“This is the Real Narrative of Our Country”: Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas on Challenging Stereotypes and Shaping Raw Experience in Pahokee
In a formidable field of American documentaries at this year’s Maryland Film Festival, few could match the novelistic detail and warm humanism of Pahokee, the debut feature of husband-and-wife filmmaking team Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas. These qualities, however, don’t immediately announce themselves. As Bresnan and Lucas acquaint us with the titular South Florida town, an isolated low-income community flanked by sugar cane fields whose population tilts more than 50% African-American, there’s a whiff of anthropological dispassion that’s evident in the sharply composed landscape shots and the liberal dispersal of attention around the community. For a while, the film gets considerable mileage out of its casual fly-on-the-wall scrutiny of the eminently recognizable rites of passage that attend senior year of high school — here observed in all its melodramatic crests and falls and seriocomic nuances. However, as the year progresses, the recurring appearances of certain students — a passionate cheerleader, a drumline leader embarking on early fatherhood, an academically superlative Mexican immigrant — gradually dissolve any apparent distance between filmmaker and subject and turn the film into a grand symphony of crisscrossing emotional arcs, all of them inextricably bound to the outcome of the treasured football season and the encroachment of graduation day and its associated real-life baggage.
As chroniclers of off-the-beaten-path America, Bresnan and Lucas share the intimate filmmaking practice and temporal immersion on display in the films of Roberto Minervini, with whom they are friendly, as well as some of the poetic inclinations in those of Carlos Reygadas, for whom they profess admiration. But they’ve also made a film that will theoretically appeal to anyone who has been through the life-shaping drama of high school, a degree of accessibility that marks it as something of a subversive document given the largely unstated but nevertheless deeply felt class dynamics of the county in which it’s set. I had a chance to sit down with both of them on the final day of this year’s fest, where we discussed the stereotypes that plague the Pahokee residents, the push-pull between vérité and formalism, and the tricky process of shaping a year’s worth of turbulent material.
Pahokee will be screening this weekend at Olhar de Cinema in Brazil and at the Oak Cliff Film Festival. Later in the month it will screen in Paris at the Champs d’Elysees Film Festival.
Filmmaker: Why Pahokee? What brought you there originally?
Bresnan: I first came to Southern Florida in about 1997. My mom had passed away and my dad was a New Yorker and he was looking to live somewhere warm. So, Florida became my second home. My family has been there for 20 years in Palm Beach County. I became very interested in the Everglades as a kid. I was a photographer, and I also did a lot of work for Habitat for Humanity. When I first went to the Everglades there were sections of Belle Glade and Pahokee where there was a lot of need for better housing. I worked on housing projects. I met Ivete in 2008 and we went to grad school and after we finished we really wanted to go back to rural America and work with communities. And so, I had some really good friends in Pahokee. I photographed their kids’ prom day and it was so stunning and elaborate that the next year we went back and made a short film about it. Also, a big thing that was happening in Southern Florida was that Trayvon Martin had been shot while we were in school. Because we had such deep relationships in Pahokee with families, we really felt as artists that we had to tell stories that reversed the stereotypes that were causing violence against kids.
Lucas: Patrick and I met when I was still living in Mexico. My mom was the first person in her family to go beyond second grade in school. She was from a farming community, so I could relate [to Pahokee] on many levels. Out of the rural America stories that we were telling, I felt like Pahokee was a place that was so misunderstood, and there are so many stereotypes in the coastal communities about it being really dangerous, and that’s all they knew about it. It’s just a very special community, so we made the first short about prom and that got into Sundance. By the time we decided to make a feature, we had made The Sendoff and had thought, “Well, we really needed to tell a bigger story about why this moment is so important, to graduate and go to prom.” Prom is so elaborate because it’s such an important culminating moment in town. And so, we wanted to make the feature and the community had already seen our work, so then we really had the trust and confidence of our friends in Pahokee.
Filmmaker: Did you know up front that you wanted to follow a group of characters and split attention between them? How did you find the arc?
