'Pahokee': How to Excel at Shooting Cinema Verite At All Costs
Pahokee, Florida gets the spotlight in this new moving documentary.
Verite filmmaking is alive and well in Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas’s Pahokee, a special, almost anthropological look at four high school teenagers in a small Florida city.
A feature-length continuation of short films the filmmakers crafted over the past several years, Pahokee is set over one school year (from homecoming through graduation) at the Pahokee Middle High School. Following four students who are hoping for a way out of the city to provide for their families (whether through academic studies, a prosperous football career or ....or both), the film is a document of a rural community that often sees its residents work in the sugar cane fields, desiring of a better life.
Subtle and heartfelt, the film is as much about the hope of leaving the community as it is about the uniqueness of the city itself. A mutual partnership between filmmaker and subject, Pahokee features startling intimacy and unobtrusive storytelling.
As the film premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, No Film School spoke with Bresnan and Lucas about shooting verite footage, working as a team, and enveloping yourself within a community in order to receive welcomed access.
No Film School: I wanted to ask about both of your backgrounds. Your work feels somewhat anthropological in nature and very much lived in. Did you go to film school?
Ivete Lucas: I was born in Brazil and grew up in Mexico, and I started making films in Mexico before I moved to the United States. I moved to go to film school at the University of Texas and got an MFA from UT Austin, and Patrick and I started making films together as soon as we met. We were doing art projects as well, but it was always with real people, and so it just eventually became documentary work.
Patrick Bresnan: I had always dreamed of going to film school. And in 1997, I transferred from the University of San Francisco to NYU Film School. My mom had just died, and after going to school for a month, the older kids at the school were all telling me to drop out and just go make a movie. And so, I dropped out of NYU after a few weeks so I could get a full tuition refund. I'm sure I didn't get it all back, but at that time, NYU was like $30,000 a year. When you dream of going to film school, you don't understand that it's very, very expensive, and I couldn't find a place to live in Manhattan.
My background after dropping out of film school was working in the arts. I had a lot of friends in Philadelphia who had art spaces, and there were great art collectives in the late '90s, early 2000s, like Fort Thunder in Providence, Rhode Island. I had a lot of friends at space 1026 in Philly, and great artists were always coming through, street artists and painters. I became close friends with an artist, Barry McGee, when one of my friends from Philadelphia married him.
I had construction skills, so I worked as an installation artist, and then I worked my way up to managing Clara Arts shows. In 2005, we were building a big show in London at a really fancy gallery. After we finished and the show was about to open, I went into the director's office, and I saw that Hurricane Katrina [was happening], and I saw what was happening back in New Orleans, and I vowed as soon as I got home to go down to Louisiana to do disaster relief work. For the next three years, I, on and off, did a lot of volunteer disaster relief and rebuilt houses in rural communities. I started finding amazing stories to tell and becoming really good friends with people. That was how I transitioned back into filmmaking.
NFS: How did you first become interested in the city of Pahokee, Florida?
Bresnan: After my mom died around 1998 or 1997, my dad moved to Florida. He's a New Yorker, and he just didn't want to be alone, and he thought Florida was a better place for him to meet people. He moved to Palm Beach County and that became my home. Palm Beach County encompasses the coastal community, which is where Mar-a-Lago is and some of the wealthiest people in the world live.
On the other side of the county is Pahokee, which is mostly agricultural, mostly African-American and Hispanic. When I went there, I was in my early 20s and I was always shocked by the segregation of the community. When I was really young, I would do a lot of photography projects, showing how wealth had been segregated. As I became older, I became much more interested in working in communities like Pahokee and telling stories, and volunteering, and doing work in sustainability.
Lucas: As Patrick was taking pictures, he started meeting people in town. And one of those times, he was invited to take photos of the prom. He made a little photo book, and we came back, and we shared it with everyone. And then a year later, we all together came up with the idea of making our short, The Send-Off. That was the first short film that we made there. We already had some friends in the community. We got really close to one of the kids in The Send-Off, Chris Burgess, and he invited us to a rabbit hunt to show us how he was saving money for prom. And so, then we made The Rabbit Hunt, and then we made Skip Day with him and his girlfriend, and a few more kids. And then his girlfriend, Na’Kerria, is one of the main kids in Pahokee, the film. It just started growing from there.
