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.
by Charles Hayes IV
Upon reading the script for AN OCCURRENCE AT ARVERNE, I experienced a multitude of thoughts and feelings. I said to myself, “Okay, here’s a story that captures a small piece of what it feels like to be a Black man in America. Here’s a story that takes a stab at turning the white gaze on itself.” I thought it was conceptually daring and emotionally powerful but I kept second-guessing whether or not it was my story to tell, simply because the story wasn’t necessarily for my people. As a Black man in America, the idea of taking precautions and being hypervigilant of my surroundings isn’t new to me. It’s how I live my life, and while I do not let it hinder the joy in my heart, it truly is how I live my life – never wanting to be assumed that I’m something or someone I’m not – never wanting a stereotype to be my only spotlight. So, while this story felt near and dear to my existence, it still didn’t necessarily feel like it was for me.
Thankfully, after an extensive conversation with Robert (writer-director), I realized it wasn’t. His intention wasn’t to shed light on the plight of Black men for Black people, but instead to bring awareness to the white audience of the biases they might not even be aware they possess. And that’s precisely what this film does.
We learn at an early age that there are two sides to every story, and somewhere in the middle, we find the truth, and the same rings true for the account of race in this country. There’s the Black perspective, and there’s the white perspective. Some might even take it further to say there’s the victim’s point of view and the oppressor’s point of view, and what I’ve come to realize is that it can be difficult to change someone’s opinion if you don’t share the same perspective. This phenomenon is evident in the very current and literal race war that is 2020. In laymen’s terms, Black people want white people to digest our perspective and be moved enough to incite change on their side of the fence, but a victim appealing to their oppressor very rarely inspires lasting change. Because while some may hear, digest, and change, others might display momentary sympathy and then continue living their lives as they were before.
I chose to stand behind this film because it is Robert’s appeal to his people. I’ve grown up seeing and hearing about the call to action from Black people to white people, but I’ve rarely seen white people inciting a call to action for each other on behalf of Black people. History has proven that it’s not enough for me as a Black man to tell a white person, “Care about me. My life matters.” We need allies and accomplices on the other side of this proverbial fence to speak up with us to bring about permanent change.
This film is quick and requires your undivided attention. This film is real, and it will make a lot of people uncomfortable. But more importantly, this film is a step in the right direction. We knew the intention behind it when we filmed it in March 2019, but we could not have known that its release a year later would come about during such a pivotal moment in our country’s history. Initially, we just wanted to push the envelope, but the envelope is wide open now, and we want to keep it that way. I hope this film will inspire some much-needed conversations and allow people to step away from old mindsets and standards that hinder us from a brighter, more peaceful future.
This film was a labor of love, and it’s up to you, the viewer, to determine how much impact it has on your life and the lives of others.
Robert is an east coast suburb-raised, 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 in formats from commercials to trailers to fashion to broadcast docudramas. Following his work on Kanye West’s first three Yeezy fashion launches, he made the move to directing with campaign 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.