Synopsis: A man arrives at an unknown home with an unknown agenda.
Vika Dove (Rebecca)
I wanted my first film as writer-director to scrutinize white privilege and white supremacy. I was sick of seeing white savior stories where Black characters only served to redeem white ones, reassuring white audiences and letting us off the hook without challenging any assumptions. No matter how artfully these films were made, no matter how well acted, they always perpetuated the delusion that things were basically okay except for a few bad apples – instead of going anywhere near the visceral truth of racial bias or structural white supremacy.
I wanted to make a tense Rorschach of a film by nixing the usual white proxy character and putting interpretive responsibility directly with viewers. I wanted to experiment, to see if I could tease out racial bias in a compact runtime using a short film’s unique capacity for dramatic reversals, where the reversal happened in the viewer’s mind instead of through plot or character. I knew this approach would risk provoking a range of reactions based on each viewer’s type and level of bias and how strong the need was for traditional storytelling. Some might discover their bias, feel the consequences, and experience a powerful film. Others might find the story to be a tragic or even tedious statement of the obvious. The timing of when the film would be seen, and where culture would be in that moment, would also play a big role in its reception.
This approach came with nuts and bolts filmmaking challenges. Could I tell a tense and compelling story with a single character talking on the phone doing such a banal activity? Could I get audiences to invest in his fate over so few real-time minutes? I knew a third-person camera was needed to avoid manipulating the audience to root for or against the protagonist, but with just one actor could I pull off the storytelling without the safety net of coverage? If a shot or the actor’s performance didn’t work, I wouldn’t have any editorial advantages. Inserts wouldn’t be motivated, and I couldn’t fall back on shots of other characters. Using the protagonist’s POV would violate the established rules of subjectivity. Likewise, fancy, expressive shots were off the table. I would need to be extra vigilant to achieve the level of accuracy and restraint the story required, just to get the experiment to the point where it merely might work. It would have to be simple to achieve a complex result.
Finally, I knew an explicit, conclusive ending would only feed white fetishization of Black trauma while adding to the onslaught of trauma endured by Black people every day – but would a more nuanced finale effectively challenge and satisfy the audience?
AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE, the Ambrose Bierce short story and film adaptation from which my film takes its name, forced readers to critique their reading of narrative events – could my film do the same?
I needed to find out.
Robert Broadhurst is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker. He earned his MFA in filmmaking from Columbia University where the short films he wrote, produced, and/or edited played festivals from Tribeca to TIFF. After film school he worked as an editor on formats ranging from commercials to trailers to fashion to TV docudramas. Following his work on Kanye West’s first three Yeezy fashion launches he began working as a director, with films for Adidas Y-3, Alexander Wang, and Armani Beauty among others. He returned to narrative filmmaking with AN OCCURRENCE AT ARVERNE, his first short film as writer and director.