First in film

In Hollywood, “vision” is a dirty word — one of the dirtiest, suggesting a troublesome auteur whose “vision” isn’t likely to cook up into the next Star Wars.

Fortunately, there’s still plenty of room outside Tinseltown — perhaps more than ever — for filmmakers with vision. This is beautifully illustrated in UNC-TV’s sixth season of North Carolina Visions, showcasing the independent talents of 21 N.C. filmmakers.

Filmmakers with vision very often don’t make the big bucks. But sometimes, they do more: They make a difference. And that’s what this series is all about. It’s filmmaking that makes a difference in the way we see the world, the people in it — and even in how we think about movies.

These regional auteurs cover a broad range of subjects, styles and geography — both in their own home bases (which span the state from Asheville to Wilmington) and in their works, which explore not only North Carolina, but also England, India, Honduras and the Philippines, among other locales.

The season opener, which airs Saturday, Sept. 30, features the short film Passions, by Erin Upson of Greensboro — a tense work about confessions between a suicidal/homicidal woman and a priest — followed by Joshua Gibson’s feature-length narrative Two Rivers. This Davidson resident’s ambitious work — which details a man’s search for truth along two rivers, the Ganges and the Mississippi — combines and contrasts two distinctly different cultures and places, resulting in “a surreal world where Hindu goddesses mingle with Elvis impersonators.”

These are obviously not the Eddie Murphy-type vehicles you expect to find at your local multiplex. Instead, they’re films meant to challenge the viewer. And to a large degree, they succeed. But even when they don’t quite, they’re never anything short of fascinating labors of love. One remarkably successful piece — of particular interest locally — is the second week’s opening attraction: Asheville filmmaker Debra Roberts’ Mama’s Magic, an extraordinary work on the equally extraordinary poet/performer Glenis Redmond. (The film is followed that evening by two shorts: Lena, a documentary by Joyce C. Ventimiglia of Durham, and Cry Like a Baby, a music video featuring N.C. band The Accelerators, by Raleigh’s Neal Hutcheson.)

Mama’s Magic is part documentary, part performance art and part artistic credo, put together in an almost-seamless manner with something of the logic of a dream. And that dreamlike quality is entirely appropriate, given the genesis of the project. Though Roberts has an extensive background in theater and a natural interest in movies, this was her first film.

“I’d been part of a few films in England, where I was acting — small, independent things,” she explains. “When I moved here and from the point that we moved into this house, I had a dream every night for a month that I was going to make a feature-length film.”

Uncertain how to pursue this dream in its specifics (“Who directs around here? I don’t know who acts here. How do I put this thing together?”), the one thing she did know was that it had to be a local project.

“It was to be a movie made here in the mountains by people from here,” she notes.

Not long afterward, she met Glenis Redmond (“at a circle for women that neither of us wanted to go to”) and heard her perform her signature poem, “Mama’s Magic.” The two became instant friends. Attending Redmond’s performances, Roberts kept hearing enthusiastic fans say, “Glenis, we’re looking forward to getting the book, but when are you going to do a video?” And from this, Roberts’ film was born. Armed with her idea, but far from sure how to proceed, Roberts tapped into the resources of Scott Dobbins and Shane Peters at Asheville’s New Light Video Productions.

“I had met Shane because he was one of the drummers for our African-dance class, and I knew from the minute I met him I was going to be working with him on a film,” Roberts reports. “I needed people who could shoot and edit [but] who would also be willing to work with me creatively, so I could be part of every part of the process, and they were exactly that.”

Fourteen months — and a great deal of work and financing by mutual friends and Redmond fans — later, Roberts had her film, one she thought of as her gift to Redmond, a project that helped keep both women going through difficult transitional periods in their lives.

Mama’s Magic deftly blends documentary and Redmond’s unique performance style into a forceful tapestry. The film explores Redmond’s background and family — centered around a remarkable lineage of women spanning nearly a century, from her 99-year-old grandmother to her 10-year-old twin daughters — and opens up her poetry as only film and video can.

Shaping many of Redmond’s performance scenes as if they were musical numbers in a Hollywood film creates some startling juxtapositions of image and sound that give something back to the poetry they draw from. The process was nothing if not challenging — not least because of Redmond’s tendency to let the poems have a life of their own and never repeat themselves in quite the same way. (This works fine theatrically, but somewhat less so when faced with working to a recorded playback.)

“We tried to do some different things — some things you can’t do on-stage — to illustrate the poems,” explains Dobbins, whose contributions to the film Roberts stresses unstintingly. He and Peters worked from Roberts’ concepts and made them practical, getting them “as close to the original vision as we could.”

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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