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“How Could One Document the Unseen?”: Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck on Their Haunted Cinema Eye Honors-Nominated Short, The Last Days of August

In their latest short film, The Last Days of August, which depicts the slow-motion desolation of a Nebraska town economically denuded by online retail, prolific filmmakers Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck create a haunted visual poetry — a blend of formally arresting, incisively spare images and heightened sound design. The two filmmakers, who appeared on our 25 New Faces list in 2010, began as shorts filmmakers and in recent years have directed arresting character-based, documentary-tinged features (God Bless the Child, When She Runs, and, for Machoian solo, The Killing of Two Lovers and The Integrity of Joseph Chambers). But throughout their twined careers, the two have continually revisited the short film form. Recently nominated by the 2023 Cinema Eye Honors in the Outstanding Documentary Short category, The Last Days of August, now a Vimeo Pick of the Week and posted above, is something of a pandemic reclamation project, with the filmmakers revisiting footage originally intended to be part of a longer feature. As they discuss below, they found within their economy of images an allusive way of capturing not only the physical spaces but the psychological ones that are left behind when the bustle of commerce moves on.

Filmmaker: I could have watched your images of abandoned Nebraska prairie towns all afternoon, but the short is a brisk 13 minutes. Was a short the original format you thought of for this work? What were the processes, including the amount of footage you shot, that led to the current edit?

Machoian and Ojeda-Beck: Our idea was to approach the film the way our favorite photographers approach shooting a photo book, spending time on the road responding to the things we came across rather than having any specific ideas in mind about what the final product would be. We wanted to try to make the film without intentions, allowing its direction to be guided by what we found along the way. We loaded our equipment into a van and drove to Nebraska. Over the next ten days the conversations between us and with the people we met started to guide our creative process.

We did initially intend to shoot a feature, but due to COVID we were unable to return to Nebraska to shoot more after the initial trip. After sitting on the footage for over a year, we decided to see what film already existed in the 12 hours we had.

It’s hard to describe the editing process. We tried to carry the open approach we used while shooting, seeing what arose as we worked. We were making connections between our favorite moments in interviews and images, but instead of making those connections explicit, we played with creating echoes or rhymes between what is said and what is seen.

Filmmaker: How did you land on the specific town(s) and subjects you feature in the film?

Machoian and Ojeda-Beck: Robert spent a couple years living in Nebraska when he was younger, and he commented at one point about the density of small communities in the state and the culture.  As we drove from Utah to Nebraska, we talked about the anxiety of going to an unknown place thinking you are going to make a movie, and not knowing how you will be received.

When we got to Nebraska, the first town we stopped in was Kimball. We went to a café for lunch, and even though we were the only people in there, we still felt like outsiders. After a while, a man walked in, and he kept looking at us. He came over and struck up a conversation, and it turns out that not only is he an alchemist, he is also a real film buff – he loves Andrei Tarkovsky and organized screenings for Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon. Nothing like talking about cinema to put you at ease! John became our first interview subject and is one of the last people in the film. From that point on, we felt comfortable asking people for interviews and filming what stood out to us.

Filmmaker: In your directors’ notes, you describe the film as having the aesthetic of a photo book, and you discuss particular inspirations, including Susan Meislas and her “Carnival Strippers.” I also thought of the work of William Eggleston, particularly in reference to the shots without people in which the focus is on the play of light or a particular color texture. Could you discuss these subject-less, if you will, shots, and the role you wanted them to play in the film? And as well the film’s color correction, which is exquisite — artful without being so beautiful as to throw you out of the short.

Machoian and Ojeda-Beck: Although Eggleston wasn’t a primary reference for this film, his work continues to influence us. The way we see beauty in everyday things is definitely informed by his photographs. A shot that comes to mind is circles of sunlight dancing across the ceiling in a café, reflecting off of cups on the counter. We wanted to convey in this film the quotidian beauty of these changing prairie towns. Another role of the person-less shots is to move people to reflect on what remains after something passes, whether that is a train, a storm, or a town.

Regarding the color, our good friend J. Cody Baker has colored all of our films and we consider him another key collaborator on our work. The way Cody sees and talks about color is just brilliant. On this film, we gave him a few references and from there he just ran with it. As you said, he did a beautiful job and definitely elevated the film.

Filmmaker: Sound design is important here, with left-to-right audio pans of cars or trains going by often pulling you from one shot to another, or specific ambiences that highlight one sound effect, such as the sound of the flag being lowered. Could you discuss the sound design and how you wanted sound to function in relation to the viewer?

Machoian and Ojeda-Beck: Sound design is very important for us. Over the course of our body of work, we have developed an approach of using sound to guide the eye. We use sound to emphasize specific parts of a shot, making something visible that might otherwise be overlooked.

This film also explores using sound to accomplish the opposite. One day as we were shooting a blighted store, a police officer stopped and asked us if we were filming ghosts. The question made us wonder, how could one document the unseen? A lot of the film uses sound to create the expectation of seeing a figure, but visually the frame remains empty. We hear footsteps but see no one. People sometimes talk about sound functioning like a character; in this film it was fun to make that literal.

Filmmaker: Finally, could you discuss the continuing role of the short film within your overall practices — why you continue to return to the form, as well as both the challenges and opportunities shorts provide in the current exhibition and streaming landscape?

Machoian and Ojeda-Beck: Though film is an audio-visual medium, it tends to become voco-centric. In feature films, it is easy to rely on language to make a point, because you have the run time to work with. When you make a short, you need to economize by speaking visually, which allows you to say more in that short amount of time. Because of this, making a short film forces you to be poetic – to create emotions rather than explain them. We strive to bring that approach into our feature-length films, and it is helpful to have that practice from working on shorts.

Additionally, you can produce a variety of shorts with the same time and resources that you would use to produce a feature. Because of that, you can also be more daring in trying out new styles or addressing new subject matter. Some of our favorite filmmakers’ bodies of work are entirely short films.

 

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