbing moment of serendipity, sweat gathering on the nervous skin of his story. We the audience, after all, know better than his captive audience. Darius wasn't there at all.
Izzo deftly handles the increasing tension by never fully revealing how much is truly believed by Darius's family, nor how much time is left before they discover it's all an act; Or if they discover it at all. Beautifully photographed by Arlene Muller, the film glides through the twilight hours of a man running out of time, and his desperate attempt for a second chance at becoming the father he may have never been in the first place. Reminiscent of Bresson's Pickpocket, Izzo is fast becoming a new master of portraying human frailty, and the tragicomic circumstances that tighten around wayward souls believing they are either too deserving of salvation, or too clever to outwit their inevitable judgment.
I Was There Too is available for streaming on Vimeo and was named Short of the Week.
Since 2007, NewFilmmakers Los Angeles has been providing a home for artists to share their creative voice in an environment that supports truth in cinematic storytelling. In addition to their monthly film festivals, DocuSlate, a entire day of documentaries, was added to their yearly programming in 2016 to increase awareness and widen opportunities for representation of true stories and personal narratives on screen.
Last December I enjoyed sitting down with NFMLA Board Chair Danny De Lillo for a discussion about my creative process behind The Duel, and the unique challenges inherent in “translating” someone else’s truth. As an artistic custodian of my own family experiences which have been transmuted into past works, making these connections during our discussion was illuminating for me, and helped me better appreciate the delicacy required for handling something as fragile as memory itself, especially when it belongs to someone else.
About: "NewFilmmakers Los Angeles (NFMLA) is a non-profit designed to showcase innovative works by emerging filmmakers from around the world, providing the Los Angeles community of entertainment professionals and film goers with a constant surge of monthly screening events."
At NewFilmmakers LA earlier this month, I was honored to share the screen with director Ellie Wen's Single Mother Only Daughter, a lovingly-crafted portrait of her relationship with her mother. Stitching new connections between analog memories culled from her collection of home movies, diaries and childhood photographs, Wen traces the synchronous orbits of two lives circling closer together with age. As the film navigates through a collage of VHS footage chronicling birthday parties, ballet recitals and impromptu Mother/Daughter karaoke performances, their bond is strengthened by the film’s aural foundation; A recorded phone conversation between the two. Auspiciously, Wen's husband, Greg Katz began filming her end of the line one evening, capturing her moments of realization & revelation with their shared past that would’ve otherwise remained in the dark.
Naturally, I find a kinship with Wen's work, as much of my directorial efforts are traced along similar lines of connecting the past with the present, and the web of dreams/memories that form between its many points. Both my latest film, The Duel and Single Mother Only Daughter attempt to reconcile childhood mysteries with a waking adult life that refuses to shake them free, perhaps motivated by a duty to forgive or better understand their parents. Film is one of the rare art forms in that respect, as it grants the artist the tools to fold time in on itself to form new strength in re-examining the power of memories and the role they continue to play in shaping their lives. For Wen, Single Mother Only Daughter is a beautiful effort in striving for that new understanding.
Fine-grained memories about friends cling to me, like sugar on the end of my fingertip. Tiny white dots form a small pattern that speaks to a larger system, an innate mechanism that helps defines their character. For director Jordan Kim, it was his attention to detail. "I spent way too much time on this," he bashfully admitted, opening up a window on his computer in 2004. I was looking at a poster for Bicentennial Man 2, Kim's harder-edged sequel to the wholesome Chris Columbus film featuring Robin Williams as a robot Pinocchio. Adding an intricate, gold cybernetic visor to his face and draping him in a trench coat while an oppressive, Gibsonesque megalopolis in coral pink towered over this new, hardened detective incarnation of the former cyborg butler, Kim confessed to me he should’ve spent his evenings in a more constructive way. Yet, whether it was goofing around or getting down to the business of directing, his impishly subversive dedication to calibrating each element of his vision applied to both the frivolous and more cinematic of pursuits.
Whether it’s his hauntingly beautiful and playful homage to Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hausu in his Vimeo Staff Picked music video for Toro y Moi, or the cackle of live that vibrates through each magical sidewalk crack in Clara, Kim is still just as fastidiously attending to his craft as he was when I first met him at San Francisco State University almost fourteen years ago. Clara is a deceptively innocent fairy tale full of big bad man-children in wolves' clothing, envious magic spells and jaded princesses of Silverlake locked away in the shadows of their condos. The film hums with softness and humor though, stimulated by a glowing performance from Hannah Kasulka as the timid, titular witch, brimming with hysterical coiled menace that springs loose in hilarious bursts along her winding journey through the banal enchantment of a Los Angeles-esque city dream. I won’t spoil the plot, describing it would be nearly as fruitless as describing the details of Kim’s Bicentennial Man 2 poster again. Just watch this. Pour yourself a hot cup of tea and absorb the patterns that form. There’s magic in them too.
Visit Jordan Kim and see more his work on Vimeo. And be sure to catch his nimble editing work on Portlandia.
A wonderful night of films and making new friends at an outdoor screening in Reseda, presented by NewFilmmakers Los Angeles. None of us were ready for this picture, and Drew's shirt commands the frame. Special thanks to Executive Director Larry Laboe and to the hard-working staff of NFMLA, who set up the event, braving record temperatures that afternoon and a city-wide power outage. Unreal! I can't speak for all the filmmakers pictured above, but I deeply appreciated it, and I think the row of smiles speaks volumes.
I was honored to provide artwork to Vidiots Foundation and Film Powered for their screening of Catherine Hardwicke's Lords of Dogtown at The Theatre at Ace Hotel DTLA last week. Jen McGowan, founder of Film Powered, describes her organization as: "...a skill-sharing site for professional women in the entertainment industry created to increase the skills & contacts of women in the industry, strengthening our community." Together with teachers and guest speakers, Film Powered provides energetic spaces to share ideas, sharpen skills and discuss important films that raise the profile of working women in Hollywood.
I've been a long-time admirer of Hardwicke's work, particularly the clarity of Thirteen (2003), a semi-autobiographical portrait of "Tracy" (Evan Rachel Wood), a 13-year-old girl struggling to find her mooring amidst the snares of peer pressure and rudderless adults in Los Angeles. Lords of Dogtown, her kinetic portrait of LA skateboarding culture in the early 1970s, was the film that brought together the women of Film Powered and Vidiots, and reminded me of the importance of community engagement through art, and its greatest gift it can bestow those who participate: empowerment.
This week, if you can, I encourage you to find a public space where such stories are being shared with those who value their places in our society. Live music, comedy, theatre, film, spoken word, wherever you can find voices expressing themselves, seek them out. Stories are fragile things when left alone, but they're strengthened by those who gather and listen, and more still, by those brave enough to share them.