Ellie Lee’s Dark Vision
Written by Chris Cooke | Posted by: Anonymous
Anyone interested in up-and-coming local filmmakers should make the trip to the Woods Hole Film Festival to see the 25-minute film "Dog Days," the latest from Ellie Lee. "Dog Days" takes place in an apocalyptic near-future, focusing on a suburban family as they cope with the domestic complications of the U.S. involvement in the next world war. In the midst of the war-induced chaos, the family makes the acquaintance of a quite unusual furry friend. The film, an adaptation of a short story from Judy Budnitzs collection Flying Leap, has already won numerous awards at festivals across the country, including Best Film of Festival (Audience Award) and Most Promising Filmmaker (Jury Award) at the 25th New England Film and Video Festival.
Lees first film was the animated short "A Look," about the intrusive power of the male gaze, which won the MTV Free Your Mind Competition in 1993. Her second, "Repetition Compulsion," used similar animation to greater effect — this time as visual accompaniment to interviews of battered women. Lee, while working in a womens shelter, was struck by the stories the women told of their lives.
But when she decided to make a film on the subject, Lee balked at doing live interviews, feeling that the camera was too invasive — the women already had been broken down by men, and Lee had no desire to exploit them further on film. So instead, she set their recorded voices to her own charcoal drawings. Her drawings are subtle yet expressive, and the varying texture of the charcoal on paper gives the drawings, when animated, a trembling feel that somehow conveys the anxiety and sorrow of what it feels like to live in terror.
Likewise, Lisa (Sonya Genel), the protagonist in "Dogs Days," displays the expressions and body language — whether she sits clutching her knee to her chest or walks introspectively down a sidewalk — of someone whose existence is defined by fear. Her fear, however, is not just of the oppressive men who are close to her (in this case, her domineering father and bullying brothers). The entire nation is under martial law, schools closed, everything shut down. Food and water are scarce, delivered periodically by the government, along with government-printed newspapers — the peoples only source of information. Everyone sticks to their local environs (no gasoline, it seems, for travel) with nothing to do but lounge around the house, brooding, listening to the echoing sounds of war. Bombs are constantly rumbling in the distance, planes zooming overhead, but the war never seems to arrive, nor does anyone know exactly what the war is about or who we are fighting.
She and her family feel confined, deliberately kept in the dark, dependent completely on the whims of some unseen power, treated no better than dogs. Lisa Stathoplos and Genel are particularly compelling as the mother and daughter, conveying their desperate need for contact and compassion in the spiritually barren wartime wasteland. Will Lyman is equally powerful as the father, driven to desperate measures to provide for his family, unable to reconcile the futility of his efforts with his need to live up to his own expectations of patriarchal responsibility. And Spencer Beglarian is oddly endearing in his attempts to nose his way into the family.
But the real star here is Lee. The mood she creates throughout the film is thoroughly engrossing. Using stark black and white, she skillfully portrays the familys frustration as they try to keep their wits about them in the tedious yet tense circumstances — indeed, Lee is a master at capturing the motions and gestures of the oppressed.
Lee, born in Hong Kong but raised in Boston, is most definitely a filmmaker to keep an eye on. It will be interesting to see what she can do in a full-length format. Both "Repetition Compulsion" and "Dog Days," as good as they are, rely heavily on stylistic camerawork and sheer conceptual inventiveness. Its hard to imagine the same bag of tricks sustaining an audience for two hours without more emphasis on plot and a more emotionally broad conception of character. And she will have to learn to temper the darkness of her artistic vision with a few glimmers of hope here and there (only so that these hopes can be properly dashed, of course). But for now, her present films are more than enough to whet our appetite for things to come — they are powerfully convincing works in their own right. Highly recommended.
'Dog Days' will screen at both the Woods Hole Film Festival and Rhode Island International Film Festival. Both 'Repetition Compulsion' and 'Dog Days' will be shown at the MFA in Boston on September 28 and during October and November. See www.mfa.org for exact dates and times. Also, visit Ellie Lee's web site at http://www.salamanderfilms.com. [This review is an expansion of a review previously published in the March issue.]