Thursday, February 12, 2009

Flashback: Benny Mathews

Originally posted Sept 30, 2006

Where’s the Party, Yaar? was by far the best of the wave of “NRI indies” that crested a few years ago. The most widely distributed were American Desi, American Chai and ABCD, and the lack of novelty in these films, in the treatment of what should have been a fresh subject, was what was most disheartening. American Chai was The Jazz Singer with a bhangra beat: the oldest of American immigrant film fables minimally re-imagined. (Party is available here under its somewhat misleading U.S. title.)

Party director Benny Mathews came to indie moviemaling as an estblished pro rather than as a hopeful amateur with family issues, and that seems to have made all the difference. A music video veteran (Geto Boys, Scarface, Bone Thugs, Bun B, Pimo C, Slim Thug, Baby Bash---"more like a rap sheet than a resume," he admits), Mathews had a genuinely interesting subject in a dance club scene in Houston self-generated by go-getting young NRIs, and the practiced filmmaking skill to make his case without special pleading:

Last week I finally caught up with Mathews’ second feature, Santeria, an almost ethnographic “horror film,” for want of a more precise term, set among lower-middle-class Mexicans in Texas. The movie is devoted, as much as anything, to documenting the intensity of the characters' grass roots, kitchen-table brand of Catholicism, as a child’s backyard visions of the Virgin Mary split his family down the middle. One faction, led by the boy’s father and older sister, takes the divinity of the visions at face value. Another contingent, which includes a schizophrenic girl who may have fallen off her meds and a chain-smoking young street preacher (Kevin Rankin in the film’s best performance) begins to suspect that these visions are actually tricks of the devil.

Shot in a sprawling urban residential neighborhood of flimsy-looking one-story houses, the movie never feels compromised by a lack of resources. Its ambitions and shooting style are perfectly adapted to its circumstances. Mathews technical chops are if anything even more polished here, and he directs a large ensemble of mostly non-actors with seamless skill.

Only occasional movies manage to get away with taking genre material seriously, and Santeria seems to have fallen between two stool commercially. Its original title was Revelation, but like Where’s the Party? it was "re-positioned" by its helpful distributor, a move that may have done it more harm than good. Although it has the fluidity and emotional authenticity of a standout Sundance movie, its amped-up ad campaign (documented in the DVD Special Features) was bound to repulse the indie crowd. The movie's Netflix customer reviews confirm that fans who were attracted by the promise of grisly shocks were bitterly disappointed. Sometimes in the movie jungle you can’t win for losing.

I had the good fortune to meet Benny. Mathews when we particpated in a panal discussion together at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, back when Party was edging toward its original theatrical release. So when I got interested in Santeria, for both its cinematic accomplshments and its unsual subject matter, I took the liberty of firing off an e-mail with a couple of nagging questions. Which Matthews was polite enough to actually answer.

Did you think of this project as an attempt to make something more commercial after Where's the Party?, a horror genre film that might get wider distribution?

I never thought of it as a horror movie. In fact I purposely avoided all the horror movie moments. I took out a lot of gore that I was just not comfortable with. It was boring to me, and there's plenty of that out there if you want it. There is also an alternative ending where roses fall from the sky and a dead kid comes back to life.

I assume that Santeria was quite a leap for you, after making a film like Where's the Party, which seems to have been based very closely on your own experience.

Obviously Where’s the Party is every Indian kid’s life to some extent, trying to fit in and have fun. But I can’t say that I was a heavy club/party person. That was more the producers, who were organizers of dance events and concerts in the Houston area. The basic story about the "desi party" was brought to me to flesh out into a script. It was very hard, making that film, keeping it fresh.

In fact it was Santeria that was more like my own personal In Search Of… episode, because for a long time I was on the same journey as these characters. I did quire a bit of research but, honestly, a lot of it came from my own sub-conscious. As I wrote I had a rush of memories from my own Christian past. I did it all: Catholic School, Baptist Sunday School, Evangelical Prayer Meetings, the works. I saw Christianity through many of its fringe incarnations.

As a kid I also saw many religious films in school and church. The one that stuck with me was this film about Our Lady of Fatima. It was a black and white film that was spooky and well crafted, and because some of the real people had been cast in it it seemed like a shared dream. After Fatima, two of the three children did die shortly after their Visitation. In Bosnia, a woman still talks to the Virgin and people have video footage of roses falling from the sky. That movie’s been in the back of my head for a long time.

Maybe one advantage of making something that feels like a genre film is that you can present people’s beliefs from the inside. You don’t have to take sides as to whether they’re crazy or not.

Making this film I still ran up against a lot of "that would never happen" stumbling blocks, skeptical reactions. There was not a lot I could do about that because it was important to me not answer any questions directly. Because I could not answer them myself. I mean who can? The film deals with some heavy issues. Any real answer would have been unsatisfying.

Is Santeria based on real events?

There was no one real incident. The murder described at the beginning was not something I found in the newspaper. That said, many of the elements of the story---the sightings, the deaths, the clues---happen on a daily basis in Texas. While we were making the film, there were several sightings of the Virgin in the very hood we were working in. Not a month goes by without an image in a reflection or a face in a lump of chocolate. There has to be some spiritual baggage left over from the Aztec and Mayan rituals here in the Deep South. There has to be something left over from all the ritual blood that was shed. Connecting my own issues with that Mexican-American folklore only seemed natural, since I’m based in Texas.

How the spiritual signals get mixed up in the real world is what I was trying to uncover. I mean the Pope to this day professes without a doubt that the bread and wine offered at Church is transformed into the actual blood and body of Jesus Christ. We are asked to believe it’s a miracle that happens every Sunday and is not a symbolic event. That means churchgoers may be really eating blood and flesh at church! [The dicussion of the Real Presence will adjourn to the comments section.--Ed.]

I was very impressed with your direction of these inexperienced actors. The movie really flows beautifully.

I had to focus on making it all sound as real as possible. I felt like a broken record all day everday, asking people “Not to Act.” Acting natural is the hardest thing; to forget that the camera is present, because the actor has to forget but not forget, or their performance may get obscured. When you meet an actor who “gets it”, it is such a relief. It really is a gift. I think that’s why so many directors re-use the same cast in film after film, because once you break an actor down and get him or her to do it your way, you want this person to be with you forever

Kevin Rankin, who plays Neil, has some fairly impressive professional credits. That’s a crucial role, too, because if we didn’t believe that Neil means every word he’s saying, the movie wouldn’t work at all.

Originally he was the star of the film and Neil was the central character. But the producers thought he was too "unconventional" looking to be the leading man, so I had to quickly make a shift and thrust the supporting character Tony into the forefront. There were plenty of scenes that hit the ground after that. I'll sacrifice a scene if the acting’s bad even if I need it for the story.


c said...

The under appreciated film in this "genre"is the 2003 film flavors which could easily have been an american indi if it weren't made by computer programmers from new jersey(and thus was way too uncool to be considered).

Generic said...

Sounds interesting:

Generic said...

Flavors on Netflix: