SIFF 2019: An Interview with David Shields

During SIFF 2019, I saw a screener of the film Lynch: A History after a mutual friend put me in touch with the director/writer/producer, David Shields. Experimental films and I don’t have a good track record, so I was surprised when I enjoyed the film, which builds a narrative entirely out of already-existing media. The viewing also left me with questions, so I emailed them to David a couple days later. I received his replies the following day, but time constraints have prevented me from posting them until now. And if you missed the film during the festival, there’s some good news for you at the end of this interview.

1.) The book on which you loosely based this movie (Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season) deals with the NBA. Why did you decide to change your focus to the NFL and Marshawn Lynch in particular?

I tried various iterations of the basketball version, and it just didn’t work. The book felt dated; so, too, there wasn’t an NBA team anymore in Seattle, and my interest was in the Seahawks and Marshawn Lynch. Every issue I tried to get to in Black Planet I could get to more powerfully via Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks.

I decided to focus on Marshawn Lynch because I was drawn to his use of silence as a form of protest: 1) the source of that silence in a history of Oakland—its legacy of troublemakers who often use brilliantly symbolic means to question society; 2) the deepening of that silence in Buffalo; 3) the silence going viral in Seattle; 4) then the silence becoming politicized later in Seattle and weaponized, in the best possible sense, back in Oakland; 5) and finally that silence being passed on as legacy on to the next generation of black athletes.

I’m also very interested in Marshawn Lynch being someone who tries to be true to himself in a capitalist, racist society that he’s trying to both exploit and oppose. As Albert Camus says, “The only way to deal with an unjust world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” No one is absolutely free, but Marshawn Lynch is thrillingly close.

2.) Why did you decide to make a film using only archival material, as opposed to a documentary that mixes archival with new material?

We approached Marshawn Lynch, and he declined to participate; he also said, via his representatives, that he would not impede the film, either. A lot of my previous books use the principle of appropriation/remix/transformation/free use as a generating strategy. This approach struck me as the best MO for this film, since the last thing we wanted for this film was a standard talking heads film. We wanted the film to feel like YouTube folk art, and in that way we thought the film would feel congruent with Marshawn Lynch’s ethos. So, too, we wanted the film to feel like a zigzag touchdown run, and the 700 clips—edited to within an inch of their life—gave us that compression, concision, velocity, violence.

3.) Did you have an idea of where the narrative would go before you looked at the clips, or did the clips dictate the direction the narrative went?

Yes, the film has very definite beats, and it even has—dare I say it?—a classical narrative structure. It’s the Prodgial Son Returneth. The film starts in Oakland, where Lynch is “made,” in many ways; in Buffalo, he tries to conform, but he finds himself treated poorly by the media; in Seattle he finds a resurrection of sorts, for at least a while, before that curdles on him. Finally, back in Oakland, he seems to have found a way to continue his legacy.

See, too, my answer to the first question: the film is really about Lynch’s use of silence as a form of protest, resistance, and defiance. And that silence goes through five unmistakable phases: origin, deepening, popularizing, politicization, legacy. That is the core of the film.

4.) Who found and compiled all these clips?

I worked with several people to find the clips. Primarily, Christian Palmer, James Nugent, and I found the clips. A few other people helped as well.

5.) How many editors did it take to stitch these clips together into a cohesive narrative? What sort of guidance (if any) did you give them? How long did this process take?

James Nugent and Christian Palmer and I are the main editors. It took us four years. I worked very closely with both of them on a frame by frame and day by day basis. I can’t overemphasize enough the massive work that James Nugent did on this film. He came onto the film after about a year, and he did everything from musical production to lead editor to tech guru to everything else.

6.) Did you have any rights or permissions issues in obtaining these clips or including them in the film? Are you able to show the film outside of film festivals, or do rights issues prevent you?

See my earlier answer. My copyright attorney is Robert Clarida, who advised me every step of the way. The principle of fair use/transformation guided our every decision: taking as brief a clip as possible, being sure to make a commentary via our juxtaposition, and making that commentary legible to the “average viewer.” The film has passed through all legal vetting and will be shown widely in theaters and via a streaming service.

