Athena Film Festival 2013 | Day 1

athena 75The plot of Middle of Nowhere has many characteristics of the standard-issue melodrama, but it’s a much more subtle and complex than that term implies.


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Middle of Nowhere

Even Winter Storm Nemo couldn’t slow down the Athena Film Festival in its first full day of programming. The film of the day is Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere, a character study of a woman whose life is changed dramatically after her husband is sentenced to eight years in prison. DuVernay won the Best Director (Dramatic) prize at Sundance in 2012 for this film, making her the first African American woman to win that award.

The plot of Middle of Nowhere has many characteristics of the standard-issue melodrama, in particular its focus on the emotional growth of a woman as she works through a series of challenges, but it’s a much more subtle and complex than the term “melodrama” implies. The central character, Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), may meet up with a lot more grief than she deserves, but she’s never a helpless victim of fate, and she grows and matures as a result of the trials she faces. Bradford Young’s understated cinematography avoids hammering us with pre-interpreted emotions, but instead allows us to perceive the subtle changes in the relationships among the characters, and to experience Ruby’s emotional journey as if it were our own.

When her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), is incarcerated, Ruby takes on the role of a selfless martyr, dropping out of medical school so she can visit him every week, even though he urges her to stay in school. She hires an expensive lawyer to represent Derek, paying the fee in installments, and becomes a regular Erin Brockovich when that lawyer demands payment up front to represent Derek at his parole hearing. Although Ruby has a rich emotional life with her mother (Lorraine Toussaint), sister (Edwina Findley), and nephew, Ruby’s own life is on hold—she’s become a sort of half-person, denying her own reality in the service of a quest whose payoff is far from certain. When a pleasant young man (David Oyelowo) shows an interest in her, Ruby at first turns him down unequivocally, not only because she’s married, but also because she’s living in a sort of emotional suspension that doesn’t allow her to be fully human.

The title Middle of Nowhere refers to Ruby’s state of being as well as the location of the prison where Derek is incarcerated. Most of events portrayed are everyday and unremarkable, but DuVernay makes it clear that the realities of our prison system (and the context of the extremely high rates of incarceration among men of color) influence the lives of far more people than the inmates themselves. Her quiet portrayal of the difficulties involved in maintaining contact with someone in prison—the long bus rides to the prison (a trip taken almost exclusively by women and their children, if this film is accurate), the invasive screening procedures, the need to be available to visit, and to receive phone calls, on a schedule established by the system—means that many prisoners will lose touch with their families and communities, making their transition to life outside prison that much more difficult.

Here’s two things I learned during the talkback with Ava DuVernay after the screening of Middle of Nowhere: the FCC does not regulate the rates charged for telephone calls with prisoners, and states are allowed to impose extra fees, called kickbacks, on telephone use. Not only does this present a financial hardship, but it also discourages people from trying to stay in touch with incarcerated family members, despite the fact that strong family ties are correlated with better post-release outcomes and are also a factor considered by parole authorities when deciding which prisoners should be granted early release. You can learn more about this issue here.

Earlier in the day, I attended a workshop with Joe Petricca, Patty West, and Chris Schwartz, all staff members on the American Film Institute, and Annetta Merion, a documentary director and alumna of the AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women. They covered the practical matters of producing a short film, and in fact the title pretty much says it all: “From Script to Screen: Producing a Short Film.” The main take-home messages: treat producing a short film like a business, and treat every aspect of it as seriously as if you were making a feature. The workshop was videotaped and can be viewed over the Internet, as can many of the workshops and talkbacks from the festival. You can access them here.

I also attended a Q&A with Tom Rothman, former Co-Chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, but I can’t say much about what he said because everything was officially off the record. What I will say is that if you ever get a chance to hear him speak, you should take it, because he really knows the business and is willing to speak honestly about it. | Sarah Boslaugh

For more information, view the Athena Film Festival trailer on their website.

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