As we had films, the short films, we had them at Sundance, we would bring the kids. We took two of the girls with us, and the community trusted us and loved the work we were doing. They felt really good about us making the feature, so we got permission from the school and embarked on making a feature film about the last year of high school, because when we made The Send-Off, we felt like there was a bigger story to tell about why this moment was so important in a place like Pahokee. We thought with a feature that we could really show each different kids' lives and how this year was so crucial to achieving their dreams, getting out of Pahokee if they wanted to, having better opportunities for the future, and how the whole community comes together to help that cause.
"I think short filmmaking is such an important developmental period for an artist and a storyteller. Festivals will tell you that a film can't be over 15 minutes, so you really have to figure out how to tell a good story in 10 minutes."
NFS: What did you learn by making short films about the subject before embarking on a feature? How did it better prepare you?
Bresnan: I think short filmmaking is such an important developmental period for an artist and a storyteller. Festivals will tell you that a film can't be over 15 minutes, so you really have to figure out how to tell a good story in 10 minutes. And I think it's the best training there is for going to longer form film work, and it's a really important way of earning the trust in the community. You make something and then you share it with them. When you're first making something, it is a little bit awkward, and people don't really understand what you're doing. But when you make that short film, and you show it to people, and you see how they receive it, that really helps you when you're trying to make a larger story.
NFS: The film features a number of exterior shots that I hesitate to call establishing shots. They're like the fifth leading character in the film. What was it about the image of the sugar cane fields specifically that provided a visual motif for the film?
Lucas: I think there are a couple of things with the sugarcane fields. It's very limited what's outside of that. Regarding jobs, they may work in a convenience store, or the gas station, or the school, as the school provides a good source of jobs, but that's it. It's also historically why the kids, or the families in Pahokee, are there, that Pahokee is in the Northern Everglades, and it was drained. Their location used to be a swamp, and it was drained. It took them many decades to figure out how to drain that place in order to farm. Ecologically, it's not very sound what they did there, but it provided jobs and the community came to do that work, but that work did not provide social mobility. At the end of the film, we show them again, and we show the factory. And it's kind of like, "Is that what's going to be here in the future?"
NFS: I imagine a film like this is formed in the editing of hundreds of hours of footage. How did you find your four main characters and how did their stories begin to take shape?
Lucas: We discovered them as we were shooting during the year, and it was very apparent during the year who was going to stay with us. When we were making a short, we were making films about one day, and the commitment was not very large. But for a year, the students' commitment to us had to be there too. And so, Na’Kerria, Jocabed, BJ, and Junior, did a lot. They were recording videos themselves and were on the phone with us, and they would let us know when something was going to be happening that we could record. We became very close to them. I think it was in that process that the characters were set.
In the editing room, it was a whole different business, because we did record a full year, and we had about 300 hours of footage. We had recorded every single football game, because we never knew if they were going to lose. When you're shooting every day, you have to be there to end the story. Every time something is left open, I have to close it during the shooting. And so, we recorded about 13 football games, because they won every game. We had all these games to figure out. We ended up having three games in the film.
It's interesting because we set a timeframe, a year, a cycle, and so, there was a clear end. After graduation, we didn't shoot anymore. We knew we had the end, also because the graduation was so beautiful. It was mostly about finding the beats, and how to go from a character to another character, and how to stay within the themes, and the emotional rollercoaster that the year was.
"I come from a part of Mexico where there are shootings, because of the drug cartels. I know that when it happens, it can be very confusing. We were all very confused looking around. At a certain point, Patrick said, "Go take shelter" and I ran, and I hid with Big Show, one of our main protagonists in the film, and Patrick stayed."
NFS: How did the integration of the students' personally filmed cell phone footage enter into the mix? Did you ask them to create personal diaries that you could then incorporate into the movie later on?
Bresnan: We really didn't want to make an observational film or an ethnographic film. We wanted to make a film that was very present with the kids and one that they could participate in. We still wanted the film to feel like a cinema verite film. It was difficult to pull off at first because we running around all the time to record events that were happening. The students had so much going on in their lives that we didn't want to give them one more chore. It's a lot to have a film crew following you, having to let the film crew know, "Oh, we have an event at church going on now. This is going on at the school."
We were so adamant that we wanted this film to be their yearbook, because they didn't have a yearbook. They weren't going to have the funding to do it. We didn't want this to be a film that was just made by two directors, because we wanted to make a film that the kids would adopt and other young people would adopt. The phone footage was so important to lending their voices to the project.
