Sue Ding & Sarah Garrahan
When Sue Ding and Sarah Garrahan began shooting Passersby in March 2019, they were both relatively recent Los Angeles transplants who wanted to explore the city. A nonfiction city portrait without an imposed narrative arc, the film charts its course by the daily lives of its characters, with the camera branching off from one proximate encounter to another. “If this is all based on chance encounters, we shouldn’t be the ones that decide where it starts,” Garrahan explains of the duo’s thinking at the time—so, they outsourced the decision to a geographic coordinate randomizer and ended up downtown, where they walked around until they found the first person who seemed interesting, a man who worked in a clothing store by day and as a singer at a pupuseria by night.
The film proceeds in the same order as shooting did, following that initial character when he sends a package via UPS. At the store, a young woman dropping off a box becomes the second subject; she goes to the beach in Malibu, where, as she chills with her partner, they’re eyed by a middle-aged man sitting next to them, who then…. Inspired in part by Richard Linklater’s Slacker and Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, in part by the Situationist idea of dérive, Passersby captures seven subjects demonstrating LA’s diversity in their ages, ethnicities and neighborhoods. The visual style tends toward casually precise long shots, the editorial style letting each breathe without swelling to durational austerity.
Both filmmakers identify as doc directors and editors. Garrahan grew up in San Antonio and got into film because “I went to a public high school that had a magnet arts program. Honestly, I just thought the cinema kids were cool. They got to hang out in a basement, and I wanted to do that. That’s where I was introduced to documentary filmmaking. I was also becoming an activist at the time. I thought that I could marry those two interests together, and later discovered more creative documentary storytelling,” like Viktor Kossakovsky’s The Belovs, a formative film from graduate school. She started editing at that time because, she says, “I’ve always really liked it and realized that most people don’t. I saw it as a sustainable path in the industry.” Her subsequent CV includes work on Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera’s The Infiltrators and Jasmín Mara López’s Silent Beauty.
Ding grew up in upstate New York. “My entry point to filmmaking was visual art,” she says. “But I was always very omnivorous in my interests, so I eventually landed in documentary as a way to unite my interest in visual storytelling and an overarching curiosity about cultural construction.” Instead of going to film school, Ding learned “a lot of the fundamentals” while working on PBS projects in a producing capacity by “sitting in on edits or borrowing equipment from the equipment room on the weekend and learning how to shoot by myself.” After grad school, her interest in pop culture texts manifested in shorts like her 2022 essay film Makeover Movie, an examination of the “makeover” scene at the core of so many romantic comedies.
It’s a short on which Garrahan acted as a consulting editor. The two first met while standing in line at Sundance in 2016. When Garrahan pitched her the idea for Passersby, “it just immediately clicked” for Ding. “Having both worked in more industry or conventional documentary spaces, where the storytelling can be very predetermined, we were both really excited about the idea of working on something that was more open-ended, where we didn’t know what was going to happen and where we were taking some chances,” she said. “It was very random depending on the characters and did bear out some LA stereotypes of people not leaving their neighborhoods.” Shooting on weekends—primarily working as a trio with cinematographer Arlene Mejorado—production took two years, including a pause when the pandemic began (“There are more outdoor scenes in the last third of the film,” Ding laughs). The film has since screened at the SF Urban Film Festival and Shadow Kitchen in Los Angeles and is currently searching for additional festival and theatrical play. While solo projects are in their future, Passersby taught the pair that, as Garrahan sums up, “We work really well together and want to continue to make work together.”—Vadim Rizov/Image: self-portrait