Ladrones, written and directed by Brendan Kelleher Rose

Ladrones is the story of high school boys on a summer day in Brooklyn. Brian and Julian have nothing to do and nowhere to be. What choices will they make and with what consequences? What is their future in this changing borough?

IndependentFilmNow recently sat down with writer/director Brendan Rose to discuss his new short film, Ladrones (a word that means “thieves” in Spanish). Excerpts from that interview follow.

Mike Fishman for IndependentFilmNow (MF): Where did the idea for Ladrones come from?

Brendan Rose (BR): I’ve always been attracted to dramas that tell stories which, in some way, depict the inequalities inherent in our social structures. I’m also drawn to stories about teenagers that capture their imperfect attempts at self-definition, their contradictions, their authenticity. Ladrones aims to do a bit of all this. The specific story in this film is built around a sequence in which high school boys from a gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood have a confrontation with a recent arrival to the borough, a privileged white guy, a hipster, if you will, at Brighton Beach on a summer day. The other scenes in the film complement this beach-confrontation sequence and seek to further develop the characters and the circumstances of the high school boys.

The spark for this story was personal. I was born and raised in Evanston, Illinois and grew up just a few blocks from the border with Chicago. I was back home and I went with a friend to Foster Beach on the North Side of Chicago, a beach I spent a lot of time at in my late teenage and early adulthood years, and one that I dream of all winter. My buddy and I jumped in the water. When we emerged, no more than five minutes later, a woman sunbathing nearby got my attention and let me know that I should check my bag as she had seen some boys rummaging through my backpack. Sure enough, the money in my wallet was gone (though the wallet and its other contents remained). The woman then pointed down the beach, about one-hundred yards, and indicated that the boys who robbed me were surprisingly still on the beach. I strolled over to them and we had a discussion. Initially the boys were coy and professed their innocence. They mentioned having been on the dog beach down the way, a fact which I figured to be untrue. One boy seemed like the instigator, the other to be more playing along. Eventually, after I reluctantly indicated that my next step would be to go to the lifeguards or the cops with the witness, the boys relented and offered me back my money. We parted on seemingly amicable terms, shaking hands. The boys promised to not steal again, though I have no idea to what degree they were sincere. Hopefully, something resonated.

Anyway, as I reflected on this situation, something about it struck me as a potential dramatic story. As the days passed and as I wrote down some recollections of what transpired, laying the groundwork for a screenplay, what I kept thinking about was the question of how these boys would have viewed me. They both seemed to be from a nearby North Side neighborhood. And while the presumed instigator, like me, was white, he and his buddy (who was of Latin American descent, I believe) may have perceived themselves to be of a different social class than me, an assumption that was likely correct. In short, I was the yuppy-hipster guy; they were the local kids from a humble neighborhood. Well, this is how I started to perceive the dynamic for the story, at least, and this is how the screenplay took off. Obviously, there’s plenty of conjecture here, given how little of these two boys I really knew, but stories of this kind inspired by ‘real events’ are typically more like archaeological analysis – you take limited information and then try to extrapolate (or in this case, create) a richer picture.

I initially wrote a draft that hewed quite closely to how things transpired for me at Foster Beach – i.e., an adult male (Joel) emerges from the water and is told by a sunbather that his money has been stolen, and so on. As I showed the draft to a few trusted confidants, it became clear that the story as written was missing a dimension. To complicate the picture, the sunbather character was dropped in a subsequent draft and Joel instead picks out the boys as the likely robbers and approaches them. This adds the question (or fact) of Joel as a racial-ethnic profiler, a dynamic relevant to our fractious times and to the implicit racism still at play even in otherwise liberal circles, of which I presume Joel to be a member.

MF: How did you cast the film?

BR: I was lucky to work with an exceptional cast with Ladrones. There are five characters in this film – Joel (the adult on the beach) played by Chris Rubio; Brian and Julian (the two lead high school boys who have the confrontation with Joel) played by Robert Ruiz and Carlos Portillo, respectively; Robert (a friend of Brian and Julian who figures prominently in the film’s first scene) played by David Vino; and Woman on the Boardwalk (integral to a short but memorable scene highlighting Brian’s swagger and proto-womanizing tendencies) played by Fatimah Ali.

The film’s producer, Mark Castillo, and I knew we needed to find great actors to make this film work, so we put out a wide casting call, utilizing traditional venues such as Breakdown Services, but also canvasing a number of high schools and theater non-profit organizations. Chris Rubio (Joel), Carlos Portillo (Julian) and David Vino (Robert) all came through the casting call and really impressed in their auditions. Robert Ruiz was recommended by one of Mark’s former professors and had a stellar audition. He came in reading for Julian but was clearly a better fit for Brian. I had worked with Fatimah a couple times years prior and she kindly agreed to come on for the one-scene part. She helped improvise exactly what happened in that scene and added the pitch-perfect line – “Not happening” – as a rebuke to Brian’s solicitations. I should add that we secured the SAG low-budget short film waiver to allow union actors to participate.