Bresnan: We knew that the story had a beginning, middle and an end built into it. It was never gonna be a project where we recorded for three or four years. We knew that senior year was so charged because the kids wanted to get into college. You see in the film that for the kids who stay behind, there are a lot of things that can set their life back. The job opportunities are very minimal. A lot of the kids who didn’t go to college were working in the sugar cane fields, and that senior year was so important because that was your chance to get out of there whether it was through football or schoolwork. The consequences were enormous and it lent itself to a really powerful unfolding of a story. We didn’t wanna make a film that focused on tragic events. We wanted it to be a very positive and uplifting depiction.
Filmmaker: Do you guys have fond memories of high school? To what extent were you working from a place of nostalgia? Or was it more about observational detachment?
Bresnan: The film was not about detachment in the sense that we felt like this was a very powerful film to make for our country. Nobody could have predicted that this nationalism would occur and that people of color who had worked so hard for equal representation… that this new administration would set our country back so far. We really felt we needed to make this film as a counternarrative. This is the real narrative of our country. It’s not what’s being reported in politics and Fox News. I hated high school. I didn’t have many friends. People were really into sports. I was into music and film. I have no nostalgia for high school.
Lucas: I think the word detachment would probably apply to our high school years.
Filmmaker: Detachment isn’t necessarily the right word. But there is an emphasis on the rituals in a way that is often stripped of context. It feels like you’re defamiliarizing these American pastimes. We don’t always know the score in the football games. It’s more about fixating on the gestures and quirks of these kids, and at times removing the sentiment from them.
Lucas: We were very interested in rituals and what that meant for each person as they play a role in the community, and also those coming-of-age rituals of a kid becoming an adult. Everything is culminating there in senior year, especially in places like Pahokee where it’s all there is to do. So, we were much more interested in the relationships and the role-playing than in the scores of the football games. All we needed to know was that they won or that they lost and that there were very intense moments. We definitely didn’t want to show football the way that ESPN does.
Filmmaker: Are you guys football fans? Was that part of the interest?
Lucas: Maybe for Patrick.
Him: You know, I never went to a football game in high school. We went to the University of Texas and never went to a football game, but I was so into football in Pahokee. We recorded 14 games, maybe because we could sense how high the stakes were for the kids in the sense that they were playing for $100,000 scholarships and to rebuild the pride of their community. One of our main characters is a cheerleader and the games meant everything to her. She would leave school, work in a fish fry shop, go to cheerleading practice and then go back to the fish fry shop. Football gave so much more meaning to folks in the community who have been stripped of a lot agency over their life by the location of the town.
Filmmaker: It’s the gravitational center of the community.
Lucas: When I was in high school, things were not that serious. If there was a game it didn’t mean everything. These rituals were not as huge and if we messed up we had more chances. That was something important for us to show, how crucial things are when you have so many disadvantages, and from that how much creativity that brings when the whole community is invested.
Filmmaker: Can you guys talk about process? There are two shooting strategies in the film. Obviously the vérité, fly-on-the-wall approach, where you’re there holding the camera trying to capture whatever is most important in the moment. Then there are other scenes that are more presentational. There’s the symmetry of the homecoming ceremony and the cheerleading practice, for instance. How did you go about dictating how to approach a given scene?
Bresnan: I’m also a photographer. I see frames that shouldn’t be moving and sometimes those static shots allow us to understand the space because vérité is fast-moving and doesn’t set a context. These larger, wide-framed shots allow us a respite to take in the place because the film is very much about place. It’s not an environmental film per se but you can see the Everglades is constantly on fire. The kids’ surroundings are these sugar cane fields which mean everything to the town. The composed shots allow us to absorb and think about scenes that are very intense.
Lucas: I think the [Frederick] Wiseman reference has been used a lot to describe our work. I understand because this is our first feature and you need to figure out how to explain what you’re seeing. We’re definitely influenced by him and Les Blank and different people. But Wiseman is much more interested in systems and structures, and we love what is called direct cinema for its present-tense experiential quality. We believe that composed interviews break that connection sometimes.
