By Eva Rosenfeld
A trio of independent films draw inspiration from science fiction to explore the nooks and crannies of creativity.
At the Boston SciFi Film FestivalI: Alien on stage, First in New England; Elulu, US premiere, virtual release; Alchemy of the Spirit, First on the East Coast.
“Having an interest outside of work is vital to your health and well-being,” says a communications manager for the Wilts and Dorset Bus Company towards the start of the documentary. Alien on stage. This nugget of half-hearted corporate talk comes truer than you might think at this standout festival. The film follows a group of bus drivers in Dorset, UK, as they attempt to produce a theatrical adaptation of Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic. Extraterrestrial.
Luc, an aspiring screenwriter, has had enough of the standard Christmas ‘pantomime’, a British tradition of folk musical slapstick, and decides to adapt the screenplay of Extraterrestrial in place. Luke’s girlfriend Amy makes costumes, his grandfather builds the sets, and mum Lydia stars as a deadpan Ripley, heroine Sigourney Weaver stars in the original. Pete, a sheepish night shift supervisor, follows tutorials on the Internet, attaches insulation pipes and sets up fishing rods. The end result is an impressive Alien. Although they receive little support and expect no reward, the crew takes on new creative tasks and executes them with ingenuity and skill.
Alas, at first all their creative work is hardly recognized. The team expects opening night to be sold out, but it barely draws 20 people. “We haven’t really had any feedback, to be honest, from people. Nobody really said anything to any of us,” recounts a cast member, sitting in one of the company buses.
The neglect changes with the intervention of two Londoners – directors Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey – who discover the production by chance (a preview of a poster) and imagine bringing the show to London, perhaps to a workers’ club. To everyone’s amazement, with the backing of a theater manager who was also driving a bus, the cast members find themselves performing at the Leicester Square Theater in London’s West End. Kummer and Harvey’s decision to make a film about the experience was driven by their enthusiasm for the play. Their first feature-length documentary, it’s a nimble and funny rookie effort, devoting plenty of screen time to the personalities and creativity of the bus crew. Luckily, we also get to see a generous slice of the show, which has been invited back to the West End Theater for an annual performance.
The joy of Alien on stage is to watch the protagonists struggle to create something worthy of the stage, then watch them attempt to conceal their giddiness to achieve something more: a life-affirming work that brings lasting satisfaction to the team, the public and now to viewers.
The animated movie Elulu takes place in a softly contoured world full of cats, insects and trees. After the death of his mother, a son returns to his family home. Very little dialogue is provided, other than a few rudimentary phrases flashing across the guy’s computer screen: “UNEMPLOYED SCIENTISTS.COM”; “CERN VALIDATES SUPERSTRINGS THEORY!!” ; “FUNDING FOR SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH ORIGINAL IDEA.” That’s about all we get as an explanation of the events that follow. We see imaginary creatures – with the ability to cross dimensions – guide mother and son through alternate realities. In some of these worlds, the mother lives, allowing the couple to revisit intimate memories. The premise of theoretical physics sits well in the background of what turns out to be an emotional (and often mute) exploration of loss.
Elulu was made, says filmmaker Gabriel Verdugo Soto, “mostly with the power of my will”. He hand-drawn the images for eight years, in his hometown of Santiago, Chile, using only free and open-source software. The lush animation style emphasizes movement and rhythm, brought to life by Soto’s original score. Like one of his heroes, animator Hayao Miyazaki, Soto exploits the breaks and in-between moments to heighten the film’s emotional power. Miyazaki criticized the “mass-produced” style of much contemporary animation, and Soto is a heroic example of a non-commercial individual studio. Soto’s movie Blog details years of boredom, setbacks and breakthroughs. The realization of the project was a perpetual uncertainty. The result is a unique film that feels both personal and extremely loving.
From veteran independent filmmaker Steve Balderson comes alchemy of the mind. As Elulu, this film presents a largely non-verbal story about the complexities of grief. Artist Oliver Black continues to see his recently deceased wife, Evelyn, in their shared home. From the perspective of death, it offers blacks glimpses of an increased field of perception. The cinematography translates this unreal vision through visual disturbances: veils, reflections, blinding light, slippery sense of time. The colors — blues and yellows — are oversaturated, as if Argento Suspiria were fixed during the day.
The effect is to make concrete the product of mourning – an intensification of sensory and aesthetic awareness. Black mourns his wife, but he also revels in the artistic possibilities of what he is experiencing. With her encouragement, he set to work on a few paintings. Unfortunately, the ghostly premise fails when it comes to the character of Evelyn, who is relegated to the status of wife and muse. This wife from beyond exists for the sole purpose of selflessly encouraging her husband’s creativity.
What Alchemy does particularly well is to lay bare what can harm artistic creation. Black and his wife are interrupted by the artist’s sycophant agent, who continually wants to know if his work is finished or not. In private, Black and Evelyn discuss with ease the beauty of life and the universe. These feelings seem awkward and mundane when Black struggles to explain his work to a wealthy patron. Like grief, suggests Balderson, creativity requires intimacy.
Eva Rosenfeld is a Michigan writer and artist based in Cambridge, MA.