Picture Credit: © Daniel D. Moses
I caught up with the writer/director, Louis Chan, and producer, Jonathan Caicedo-Galindo of Stationary, a short film portraying the reunion of estranged friends, drug dealer Che (Rebekah Murrell) and reformed, soon-to-be-graduate Jimmy (Aaron Thomas Ward), in a car in North West London. We discussed the project in a conversation that touched on identity, representation, and their experiences of festivals in lockdown.
Shot in late 2018, the film was inspired by a story shared with Chan over a drink with an old friend. He describes this ‘alpha male’ speaking with surprising vulnerability about his experience of being arrested at 18, and impact of the experience on the choices he made in young adulthood. Chan, a writer and director for five years, split this psychodrama into two characters. This core dynamic, of two versions of the person that might have been, wrestle for influence over Gino (Xavien Russell), Che’s younger brother.
By basing the story in reality, the film avoids a didactic approach and shows empathy for both Jimmy and Che, avoiding straightforward condemnation. Instead the pair engage in a highly combative Socratic dialogue, ultimately reaching resolution through the sharing of human experience. In dramatising the difficult choices facing its characters, Stationary functions as a true embodiment of Roger Ebert’s manifesto of cinema as an empathy machine. If the hope at the end of the film is achieved through the redemptive power of human understanding, then the film confronts its audience with a complex view at the pressures on young people that might lead to criminality.
It was this central complexity facing young people trying to find their way in the world that drew Caicedo-Galindo to the project. The pair met at a BAFTA event (Chan, self-effacing clarifies that this ‘sounds much more fancy than it was’) appropriately about short film development. Caicedo-Galindo- who has long been involved in London festivals as the programmer for the East End Film Festival’s youth brand, Cutting East- had been looking for the right director and script to move into production. The move felt very natural for him, as ‘film programming was almost film producing’ in his commitment to bringing under-represented stories and perspectives to the screen.
The pair were supported by Alexei Slater, who also holds a producer credit, and both are quick to acknowledge him as an invaluable mentor with Chan referring to him as ‘the Genco Abbandando to their Corleone family’. This expertise, especially around content strategy in the funding phase, helped the project to reach over 130% its Kickstarter target. This allowed them to work with DP Samira Oberberg to create a visual style that draws on Nicholas Winding Refn and Jacques Audiard. With the support of Hammond Cox, they were also able to run an extensive casting process, narrowing down from 70 actors down over the course of three weeks. It was this extensive pre-production that Chan says simplified parts of his on set job, meaning that when they came to shoot, he was able to try more options with his actors.
Festivals in Lockdown
With production the the rear-view, the trepidation inherent in releasing a film to the world was raised with the international lockdowns. Film festivals at which Stationary was due to show were first in limbo and then forced either to cancel, postpone, or move their events online. However, their experience proves that it is not only the production cycle that is producing innovative responses, and unexpected upsides, to challenging conditions.
Chan believed the crisis has given us ‘a look through the keyhole, a what if’ of film festivals with financial and logistical barriers to entry reduced. He believes that more online festivals could allow a greater range of stories to find an audience. In a market where deep pocketed, youth focused players such as Quibi and Snap backing and normalising ‘snackable’ content, this same audience could offer growth for short film viewership.
On the social platforms where several festivals have hosted events as well as on YouTube, where the Stationary team have released the film in collaboration with MYM:Million Youth Media (where two weeks after release they have attracted almost 100K views), the ubiquity of comments has offered an immediate audience response. What is lost without being able to see the audience consuming the film, is replaced by a platform on which younger millennials and Gen-Z are very comfortable sharing their opinions. The obligatory bad-faith trolls aside, Chan claims to have found value even in negative responses where he is able to seek understanding of aspects which may not work for some viewers. Even in their silence, ranks of VoD viewers are able to build a digital footprint of the film, allowing better understanding of their audience, meaning they have a greater steer on how to market the film successfully.
While welcoming new online alternatives, Caicedo-Galindo is adamant that festivals must be part of the eco-system for films, as they offer something irreplaceable. They are not only an exhibition space but a forum for discussion and networking. In his role as programmer he was clear in his mission to curate an environment that allowed aspiring filmmakers to find mentors and contacts that will help bring their stories to the screen. Chan is equally clear that there is no substitute for the IRL experience for gauging the emotional impact of a film on an audience.
If Stationary is a film about identity and choices influencing a characters future, then perhaps the experiences of its creative team offer an insight into the future of short film exhibition. Like the film’s ambivalent statement, this is probably a blend; in this case it needs to include much that is offered by the IRL festival set-up- the fact that this film is indebted to British festivals and institutions. But there is also learning from what has worked in lockdown as a chance to broaden the audience for short films. We look forward to seeing new models, with a clarity of purpose that ensures people will be able to find films that can alter their audiences’ perception.