Ladrones is a film made by its actors. Each member of this five-person cast was a joy to work with and brought great understanding and sensitivity to their role, and all five actors made the characters their own, which is what you hope for as a director.

MF: What were some of the challenges of shooting at Brighton Beach? Did anything go wrong or unexpectedly right? I love the cutaways to people on the beach, were they planned or did they present themselves?

BR: Shooting on Brighton Beach was quite the adventure, I suppose as predicted. Prior to the shoot, I was really worked up about potential continuity issues – i.e., with all the background beachgoers coming and going as the camera rolled. As we commenced shooting, it became obvious that this would be the last thing we could worry about because there was no real way to control our set. People were going to lay their blankets and strip down to their bathing suits wherever they pleased, film shoot be damned. True New Yorkers! And, in truth, the action in the background of our shots really adds to the feel of this sequence for me.

The real concerns included the following: (1) Our two long days on the beach coincided with an East Coast ‘heat dome’ in which temperatures soared upwards of 94 or 95 degrees as the sun blistered all day; (2) We staged pricey equipment under an overhang that also became a gathering point for publicly intoxicated individuals who were eventually arrested for reasons unrelated to our film; (3) We had to haul equipment over the sand of a very wide beach; (4) We needed to keep everyone hydrated and well-rested on such scorching days; (5) It was imperative that we devised an artful way to shoot Joel spending time in the water without compromising our equipment insurance (something which would have happened had the camera entered the water!).

One of my favorite aspects of the film is the atmospheric series of cut-away images on the beach captured by maestro cinematographer Pedro J. Padilla. As we scouted Brighton Beach, Pedro and I talked a lot about the local architecture of the surrounding neighborhood and I think we were able to incorporate this environmental presence into the final edit. In addition, Pedro took every free moment during the shoot to pick off lovely b-roll of passersby, swimmers, and sunbathers. A few memorable beachgoers (and seagulls!) make it into the film and really help develop the midweek, dog-days-of-summer vibe.

MF: It seems likely that Brian was the instigator when he and Julian stole the money but Julian is the one who asks Joel where he’s from. Earlier we saw a shot of an airplane overhead when Brian, Julian and Robert were drinking beer on a roof, which could suggest a yearning for something more, something better than their particular life in New York City, especially as Robert talks about his family having to sell their home and move out of Brooklyn, possibly even to Long Island. What would you say are Brian’s and Julian’s view of Joel when they find out he is not a native New Yorker? Resentment? Jealousy? A little of both?

BR: This question is at the heart of the film. I’m glad you noticed the shot of the airplane, a cut-away shot that occurs about halfway through the film’s first scene set on the rooftop of Brian’s building. That shot was initially just a plug to avoid a continuity issue between two sections of the scene. It was a suggestion made by our excellent, perceptive film editor, Ulysses Adams. It felt too much out of left field for me as I first experienced this choice, too jarring in terms of the established grammar of the film. But, as Ulysses and I continued to discuss this option, it became clear that Ulysses’s instincts were spot-on: The inclusion of the airplane shot underscores the yearning these boys may feel, even if not fully realized, for other places, other lives, other options. It adds a sort of objective correlative. None of these three boys is poor. They range from working class to middle class, which is part of the film’s point: One doesn’t need to suffer from poverty to be forced out of a neighborhood in contemporary New York City (which has become the case with Robert’s family, as he tells it).

This brings us to Joel. The way I conceived it, Brian and Julian probably assume from early on in their interaction that Joel is not a local, that he’s a transplant, and this becomes the motivation for Julian’s question in the first place. It’s a check-mate move to play: Joel may have gotten his money back, and he may have lectured the boys a bit about their behavior, but the one thing this guy’s never going to be is a born-and-raised New Yorker. And that’s a card young people like Brian and Julian can always play – as every transplant has, at heart, at least some modicum of envy about not growing up here in New York City. And so there’s a fierce pride among a lot of teenagers who have spent their entire lives in the city, as it can be a hard-won heritage.

