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“How Do I Capture the Storytelling That is Quintessential to South America, and Marry It to the Experience of Living Here in Florida?”: Director Kevin Contento on His Vimeo Staff Pick, From Fish to Moon

From Fish to Moon

In The Conference of the Birds, the famous Persian epic written in 1177 by Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar, a group of birds gather and discuss their collective journey to meet their king, the Simurgh, a mythical winged creature. In this allegory for the human search for enlightenment and wisdom—despite our flaws—a sparrow cowers, hoping to avoid the quest altogether. “I do not wish to begin such a toilsome journey for something I can never reach…I shall be content to seek here my Joseph in the well,” she says, in one translation. “If I find him and draw him out, I shall soar with him from the fish to the moon.”

It is this scene from which filmmaker Kevin Contento draws the title for his short documentary, From Fish to Moon, which premiered at the 2023 Berlinale’s shorts program and is now available to stream as a Vimeo Staff Pick. Attar’s renowned text is an ongoing motif for Contento, a South Florida native who finds inspiration in his state’s birds—their interconnectedness with sky and sea, their potential for metaphors regarding the human condition. The text’s title is also the name of Contento’s 2021 feature-length film, which earned a Narrative Features Jury Award at the 2021 New Orleans Film Festival.

From Fish to Moon chronicles the early morning hours at Thriftway, a convenience store in Pahokee, Florida. They unfold quietly, with the sunrise. Shelves are stocked; coffee is brewed; deli meats emerge, shining and paper-thin, from the smooth whir of a slicer. The intergenerational staff engages in small talk before customers arrive. The shop, for Contento, represents a microcosm of life near the southern shoreline of Lake Okeechobee, a 730-mile body of water—the largest lake in the southeast U.S.—that feeds into the Everglades. Contento has spent the last nine years making the hour-long drive from his home in Pembroke Pines to Pahokee, first photographing the birds along the route, and then familiarizing himself with the town itself, its sugarcane fields and football stadiums.

After finishing graduate school at Columbia University, he wrote the script for The Conference of the Birds, which takes place in Pahokee, and cast a group of local kids he’d met in town—all of them first-time actors. From Fish to Moon has a rhythm not unlike a poem’s: a brief and potent glimpse of everyday mundanity and its unexpected beauty. In the short’s only scripted scene, shop employee Jean Voltaire steals a quiet moment to read Attar’s poetry, leaning over a meat cooler decorated with string lights. The moment was envisioned by Contento with Voltaire, who became a friend and collaborator after appearing in The Conference of the Birds, for which From Fish to Moon is a kind of epilogue. Much of his cast has grown up, moved away, or, like Contento himself, become parents. His next film, a feature documentary, entitled The Moths and the Flame—also pulled from Attar’s text—is, he says, “a mosaic of different fathers in Pahokee.” Contento and I discussed his process for From Fish to Moon, the significance of poetry in his work, and storytelling. Watch the short film below.

Kevin Contento: Long before I made From Fish to Moon, I was out of undergrad, trying to find stories and playing around with photography. I was really interested in birds, and I was taking the long drive along US 27 North and photographing all the birds I saw along the way. If you take US 27 North far enough, you hit the sugarcane fields on the southern part of Lake Okeechobee. I got to know the place and the people there, and I made connections with the folks you’ve seen in the films, like Jean, Boleg, Roy, Carter. In Pahokee, there aren’t many convenience stores. Over the years, the Thriftway stood out because it’s this juxtaposition—a deli-butchery-convenience-store with a mini-supermarket and slot machines. It’s one of those mom-and-pop community spaces that you don’t see everywhere anymore; Miami has them, too. Boleg got a job there one summer, and then he got Jean a job there. I was like, “This might finally be the chance to shoot there.”

Filmmaker: You were making this commute to Pahokee for several years, right?

Contento: Right. It started in 2014. There was a break when I went to New York for grad school and didn’t come back until late 2018. We shot the film over three days during a three-week period in November 2021. Thriftway opens at 5:00 AM. I’ve done the drive so many times that I know it takes almost exactly 52 minutes to get there. I’d show up before they open, hang out with Jean in the front, and then shoot for an hour or two and be back by 7:00. My wife was pregnant at the time and this was before she’d wake up. It was the perfect thing to do in the wee hours of the day.

Filmmaker: Jean, who is the center of From Fish to Moon, was part of the production process for both his film and your feature film, The Conference of the Birds.

Contento: I couldn’t have done it without him. I think the film works because of his presence. Because it was also his place of employment, he was at work, either mingling with a customer or a co-worker and saying, “Kevin wants to shoot this. Can you let us do this?” It was important to have his validation throughout—which, at the end of the day, is a big part of what a producer does. He produced this.

Filmmaker: The titles of both films are drawn from Attar’s The Conference of the Birds. Jean is seen reading poetry in the film. Can you tell me more about that?

Contento: I was studying a lot of religious, symbolic texts when The Conference of the Birds came into my life. I was also interested in birds and their imagery. I was blown away. If you want to talk about birds and their symbolic meaning, there’s an entire twelfth-century Persian text dedicated to that. It’s an important, beautiful, culturally significant poem that I feel lends itself to a lot of interpretation. When I was reading it, I thought of Florida. It made me think of home.