Lucas: Stylistically, we didn't want to do interviews at all. We wanted to remain in present tense. Some of the videos are more confessional, more of the video-journal type, where they're talking about their emotions at that moment, but it's not about recalling anything. We felt that interviews can be stiff and staged, and we didn't want that to be a part of it. We wanted it to be more flowy.
We told the kids, "You can make these video journals. You can make videos as you're doing something." We knew that this was part of their language at this point, and so it's natural for them to make videos. We gave them a little advice, like, "You want to be close to a source of light," or, "you don't want to be in the wind." It was fully up to them. We weren't going to ask them questions, or anything, so it really became their voice in the film.
NFS: Are both of you on location together at all times?
Bresnian: We were living in Pahokee for a year, so we were always together. There are scenes in the film that are shot with Na’Kerria and Jocabed that are very personal, and Ivete recorded those scenes. But most of the time, I would be recording, and Ivete would be producing and doing sound.
Lucas: I was doing Camera B at graduation. I did a lot of Camera B in areas, and then when there were big events, like the championship game or prom, we had friends come and help us. This was a very low budget film, so we didn't have money to be hiring anybody. Fortunately, we know how to do most things, so we did it ourselves. We're together most of the time.
NFS: Could you take us through the filming of the sequence in the park where the shooting takes place? You run for cover (with your camera still filming) and it feels like an incredibly dangerous situation to be in.
Bresnan: The week after Easter is prom, so we really wanted to record that. The community was coming together for an Easter celebration in the park, and so we were recording folks playing basketball and kids playing on the swing set. It was a big block party. I then noticed a group of people that I'd never seen before in Pahokee. I had my camera and a tripod, and I was recording them because they were acting really nervous, pacing back and forth in between two very high end cars. As I was recording, one of the young men pulled out a gun, and we heard gunshots from another part of the park. The gathering of people between these two cars were pointing, and people were looking back and forth and it became very frenetic.
Lucas: I come from a part of Mexico where there are shootings, because of the drug cartels. I know that when it happens, it can be very confusing. We were all very confused, looking around. At a certain point, Patrick said, "Go take shelter" and I ran, and I hid with Big Show, one of our main protagonists in the film, and Patrick stayed.
Patrick continued filming, and that's why I kept it to the way that it was shot, so that people can really understand what it was like to be there. I ran, and I hid with Big Show, and then we started reuniting children with their families. As things died down, we could make our way to see what happened.
It was important for us to have this in the film because....well, it's always very emotional to talk about this scene because it was so hard. As there's news coverage of shootings, it can be very other-ing, very like, "Oh, there's a gang, etc." but there's no way to show what that does to a community. Being inside that moment and processing it with everyone allowed us to show how devastating it is. Most people are there with their families, and it's very traumatic, and there's so much grief to having something happen in a space that you feel like it's your space, our park.
The kids in our film and everyone in town had to process that and then go to school the next day. The kid that was shot, was somebody's brother, was somebody's cousin, and so there was that grief. But then there was that grief of like, "Can we really be safe in our own park?" And to us, the most moving thing is that the next week was prom, and the kids were able to retake that space and have a beautiful prom, but also there was a girl wearing a Trayvon Martin dress, featuring all of the faces of people who had died because of police brutality. It was just such a big statement.
NFS: What advice would you have for other nonfiction filmmakers who are looking to find their way into making vérité nonfiction cinema but aren't sure where to start?
Bresnan: There's a big investment in time and in a community, or with a subject, that you'd like to film in verite. You can't just show up and start doing it. You really have to build relationships. I use my carpentry and architecture and construction skills and I like to volunteer in a community [first]. On the project we're doing right now, I'm planning on an area where a hurricane hit. I'm going to go and do rebuilding and disaster relief, and really get to know people, and have dinner with them, and give them something, and learn about their stories, and have them ask me to film things. Personally, that's my approach.
Lucas: I think verite can be done for a number of things. You can record your family, whatever is important to you. But I feel like verite is just a method, and it's important to know what story you want to tell, and that should be the inspiration. Verite is a method where it allows you to be very "present tense" and have an experience as an audience member. But at the end of the day, It's all about: is the story going to be good in that way?
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No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.