But yes, despite all this – i.e., the born-and-raised status that Brian and Julian possess which Joel does not – these boys certainly resent Joel at some level. They’re jealous of his options in life, of his ability to move from ‘outside Cleveland’ and invent himself as he likes in Ditmas Park, in their home borough of Brooklyn. And they resent that folks like Joel with college degrees (who happen to mainly be white and often at least upper-middle class) can move to the city, afford the high rents, and pay to enjoy all the expensive new amenities in the neighborhoods. Whether resentment is a productive feeling is a different question, but it’s certainly an understandable feeling for young people like Brian and Julian. Maybe in the future, when they’re older, Brian and Julian will have similar life options – to move cities, to change careers, to enjoy daily macchiatos at the nearby cafe – but that’s only if they play their cards really well, as their margin for error is far slimmer than it would be for the Joels of the world. And, more to the point, at this moment, at this stage in their lives, none of that really seems feasible to them anyway.

MF: Did their getting caught by Joel mean anything to them? Where are they headed, future-wise, when they get off the train back home?

BR: Julian never wanted to steal from Joel. He just sort of went along with Brian’s urge to do so. For Julian, this moment may serve as a catalyst for reflection. If anything, getting caught by Joel hopefully reminds Julian that their buddy Robert avoided the entire thing because he had his act together and had a summer job. That’s probably something Julian’s parents had wanted him to secure weeks earlier. (In fact, Julian’s employment status was more of a theme in a previous, baggier version of the script.) An interaction like this hopefully reminds Julian to, in the future, resist Brian’s impulses a bit more, as he’ll end up equally implicated (if not more so), when any trouble is caused. On a more fundamental level, Julian probably considers that he’s a bit more of a thinker than Brian, that he may have more opportunities in life if he applies himself. He’s certainly the more thoughtful of the two, and, as we’ve conceived them, the more book-smart, as well. After getting caught by Joel, I’m not so sure that Julian makes it to Ahmed’s party later that night (a party which Robert had alluded to in the first scene of the film). Instead, he maybe stays at home and spins a few records or reads a novel.

Brian’s future is cloudy, to use a bad cliché. He’s neither as conventionally studious nor as bright as Julian, but neither is he a complete delinquent. He’s somewhere in between a guy with a college-bound future and a teenager who could end up with low-grade legal trouble. He does enough to get by at school, but he makes sure to cause as much trouble as he can along the way and is certainly the class-clown type. Given how we’ve conceived Brian, I’m really not sure how much self-reflection will go on here. Does he take anything Joel says to heart? Or is it all a joke to him? It’s tough to say. If anything, I’m sure he recognizes an emotional change in tone from Julian after the altercation. Julian gets quieter and more serious and more reflective, and maybe this, if anything, causes Brian to pause and think and examine his choices. But to what extent he learns from such reflection, and applies what he learns going forward, is anyone’s guess. My hunch is that he’s at Ahmed’s party later that night throwing beer cans off the roof at guys strolling on the street below who remind him of Joel.

Overall, I like the idea of films that leave an audience with a question, or a series of questions, as this allows the viewer to take an active role in shaping the story and crafting a personal response to it. With any luck, we were able to do that here.

For other filmmaker interviews please click HERE.

Posted in Filmmaker Profiles

Paa Joe and The Lion, directed by Benjamin Wigley

Paa Joe & The Lion Trailer from Benjamin Wigley on Vimeo.

Review written by Mike Fishman

We are all of us going to die at some point. If we are lucky and have the foresight, we can determine and dictate how our funerals will be conducted and in what state our bodies laid to rest (or scattered to the winds, placed in an urn, donated to medical science, etc.). For those choosing to be buried, there is the obvious question of the casket. While most people planning to be buried have already picked out or inherited their final resting spot, a far lesser number of individuals flip through the dreaded catalog at their neighborhood undertaker to select the ideal casket, leaving that depressing bit of business to their surviving loved ones. For those with money and resources, some very fine caskets can be selected, indeed even customized based on a personality trait or a particular obsession. In Benjamin Wigley’s extraordinary documentary Paa Joe and The Lion (which screened at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in 2017) we get to see a number of so-called “fantasy” coffins, created by Paa Joe, a carpenter in Ghana, who has been carving unique caskets for some 40 years, with examples of his handiwork displayed in museums around the world including the British Museum.

When we first meet Paa Joe (Joseph Ashong), he is working on his latest creation, a wooden coffin in the form of a woman’s body, perhaps destined to be a mermaid. A lively montage highlights a handful of his creations, coffins in the forms of chili peppers, cars, fish, even a soda bottle. As Paa Joe amusingly points out, film director Wigley might choose a coffin in the shape of a camera while Paa Joe may ultimately decide on a hammer. For some, fantasy coffins allow for a moment, albeit brief, to be identified with something that defined them in life, before they and the casket are lowered into the ground. For others, the shapes may speak of an ideal: the freedom of a bird, for example.

