Slamdance filmmaker delves into gritty realism
As a burgeoning filmmaker, Tina Mabry sensed a void in the realm of cinematography. She felt that the world she knew as a child was misrepresented through the eyes of the camera, so she set out to tell her own story her own version of what it was like growing up in a rural Mississippi town. In doing so, Mabry confronted her issues head-on, delving deep into the experiences that shaped her life, and says she emerged with a clearer sense of her own being. "I had to face my own demons on a daily basis," Mabry says. "As hard as it was, it was very cathartic in a way." The product of Mabry’s introspective journey, a film entitled Mississippi Damned, is being screened this week at the Slamdance Film Festival.
The film is an adaptation of the people and events that shaped Mabry’s childhood. It revolves around three poor, African-American kids trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, violence and addiction. As the characters struggle to overcome the hurdles that scar their upbringing, a dark and gritty reality unfolds. Alcoholism, adultery and molestation are just a few of the issues entangled in the plot.
"The majority is definitely truthful — It’s hard to collapse a lifetime in two hours, but I really wanted to remain committed to things that happened," Mabry explains. Although there’s not a single character that encapsulates Mabry’s persona, she identifies closely with Kari, whose life is permeated by a series of disturbing events, and later by her desire to escape.
The film is split into two periods: 1986 and 1998. This division allows the audience to understand how the characters are affected by situations and how they evolve. Each of the characters goes through ups and downs, bringing the audience closer and then pushing them away. Instead of falling under the category of good or bad, the characters waft through a gray area, ultimately making them more human and more real.
Mississippi Damned is Mabry’s first feature film. She also wrote and directed the award-winning short film, Brooklyn’s Bridge to Jordan, for her thesis project at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television.
Mabry started writing the script for Mississippi Damned in 2004, crafting the characters from members of her family and people she knew from her childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi. The film started to take shape in 2007 when Mabry teamed up with producers Lee and Morgan Stiff.
Since the film is based in a rural Southern town, Mabry had originally anticipated filming in Mississippi, but the producers urged her to look at a different location that made more sense with their limited budget. Hertford County, N.C. is a small town located in the northeast corner of the state. Mabry admits that although she was hesitant at first, once she visited, there was no doubt in her mind the location would work.
Fortuitously, the film was a recipient of a Film Independent grant of $10,000 in Kodak film stock. "They felt like it was a project they could get behind, and without it, we wouldn’t have been able to make this film," says Mabry.
Filming started in May 2008 and the crew had exactly 22 days to get the film wrapped. The time limit was one of the biggest challenges, says Mabry. Not to mention that they encountered a giant obstacle on day one of filming a tornado that caused a tree to fall on a house directly behind the house where the crew was shooting. "Now it’s something I can laugh about, but at the time it was not funny," Mabry says. "I told everyone, ‘You almost got killed making this film, so this is gonna be a good film it has to be.’"
After recovering from the natural disaster, the cast and crew picked up the pace and got back on schedule, covering six to seven pages of script per day. "It was a lot to get through with a character-driven story," says Mabry. Cinematographer Bradford Young used a 35 mm handheld camera to shoot 95 percent of the film, which allowed production to move very quickly. "Being minimal with what we had actually helped — it made it authentic," Mabry says. The goal is to make the audience feel like they’re in the scenes with the characters, she says.
In November, Mabry found out that the film had been selected as one of the 10 films in competition at the 15th annual Slamdance Film Festival, which coincides with the Sundance Film Festival. "If I could turn a flip, I think I would’ve," she says. "We were all ecstatic."
Through the production of the film, Mabry was forced to relive some painful experiences. "When I would talk about backstory with the actors, I would get emotional," she says. "But for me, it was more important to get it out, and down the line it may help someone else out and let them know they’re not alone. And for me that’s definitely worth the sacrifice of having to cry." Mabry acknowledges that making the film has made her a stronger person. "I don’t have to hold anything in anymore and I don’t feel ashamed about anything I can completely hold my head up high."
The story is particularly poignant for anyone who has been through hardship. "There are so many universal themes in this film that go beyond being in the South, or being Black, or being poor," says Mabry. It provides a glimpse into the world of the oppressed, a realm that is foreign to many of the potential Slamdance viewers. "We hope to show that the stories of those in the margins are just as profoundly entertaining as any now considered mainstream," says Mabry. "The main thing we want people to walk away with is these stories can be told, and there is an audience for it."
Mabry, several members of the production team, and at least 10 actors from the principal cast plan to attend the Slamdance premiere of the film. Showings for Mississippi Damned are Friday, Jan. 16 at 6 p.m. and Tuesday, Jan. 20 at 10 a.m. in the Main Screening Room at Treasure Mountain Inn.
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Gallons of icing, hundreds of pounds of gingerbread, and a lot of hard work make for a magical display.