In our first itchysilkLIVE interview we talk to the director Patrick Bresnan.
Born In New York, Patrick Bresnan’s most recent work is the award winning The Rabbit Hunt. It’s an intriguing, quietly powerful observational short. On a superficial level, Patrick Bresnan’s film follows the main protagonist Chris and his family on the hunt for rabbits. Beautiful sprawling shots of the fields intersperse the frenetic slightly claustrophobic feel of the hunt in the burning fields. It’s a visual feast.
The Rabbit Hunt however is more than a spectacle for the eyes, it’s a short for the mind. Themes of: tradition, poverty, family (devoid of a father figure) and community are told through the simple but bonding experience of the hunt.
From a creative experience The Rabbit Hunt is a quintessential observational film that allows the subject matter and the film the space to take deep life-giving breaths. It’s taken him ‘20 years’ to refine that all important space for his sublime films.
With a back catalogue of great shorts like The Cursed And The Jubilee (2015) and motions already starting for the release of his next film Roadside Attraction Patrick Bresnan is making the obligatory waves. Waves that are duly also credited to his wife Ivete who he states, ‘is my everything’.
Here at #itchysilk we decided to talk to Patrick Bresnan about his film history and of course his film future.
We always like to get a history on the people we interview so Patrick-describe the situation and the emotional context of discovering that film/visual arts was a passion-(did film find you)?
My mother gave me her Canon AE-1 camera around the time I was 13 and our family got a mini vhs camera when I was 15 that really changed how I interacted with the world. I had a friend in high school whose father bough us an editing system and we made short films and inspired by 1970’s Saturday Night Live episodes that we would watch on Comedy Central. We used to sell the films as mix tapes at Denny’s and punk shows around Philadelphia. Through the tapes I met Andrew Jeffrey Wright when I was 17 and he was my gateway to the visual art world. He and his friends started a visual art space in Philadelphia called Space 1026 and there I got exposed to the vast world of street artists who were just starting to take that art into a more formal setting.
How did your formative years have an impact on you in terms of a path to film?
My formative years were all about making comedy videos and playing punk music. It was not the most mature period of time but my interest in musicians like Fugazi had a big impact on me. They were one of the biggest bands of the 1990’s and they sold their albums for $8 and their shows were $5. I would drive all over the East coast with a video camera to record their shows. They had a message that was concerned with police brutality, homelessness, bullying and fighting corporate injustice. Music, art and film were all a way to engage this message. I have really moved between those mediums depending on who my collaborators where at the time. I am sure if my wife Ivete was a musician we would be making music and touring.
What do you love about film as a medium?
I love the collaborative nature of filmmaking. As a photographer I have always been a bit lonely. At the time I wanted to give what I was documenting a greater meaning and voice. I would make a photo, essay and it would reach about 100 people. Film-making is a medium where we frame an environment that has meaning to us. If it is a strong work there are film festivals and eventually a site like Vimeo by which we can transport it all over the world.
Film-making is a medium where we frame an environment that has meaning to us.
While it seems clear in the films you have made-what type of stories attract you?
My wife and I are very interested in stories from rural areas, traditions and vernacular cultures that need to be preserved in a thoughtful manner. Many of the stories we commit to films have come through working in a community through non-profit organisations like Habitat for Humanity or Mennonite Disaster Service. We try to get to know a community through other skills that we have. I am also a carpenter and builder. I really enjoy participating in community rebuilding projects. Through this method, we have found we are able to learn about people and discover stories that we might come back and film.
In terms of your character are there specific aspects of your character which help you in the making of your shorts?
People tell me that I speak very slowly and have a funny accent. I think Ivete and I are quite non-threatening. We make sure that we break a lot of bread with people that we will be making a film about. We are very interested in learning about the places we work. Going to church there, living there, going to sporting events, fishing just learning the rhythm of a place. We try to be available for whatever. This weekend I am going to Pahokee to see how some of the kids are doing and a mother asked me to photograph a baby shower. People know they can come to us and we will do what we can to help.