The director displays a sure hand as he guides viewers through a portrait of this unusual carpenter, giving a good sense of Paa Joe’s surroundings and daily routine of what appears to be dedicated and joyful toil. The film follows Paa Joe as he and son/apprentice Jacob travel to the UK after receiving a commission from the Arts Council in England for a month long residency, where the father and son carpenters set about creating Paa Joe’s final masterwork, a coffin in the shape of a great lion. The work is done in an outdoor shed so that the process can be observed by passersby, a handful of whom reflect on what kind of fantasy coffin they might choose while others hold to the tradition of an unremarkable casket.

Mr. Wigley cuts between Paa Joe in England and back home in Ghana, highlighting a period of time just after his elderly mother dies and he is focused on making her coffin. As Paa Joe explains, his mother was a devout Christian who would have wanted a simple coffin and so he sets about creating a traditional casket, but one clearly carved with great care and attention to detail and with a sumptuous interior lining. Thus Paa Joe sends off his mother in a relatively modest style she would have approved of and made possible by the skills her son learned at her own urging, Paa Joe expressing heartfelt appreciation for his mother having pushed him as a young man to learn a trade. And throughout the film we see Paa Joe wielding that skill, working the wood with his bare hands, practically breathing in the sawdust and exhaling it back out, as if using his very being to give shape to unique creations that will mean so much to people far removed from his own reality. There is irony, of course, in a carpenter from Ghana creating exquisite works of art for wealthy patrons to purchase and be buried in, but the film does not swell on such issues. It offers instead a humorous, entertaining and insightful portrait of the man as artist while leading viewers inevitably to considerations of mortality.

Visit the website to find out about watching the film online at: http://www.paajoeandthelion.co.uk

Photos courtesy of Benjamin Wigley.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

Tango on the Balcony, written and directed by Minos Papas

Tango on the Balcony from Minos Papas on Vimeo.

Review written by Mike Fishman

There have been a number of feature films dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder well before the term was coined, but in Tango on the Balcony, writer/director Minos Papas admirably creates a compelling portrait of a soldier dealing with the debilitating after effects of a wartime experience in a mere 19 minutes. Across that brief time, we watch as Johnny (Aristotle Stamat), a sniper who served in Iraq, wrestles with his demons or rather a very particular demon in the form of Abdullah, a teenage boy Johnny shot dead. Abdullah (Giuseppe Bausilio) is given very real form as an apparition who appears in Johnny’s disheveled apartment (with its notably lonely twin size bed) and the two of them perform a (second) dance of back and forth discussion as Johnny tries to work out in his mind whether the boy was an innocent bystander or a young terrorist. Their first dance? The tango on the balcony, the five seconds or so it took Johnny to hone in and take out with one bullet a suspicious boy on a cell phone standing on a balcony hundreds of yards away. As Abdullah’s ghost rightly tells him, Johnny will never know if the boy was guilty or innocent or even how old he was. What Johnny does know, what he is painfully aware of every second of every day, what eats at him even as he tries to sleep, is that he took the life of a boy, one who seems increasingly likely to have been innocent.

It would hardly be possible to give a full portrait of an individual in such a short running time and indeed we get little in the way of Johnny’s background or relationships. What we do get is a brief snippet of time from the war in Iraq: the moments leading up to and the climactic moment when he took that shot, seen through video-cam footage shot from the soldier’s point-of-view. As Johnny watches the scene over and over, his finger hovers over the delete button but each time he’s unable to delete the file, instead lashing out at the footage and himself by hurling the computer against the wall. Thus do we get a full picture of his current life, a life in turmoil, through past and present moments, the moment of execution and the moments that follow as Johnny struggles through everyday life, fighting paranoia on the New York City streets, feeling suspicion at the Middle Eastern man selling coffee from a food truck and who gives him a free coffee one morning, thanking him for his service.

The irony of the man thanking the ex-soldier for his service is etched on Johnny’s face as he pauses in the street, coffee in hand, the city swirling around him. The intended honor of serving in the military, the now-ingrained suspicion of anyone from the Middle East, the “service” he performed with a bullet from hundreds of yards away. Papas adds a further ironic touch as we see in the foreground a sign for a shop offering Tango Lessons, the lettering necessarily backwards from the viewer’s point of view. How can Johnny (his very name conjuring up Dalton Trumbo’s classic anti-war novel “Johnny Got His Gun”) get back to a normal life in a world that is unaware of his struggles and colored in primary colors, not the blacks and whites and sometimes grays of war? Such is the question we are left to ponder in the remarkable Tango on the Balcony.

For more information about Tango on the Balcony please visit: tangoonthebalcony.com

Watch the film now on Kanopy: https://www.kanopystreaming.com/product/tango-balcony

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

“The Snowman” and “The Snowman & the Snowdog,” reviewed by Sahiba K., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 15

Film review courtesy of KIDS FIRST!

For more reviews from KIDS FIRST! visit their website at: http://www.kidsfirst.org

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

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