Bresnan: We didn’t want to make a film that the kids in the film didn’t have agency over or was inaccessible. Wiseman films are very hard to access. They were $400 a film for years. You had to go to a fine art library. That’s changed and they’re now on Kanopy. But we wanted to make a film that a Republican who’s into football who knows nothing about a rural community of color can watch and say, “Wow, I didn’t know that my family and families of color in rural America have so much in common.” We wanted to make a film that kids from the community could watch and feel like “this is my story.” I’ve been to so many protests and over the last 10 years there’s been so much anger at treatment of youth of color, and I just felt as we got older that we had to make a film that was more subversive. If we made a film that people saw as divisive….
Lucas: They won’t even wanna watch it.
Bresnan: Yeah. So that was a real goal with this film, to make a film that could really sneak up on someone who may have a different political opinion than we do but through seeing real events unfold, can a person change? Can they evolve in the way they think about people who are different from them?
Lucas: Going back to the form of this film, we wanted it to feel immediate and present. Our shorts were all very observational. When we made the feature, we knew we needed to bring the kids’ voices into the mix. I didn’t want to interview or play their voices over footage, because it’s disassociating with the footage you’re watching.
Filmmaker: There’s no element of reflection on the events, which would happen if you had a narration perhaps.
Lucas: We knew that the kids were already shooting things with their phones and we felt like that was gonna be the most natural thing and we said to them, “Well if you wanna reflect on what’s going on, just do it.” They already have their own visual language in their phone. Everybody could collaborate with us in that way.
Filmmaker: So, there is an element of self-presentation for these kids. Throughout this process they’re thinking about how they want to craft their narrative and they’re relaying that to you. Did you find that affected them, to go through such an emotionally charged passage of life while reflecting on themselves and presenting that notion of selfhood back to the camera?
Bresnan: We were never in any of the students’ lives too much. We followed about six or seven kids and when you know your film has to be an hour and a half, you have to lose some amazing scenes and people. We would film really intensely with Jocabed and her taco shop and her family and then we would give her some space. We were never too present in the kids’ lives that they felt like it was reality television. We tried to balance filming with taking the kids out to dinner, taking the kids to West Palm Beach, to look at prom dresses, to see a museum.
Lucas: This type of filmmaking is as much about the times we have the camera on as the times we have the camera off. This film is made of the moments where the kids forgot that we were there and could let their guards down. That’s something I can do in the editing, is make sure the moments where they’re aware of us are out of the film.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about your editing process?
Lucas: We saw the school year as all these little rituals within a big one. When graduation was approaching, I was like, “I really hope it’s a great graduation because it’s gonna be the end.” Even when we were shooting, I was like, “If it’s just a standard graduation, I’m still gonna end it on this.” But then Jocabed gave this amazing speech and I was crying recording it and we had a strong ending. But there’s so much that happened that year. I’ve always been resistant to three-act structure and have always enjoyed more of a poetic approach. To me I’m crafting an emotional journey. I even make graphs to show where the emotion is going as I’m making an assembly. I look at it and think, “If this was a roller coaster, would it make sense?” It takes a while to get to that place. We had 300 hours and an enormous amount of football games. Then I organize by character and almost braid it together. We also looked at visual motifs and how they could talk to each other. There are all these layers of getting to where we ended up.
Filmmaker: Did you ever consider incorporating the wealthier communities around Pahokee into the film, the ones that receive and possibly promote the stereotypes you’re working against?
Bresnan: We have a movie called Skip Day that’s about the kids traveling across the county to the beach so that film really covers that area. There just wasn’t room for it here. There is such little interaction between white folks from the coast unless they’re teachers of the school. And a lot of that has to do with the news coverage of Pahokee and how segregation and gated communities affect people’s willingness to interact with folks who are different than they are. We didn’t want Donald Trump anywhere in the film even though the election was happening.