My thanks again to David Shields for taking the time to answer my questions.

SIFF 2019: Week Three Capsule Reviews

The Legend of the Stardust Brothers (Archival, Japan 1985, 100 min)

Digital Screener, Sun 6/2

Makoto Tezuka (son of Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of Japanese manga) directed this wild Japanese musical at the age of 23. Basic plot: media mogul Mr. Minami (the late Kiyohiko Ozaki) takes rival singers Shingo (Shingo Kubota) and Kan (Kan Takagi) and transforms them into the superstar group Stardust Brothers, but tensions between them lead to their downfall and the rise of their fan club president, Marimo (the late Kyoko Togawa), and the son of a politician, Kaoru (Issay), as teen idols. Very 80s, very Japanese, with several handmade sets, lots of white light, and even a brief animated sequence. The whole thing looks like an 80s music video, heavily influenced by the New Wave and David Bowie. The music oscillates between banal 80s synthesized songs and better 80s synthesized songs, all of them catchy. As bizarre and over-the-top as it is, there’s also a conviction and charm to the entire thing, showing that Tezuka knew what he was doing when he made it. Based on a concept album by Haruo Chikada. A guilty pleasure that’s worth checking out.

For Sama (United Kingdom 2019, 94 min)

SIFF Cinema Uptown, Mon 6/3

A brutal, unflinching portrait of the horrors of war, specifically when a brutal dictator fights a war against his own people. In this case, it’s Assad’s (and later, the Russians’) pulverizing attacks against Aleppo, Syria to “free” it from revolutionaries. The film is mostly shot by Waad al-Kateab, a journalist living there after college who joined the revolution and refused to leave, even when the fighting turned into a siege and the Russians started targeting hospitals, including one where her husband worked. The film is for her daughter, Sama, who spent the first year of her life living in a war zone. Every head-of-state should see it, and then be forced to answer why they did nothing to stop this brutality.

Enamorada (Archival, Mexico 1946, 99 min)

SIFF Cinema Uptown, Mon 6/3

Despite watching this movie with a crowd that decided everything not modern about it was a hoot — which I see as a lack of respect for bygone eras, to say nothing of different styles of storytelling and acting — Enamorada‘s charm and power still work, over 70 years later. María Félix never made movies in Hollywood, as she said they didn’t give her good roles, but she gets a great one here, as an upper class woman about to marry a foreigner who isn’t taking any shit from the revolutionary general (Pedro Armendáriz) who has taken over her town, despite him having the hots for her. I try not to use words like “smoldering eyes” in my reviews, but…she has smoldering eyes, which burn for the first half of the film and melt for the second. Enamorada makes me want to see more of Félix’s work and of Mexican directors of that period.

I Am Cuba (Archival, Cuba/Soviet Union 1964, 141 min)

SIFF Cinema Egyptian, Tue 6/4

Of all the archival films playing at SIFF, this was the one I was most excited about. I Am Cuba really needs to be seen on a big screen, as the crisp black-and-white cinematography and camera movement is alive in a way that few films are. Though shot in a 1:37.1 aspect ratio, it has the look of a scope film, which was achieved using wide-angle lenses. The plot is unimportant, other than it takes place in the middle of the Cuban Revolution, consists of four vignettes, and gives Cuba a role as a character. Here, the visuals tell the story, and dazzle us while doing so, thanks to cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky.

Lynch : A History (World Premiere, USA 2019, 85 min)

Digital Screener, Wed 6/5

I was skeptical that I’d like this movie, in which mountains of archival footage and several quotes are stitched together into a narrative. But I have to say, it does a good job of telling a story only through pre-existing images, one that gives cultural and social context to Marshawn Lynch’s behavior, even if it doesn’t outright explain it (there’s some text after the credits that does, which would’ve been better left out, as it inserts an interpretation on the material and a judgment on Lynch that audiences should reach on their own). Much credit should go to the editors who stitched this contraption together, though one wonders if rights issues will ever allow it to be shown outside of a film festival. Future screenings: Sun 6/9 9:00pm Pacific Place