While I was exploring Pahokee, I kept thinking: There’s something about what I’m reading that’s influencing what I’m seeing. How do I blend the two? It’s a source of inspiration that I try to include in everything. I thought about the experience of menial jobs, where you’re finding ways to kill time. Reading creates a break in your surroundings, reminding you of the poetic nature of what you’re already looking at. This specific poem does a great job of giving us that sense of something else in that setting.

Filmmaker: And though From Fish to Moon is a short documentary, the moments in which Jean reads the poem are scripted, a creative choice on your part—or maybe it came from your collaborative process together?

Contento: The poetry has become a throughline and motif in my work with Jean—in The Conference of the Birds [the film], everyone reads or recites poetry at some point. I like these poems; I like hearing them in their voices. They bring them to life in a way that’s far better than how I envisioned it on the page. When Jean reads the poems in From Fish to Moon, it’s a performance. It’s part of our collaborative language as creatives. Jean is an excellent actor and producer—when he speaks with Sue while she’s making her coffee [in an unscripted scene], the conversation is effortless, because he knows what to say and how to make the other person forget that they’re being filmed.

Filmmaker: How did you and Jean and your other collaborators meet?

Contento: I was finishing grad school, and had written a short screenplay involving Florida and the sugarcane fields. It required a cast of three teenagers, and in school we learned that you put out a casting call, you reach out to agents, you reach out to local theater groups. I was coming from New York, where you can throw a spoon anywhere and hit an actor. But I felt what would make the story really come alive is including people who call that place home. I was already often in Pahokee after meeting Malik, a long-term friend who’s been in several projects. I met more people through him, and at the gas station, the grocery store, the football stadium.

Pahokee is a football town, and I went to the stadium during one of their huge events. There was a group of kids there and I asked them, “I have no idea if this is interesting to you, but would you want to be in a short film?” I got some names and numbers, and the selection process was very quick; Jean was one of the three. I spoke to him one-on-one, met his mom, and we all spent time together with the rest of the cast. Jean is 22 now. He knows my daughter and wife; we talk a few times a week. Over the years, it really grew into a friendship and collaboration.

Filmmaker: Tell me about your background in filmmaking. You often bring your stories to life both collaboratively and intuitively.

Contento: I loved a lot of comedies and movies growing up. As a kid, you absorb and consume so much content. It’s a really good way of building a personality and a sense of what you like—watching movies, watching television shows. But I think there’s also an innate understanding of storytelling that I only discovered later, when I was in college. My family is from Colombia, and there’s this understanding of storytelling as a way of life in South America—Colombia in particular—that is so essential. The stories don’t even have to be dramatic. Most of them are funny and can be told in three sentences. [Growing up,] I felt blown away by that level of communication; I wanted to mesh together the worlds of what I was seeing and hearing. I think that’s always been my goal: How do I capture the storytelling that is quintessential to South America, and marry it to the experience of living here in Florida?

That was the theoretical, beautiful beginning. Speaking more technically, I was just picking up a camera, shooting stuff with friends, shooting family things with home recorders, using Windows Movie Maker on a family computer and learning to edit with whatever was available online—figuring out the magic behind editing. I cut my teeth as a freelance videographer. With time, you get more experience, you do it more often, you meet more people, and it funnels into becoming the person and filmmaker that you are.

Filmmaker: From this storytelling perspective—so part of your upbringing, your ancestry—what were you looking for while filming at Thriftway? How did you structure the story or allow it to unfold?

Contento: The story’s foundations were poetry and Jean: We’re going to read poetry in this space, and the camera’s going to follow Jean. I felt that with those two guiding principles, everything else would figure itself out. It’s a documentary, so there was a cinema verite approach of trying to be as hands-off as possible and letting the moments come to life. Shooting without any crew, I didn’t want to complicate things. I had to set up the camera and let it roll, moving around very consciously. I was going to lose myself and any chance of crafting a visual story if I ran around trying to catch things.

I also knew that the audio would sometimes reveal details that you might not see visually—the lavaliers were recording people talking as I captured details like labels, canned goods, reflections. In the editing room, it was a process of listening to these hours of recording, and structuring a series of events that could flow together over time. We see Jean waiting to get in. We have Sue prepping her coffee and talking about the peanut guy, which I thought was so funny and fascinating. We have Jean doing a little bit of work and reading poetry. We drift away, and now we’re with the meat guy. Greg, the air conditioning guy, was so nice, and I just loved his voice. There’s a moment where he pauses, and I’m behind the camera rolling my fingers saying, “Keep going, Greg. Keep talking.” It became about capturing these little moments and realizing that if I could only capture them in one way or the other—even just the audio—that would be okay.

Filmmaker: The store has since changed ownership and some of the actors you worked with have moved away from Pahokee, so with this film and The Conference of the Birds, you’ve essentially created a time capsule.

Contento: The Conference of the Birds has many elements of a documentary, but we took a fantastical approach, and it’s mythical and fun in that way. And I’m really proud of that work because I’d just met Jean and Boleg and we all wanted to keep hanging out and shooting and creating something. We embarked on this journey to make a feature film with less than $10,000, and most of that was spent on post-production. It was one of those rare moments. You have the energy and momentum, and you just hope it works out. It’s a blessing. Roy moved to upstate New York; Carter has long graduated high school; Boleg was in West Palm Beach for a welding program; I’m married with two babies. The Moths and the Flame will be a time capsule, too. Malik is a father of two, and Boleg became a father in January. It’s an awesome and crazy transition of life that I’ve gone through myself, and it felt like the right thing to make a project about.

From Fish to Moon from Kevin Contento on Vimeo.

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