Harnessing that raw energy

It's only February, and already 2010 has been a big year for Chris Bower. Last month, his short sci-fi film, Solatrium, received accolades from wired.com, a popular entertainment Web site, when it had its world premiere at the Slamdance film fest in Park City, Utah. Currently Bower is shooting footage for his eagerly anticipated documentary, We Won't Bow Down, which celebrates the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans [black revelers who wear Native American-inspired costumes during Mardi Gras]. He has also begun shooting footage for a documentary about the soul gospel circuit of the South called Holy Ghost Electric. This is also the year that Bower debuts his visual art in a self-produced exhibit (see the sidebar).

Photo by Jonathan Welch.

Xpress caught up with Bower just hours before his punk filth band, The Sexpatriates, took the stage.

Xpress: Can you talk about Slamdance and your experience there?
Bower:
Slamdance happens at the same time and place as Sundance. Sundance is more for big-budget films, and Slamdance is better known for its independent spirit. It's a big deal to be in Slamdance. Out of 5,000 films they only pick 40. Both screenings of Solatrium were sold out and we received some good feedback and attention. At night we video bombed Park City. Basically we did guerilla projections from our mobile video unit. Slamdance was totally into it.

How did you catch Wired.com's attention?
I think they were intrigued in how we made Solatrium. It's sleek. It's not a hand-held and shaky low-budget sci-fi film. It has a lot of production value, and I think they were surprised by that. They also like how we made the film — out of found and salvaged materials.

What was your response to seeing Duncan Jones's Film, Moon? It's so similar to Solatrium in many ways.
We finished filming Solatrium in 2006. We put it out online way before Moon ever came out, and so I just have to chalk it up to the Zeitgeist and the spirit of the age. I think it's an honor that people find similarities, because it's such a big-budget film and we did ours on a shoestring. 

How did you first get involved in the Mardi Gras Indian documentation?
I was invited by [local photographer] Steve Mann to go down and document the story of the Mardi Gras Indians right after Katrina — just to grab field recordings and interviews, and after that I just couldn't let it go. I couldn't stop thinking about it. Steve had been photographing and promoting the Indians for 10 years so he had some contacts. We took our ideas to the Indians and they had expressed that they had been unhappy with all of the efforts to document them.

How so?
Too overly intellectual. Too anthropological and not capturing the spirit. So when we asked them to do the movie they wanted us to do it, but it was more of a challenge on their part. And we were like, "Hell yes, we're up for it."

What are the differences between producing a documentary vs. a narrative film?
Doing something like a sci-fi film is very craft intensive — you have to create every aspect of the film. With documentary it's real-life situations and you have to harness that raw energy into a cinematic form. So you're not creating that energy, you're capturing it.

You seem to move easily between playing the role of performer and the role of producer. Can you talk a little about your creative process within these two contexts?
There's a shamanic aspect to the arts and part of that is losing yourself in the ritual. That's where you allow yourself to become open to the spirit, whatever that is, and that's where the healing comes in. But at the end of the day, it's about vision and beauty. I enjoy having depth, you know what I mean? Deep in the team. It's like college basketball. You can have a kick-ass starting five, but unless you have a deep bench then you're gonna get hung out to dry.

In your opinion what are the advantages and disadvantages to living as an artist in Asheville?
It's very DIY. I grew up here. I remember when downtown was empty. I threw rocks through that window (gestures across the street). No one was around and no one cared. It's always been DIY. That's what draws people here. There's a great creative community, a great community in general. Disadvantages: low visibility, bad economic situation, it's isolated here, and there's somewhat of an exploitative spirit by the city specifically when they market Asheville as a creative place but they don't really give back anything to artists — not that I've seen anyway.

What would you like to see the city offering artists?
I think the city and the county could be offering health care through the health department to artists. I think they should be offering studios to the artists. If they're gonna use the arts to market the city, then they should focus on cultivating local talent. There could be more investment in local projects and local businesses and less on their boutique projects.

What do you think is the most encouraging development recently for artists?
It doesn't seem encouraging to me at all. It's only because there are people focused on spending their lives putting in the work who are not compromising. People need to struggle so much to do something that's so important.

So, you're gonna do a show tonight with the Sexpatriates. Hasn't this band been around forever?
Our first show was July 4, 2000, at Vincent's Ear. There must have been like 30 different members since the first show. Every major rock musician in Asheville has played in The Sexpatriates at some point, I think.

And what's tonight's show going to be like?
We're gonna f—king rock the house. That's what we do.

Shortly after the interview concluded, Xpress received a phone call from Bower. "You asked me earlier about the unifying theme in all of my work, and I would have to say that fun has a lot to do with it. I do have a lot of fun."

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One thought on “Harnessing that raw energy

  1. Gabriel Shaffer

    “What would you like to see the city offering artists? ”

    “I think the city and the county could be offering health care through the health department to artists. I think they should be offering studios to the artists. If they’re gonna use the arts to market the city, then they should focus on cultivating local talent. There could be more investment in local projects and local businesses and less on their boutique projects.”

    Amen.

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