Over the last few years, the term “American Independent Film” has come to mean something very specific which often has little to do with independent. Indie cinema has turned into a huge business supported by many of the big studios and the result are films that feel more like blockbusters than indies and first time filmmakers are left with the decision to either buy into the machine or strike out on their own via the DIY route which usually leads to small films, shot on video and marketed on the web in hopes of finding the support to get them noticed. Once in a while, a film comes along that suggest the method, however broken is still producing great films and filmmakers (I have foremost in mind Lance Hammer’s brilliant Ballast) and then a true visionary comes along and smashes through every expectation.
Having seen Redland, it’s little surprise Asiel Norton is one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 new faces of Independent Film. Heck, there should be a category for Norton as the single greatest visionary to come out of the US film scene in decades because not only is Norton a talented artist with vision, he’s also a man willing to push the medium in a new direction.
The film opens with wide shot of a golden field. The sun shines its glorious rays on the wheat in a moment of serenity. In the distance, a moaning sound is heard. At first, it’s not obvious if the sound is human or animal but soon enough we see a woman thrashing though it’s still not clear if the moan is one of pain or ecstasy; and then we see a glimpse of what she’s doing and it’s immediately obvious that this is not going to be a happy tale.
Mary-Ann lives in the backcountry with her family and the occasional visit from Charlie, the man she has come to love. When the family’s food supply runs low, a return to the city for work is out of the question as the Great Depression has taken its toll everywhere and so Mary-Ann’s father sets off with his eldest son and Charlie in search of food. But it is clear early on that Pa seems less concerned about finding food than exacting revenge on Charlie, the young man who has been showing too much enthusiasm for his daughter which leads to an event primal in humanity: misguided protection.
Norton and co-writer Magdalena Zyzak’s story is not only interested in the act of finding food but also the emotional ties that bind family, lovers and the impact of death. The story may be simple but the events which unfold and the effects they have on various characters speaks volumes of the power and insanity of human emotion and forces the audience to consider ideas of right and wrong.
The strong narrative is trumped by the film’s visuals which both parallel and heighten the human emotions. The California Redwoods take on a character of their own, powerful, daunting and elusive, provider of both sustenance and death. It is captured in yellows and reds, never angry but always watchful and ready to consume the humans who traverse through the undergrowth: a clear visual interpretation of humanity vs. nature.
Redland isn’t simply a film, it’s a work of art. A film in which every image and sound works together to convey an emotion and each snippet could be a construed as a minor triumph. Chance may have played a role in capturing certain visuals but there is no chance in the finished package which delivers moment after moment which is carefully built and controlled to tell a specific story. Part nightmare and part dreamscape, Redland marks the arrival of a powerful new vision in American cinema.
During the Q&A, Norton explained that the he and cinematographer Zoran Popovic used old lenses, new lenses and extensive chemical trials to achieve the film’s haunting visuals. Additional recommended reading is Norton’s interview with IndieWire.
See VIFF screening schedule for show times.