Of course, we have to ask about how you work with your wife and what she brings to the process which helps you create your films?
I was a mad man driving around the US living in a Volkswagen Eurovan with two dogs before I met her. Back in the day I used to build art shows for Barry McGee and Clare Rojas. I had a pile of still cameras, a crappy video camera and a dream of making films. Ivete was living in Monterrey Mexico and had just received a prestigious IMCINE grant. Ivete was producing and directing a film collaboratively with 9 other directors. She really had her shit together and I still don’t understand why she took on a project like me. She is my everything and produces our film, co-directs and edits. I met her on a random trip where I was driving to central Mexico taking photos and visiting Real De Catorce in 2008.
In your films there is a real sense of letting the films breathe it is observation at its essence.
It comes from a lot of discipline which took about 20 years to achieve. I was very frenetic in my 20s. Always rebelling with no sense of place. Moving every year or two to a new city. Meeting Ivete and going to grad school really changed that. I spent a great deal of time in the fine Arts Library at The University of Texas while writing my thesis watching observational films. I became very interested in the idea that film could be used as a research methodology. My thesis is The Role of Observational Filmmaking in Creating New Knowledge in Architectural Education. After graduating Ivete and I became committed to making documentary work that was observational. We had made films together with interviews while in grad school. At the time however, we were looking to make a more pure cinematic experience and that started with The Send-Off.
The Rabbit Hunt riveted us. How did you come about this story and touching upon the fourth question what attracted you to it?
I had been photographing the burning sugar fields for many years. The main young man in our film The Send-Off had rabbit hunted to pay for most of his prom expenses. We had such a good relationship with his family that it was a natural progression from the previous film to record them hunting. The rabbit hunting also showed how entrepreneurial the kids in Pahokee are. They have no access to jobs except the jobs they create for themselves. I have always found it quite heroic-running through a burning field to put food on the table and save money.
The rite of passage as a man-was Chris the bread winner/the father figure in a sense? The shot of him placing the money in the jar is powerful and poignant.
Chris and his father do not have a good relationship. His mother and grandmother raised him. For his younger brothers and sisters, he does play the role of “man of the house.” Pahokee is a town of very strong women. In Chris’s family the women are in charge. The mother is the facilitator of the hunt and that is seen in the film.
It was interesting how you skilfully managed to balance an old tradition in the ‘now’.
When I first learned about rabbit hunting and discussed it with people in the community it was clear that it has deep traditional roots. In earlier times the migrant famers who settled in the area had very little-they could not afford meat (see Harvest of Shame). So, when a migrant worker was picking cotton, tomatoes or cutting sugar cane and they saw a rabbit they dropped what they were doing to catch it. Though people can afford store bought meat, rabbit connects the community to their past.
We know that you have a book about the film in the process, explain more about that.
I always work on a photo project in conjunction with our film projects. Photos are a very important way to immediately interact and share with the film subjects. It took us many months to find time to edit The Rabbit Hunt. With photography I can share immediately what we are doing with the community. Many of my hero’s, are photographers like Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand. I feel the photo book is one of the most important traditional ways to share visual art. For me the book is a natural companion to the film.
What did you learn about Chris, his family and the wider community and can they transcend the poverty that evidently surrounds them?
This is a very important question that is still playing out. Chris has gone off to college and his family are spending everything they have so that he can do this. We finished recording a full senior year of high school in Pahokee. It was for a feature length film that we are now editing . The film is observational. We want the audience to see that process used by teachers and families to prepare their kids to leave.
We know you have your new film Roadside Attraction. Give us a brief synopsis and catalyst to capture this story?
Basically, Pahokee is a direct 50-mile line from Donald Trump’s Florida mansion Mar-a-Lago. When he visits Florida they park Air-Force One next to the road we take to Pahokee from West Palm Beach. Masses of people pulled off the road taking photos of the plane. We found it to be a completely surreal gathering of people that we had to film. It was shot on Super Bowl Sunday. At the time there was a truly American joy in the air that made it all the more bizarre.