Director’s Statement

Masks in the Sun: Director’s Statement      [PDF Version Here]

 

Masks in the Sun was an odd project from the outset, in that it was never conceived as simply a film in the traditional sense, never as a cinematic interlude where one sees a film and leaves a theater. The film was written and produced as both feature film and an “open-source art platform” using stories, objects and images of the world that I had been crafting for years before its inception.

I now think the story has its earliest origins in 1991 when I was working in Japan hanging out with practitioners of Shinto and other groups who were theatrically and ritually representing the complex world of spiritual beings and mythical history. I followed this up by working in Nigeria, learning from similar ritual performers involved in traditional medicine and masquerade performances. At this time, I was working both as a performance artist and cultural anthropologist.

Shortly after this period, I moved from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University to doing similar work in cultural anthropology uptown at Columbia. My work in performance art and anthropology led me to become interested in the experience of persons with Alzheimer’s disease, how they saw and interacted with the world around them. As a visiting researcher at the University of Miami’s School of Medicine, for two years I spent a great deal of time with those with Alzheimer’s and those dealing with them. It is from learning from those in Miami that I began developing ways of making art that is performed to enact the nature and characters of dream experience.

Throughout the history of film, it has been a desire of many filmmakers to use filmmaking and screening to simulate or evoke dreamlike experience. For most of my life, as a lover of film and its form of storytelling, I was acutely aware of not only the promise of this kind of undertaking, but also of its immense difficulty. Could our dream experiences be separated from our telling stories of these experiences, or were the two forever entwined with one another, set to forever elude the work of performers and filmmakers? It was in the experiences I had among persons with Alzheimer’s disease that I began to see the two might indeed be able to be separated, but not in a way that could simply be explained. In addition to being told to audiences, dream experiences needed to be felt by them. And, in addition to being told and felt by the audience members, dream experiences also needed to engage others, help cause some sort of action, or change in the world.

As a feature film, Masks in the Sun reflects this ongoing pursuit of how film and performance can create experiences simulating dementia in audiences, a simulation that, like my years of experience among those with Alzheimer’s, is half dreamlike and half theatrical. The film is also a direct engagement with variations of a Midwestern American conservative worldview involving gun violence, conspiracy theory, and other playfully willful forms of ignorance. I studied and incorporated techniques from different genres, including documentary, true crime drama, film noir, horror and mystery, and helped the actors to help me create narrative and characters that are “experimental” in senses that extend beyond this category of filmmaking.

I actually postponed writing the “sister story” that follows and flows along with the narrative of Masks in the Sun to enter into the film’s two-year production and post-production process, a process that was fraught with setbacks and turmoil but eventually overcome by the diligence of cast members and the film’s producer.

From the beginning, Masks in the Sun was meant to be an “open-source art platform”. This, along with its goal to create game-like engagement with dreamlike experience, demanded a great deal of faith from actors and others who often wanted to see what they were doing as creating a simple narrative with the usual, logical elements of stories and characterization. It was my goal to make a film from which viewers themselves have various social media and other web-based venues to pursue, engage and develop mysterious or otherwise odd ideas, images and performances from the film. Viewers also have the ability to directly engage places and objects in the film in the real world, from a small town in Michigan with a fictional history, to contemporary urban areas of Detroit and Berlin.

I made Masks in the Sun to be viewed in three ways, in essence amounting to three different films:

The first is as a projected, two-hour movie in a space with an audience. I call this a “diagnostic screening.”

The second is as a series of four, online, streamable parts. I call this a “textual screening,” and it can be watched on computer screens or televisions via YouTube.

The third is as a part of visual and performance art, musical, and other art forms created from it. I call this a “performance screening.”

The film was cast and directed using local theater actors, and many key ‘documentary-like’ scenes were done in long, continuous shots while these actors ad-libbed their roles as writers and creators of a community-theater adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The story and identities of the actors themselves weave in and out of the narrative of A Christmas Carol.

The film’s score was composed over the span of a year by Elden Kelly, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music. The mood I wanted for the score needed to be thematically inspired by an old English mourning song called The Lyke Wake Dirge. I wanted the film itself to have the thematic resonance of a funeral march.