Eyeing the Niche
Local filmmakers head to Sundance with "The Send-Off"
Pahokee, Fla., a refinery town of just under 6,000 people on the shores of Lake Okeechobee, is known to some as "Muck City," for the distinctive softness of the local soil. The fertile, muddy terrain has its benefits: In addition to producing enormous groves of sugarcane, it is also prime training ground for athletes. As recently as 2014, USA Football claimed that Pahokee was the second-largest producer of professional football players in the country. But "the Muck," (another nickname) is not exactly a term of endearment – according to the Tampa Bay Times, Pahokee was the poorest city in Palm Beach County as of last year.
Just over a decade ago, Patrick Bresnan, an Austin-based artist and film director, heard that there was an AIDS epidemic plaguing the region. "I wanted to go and see what was going on there, so I went to Pahokee and started taking pictures," he said. "I started meeting and interacting with people, too." Bresnan returned to Pahokee over and over again on family trips to Florida, eventually traveling with Ivete Lucas, an editor, producer, and filmmaker, with roots in Mexico. Steadily, with the help of local photographer Allen Andrews, Bresnan and Lucas began developing a film together about the tight-knit Pahokee community. Twelve years later, their – as Bresnan describes – "pensive, observational, ethnographic-type" short "The Send-Off" was selected to world premiere in the Documentary Short competition at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
The Sundance connection came partly from their friendship with Austin resident Kelly Williams and Jonathan Duffy, film producers whose locally made credits include Kat Candler's Hellion, Hannah Fidell's 6 Years, and Yen Tan's Pit Stop. When Bresnan gave Williams and Duffy "these really great photo books" he'd shot in the Muck, "Jon and I were both totally taken with these images," recalled Williams. The two producers signed on to co-produce in the spring of 2015, and brought the project to Sundance's Catalyst Initiative, what Duffy calls "a forum for filmmaking teams, creative investors, and industry mentors." With its beauty and sensitivity, "The Send-Off" picked up executive producers, completed production, and ran a highly successful Kickstarter campaign that allowed several Pahokee residents to attend the world premiere.
In their film, which runs a lovely 12 minutes – "so it would leave people wanting more, but not in such a way that they'd feel like they don't get the whole thing," noted Lucas – the local teenagers prepare for their senior prom in the spring of 2015. There is little dialogue, but the energy of the preparations and dimming natural light over the sugarcane factories hint at the beauty to come as night falls. Luxury vehicles drive up to a block party to bring the kids, dressed to the nines in stunningly formal clothes, to the high school. The prom eventually culminates in a fantasia of color, fabric, and hip-hop.
Theirs is not the first film to focus on the region, but its cinematic lineage is the stuff of a cinephile's dream. In 1960, Edward R. Murrow and his lifetime collaborator, Fred Friendly, made the documentary Harvest of Shame, an exposé about the plight of American migrant workers that was also Murrow's last film for CBS. Harvest of Shame focuses significantly on the area around Pahokee, which became an epicenter for sugar production after the Fanjul brothers were ejected from Castro's Cuba. In 1981, Errol Morris was directing his legendary "Vernon, Florida," another short doc about the eccentric townsfolk of Washington County. It's no coincidence that "The Send-Off" feels like a contemporary update on Morris' film: Bresnan and Lucas shot their Christmas cards in Vernon last year.
In a very crowded competition category at Sundance, "The Send-Off" stands out for its calmness and its patience, a rare quality that Lucas – who edited the footage – attributes to "a conscious decision just to go with my instinct; I won't spoon-feed people." But the short is just the first in a series of upcoming projects about Pahokee, including several more documentaries and a fiction film starring real residents. "From the start, we were making the short so we could make a feature," said Lucas, but both she and Bresnan have kept extremely busy with other projects in the meantime.
In 2016, they completed a complicated documentary about the participants of Vietnam War reenactments in Pennsylvania. Bresnan stumbled on the idea after seeing loose photographs at flea markets in Amish country, and the movie's been slowly coming together over almost 10 years. Unlike "The Send-Off," One Big Misunderstanding is feature-length, and its characters – like Bubba, a troubled military devotee, and his supportive single mother, who struggles with addiction – are so compelling that the extra 70 minutes or so of runtime still feels unsatisfying. On top of these films and the experimental video installations the two make in their free time, there are also projects that Bresnan and Lucas refuse to discuss on the record. Of one, Lucas noted, "We can't talk about it because if anybody knew about this, Vice would be there tomorrow shooting it."
Like Murrow and Morris before them, both filmmakers find themselves deeply interested in niche communities around the country, and both have an incredible eye for such spaces. Williams and Duffy were among the first to notice, but hardly the last – at Sundance, Bresnan and Lucas attended a filmmaker's luncheon with Werner Herzog they described as "a most amazing encounter." Herzog spoke with them one-on-one for an hour, ignoring hangers-on. There is no better sign of two star filmmakers on the rise than the rapt attention of the iconoclastic director of Fitzcarraldo.