- Director: Kevin Pontuti
- Origin: USA
- Year: 2016
- Runtime: 7 min
- Colour: colour
- Language: no dialogue
About this film
A woman drags something through the woods. She struggles, but she persists, slowly making her way through the depth of the forest that envelops her. What she drags behind, what she carries, no one knows. Filmmaker Kevin Pontuti keeps this secret in the dark for a long time, appealing to the questioning mind of the viewer. In simple, but very effective images, Onere explores the role and the importance of our identity, about how we embrace it or how we don’t, and the ways in which we struggle to carry the weight of ourselves.
Nadin Mai (tao films)
Interview with the Director
- First of all, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer a couple of questions. I know that you’re busy moving houses. Congratulations again on your new job. Can you tell me a little bit about your trajectory into filmmaking?
Thank you Nadin. My background is originally in studio / fine art. I studied drawing, painting, sculpture and photography while at the university. I did have friends in the film program (Syracuse University) and attended many of the screenings and visiting artist lectures but focused mostly on sculptural installations and drawing for my thesis exhibition. After graduating from the university my studio practice revolved primarily around drawing and photography. Along the way I worked professionally as a colorist, retoucher and photographic printer. It wasn’t until about 15 years later that I began to focus on filmmaking and time-based media.
- One could say that Onere is a simple film. It shows little else but a woman dragging something heavy through the woods. But the ending puts everything into perspective. This story that had seemed so simple at first is a deep-felt message to and about ourselves. I would like to know, first, how you got the idea and, second, how did you go about finding the right aesthetics for it?
I do most of my brainstorming though a drawing practice that is a mix of storyboarding combined with outlining and mind-mapping. It’s an organic process that I’ve used for a long time that is somewhat intuitive and meditative. As I work, I fill tables up with drawings, note card and reference images as I start to build and refine ideas and structure compositions visually. I often have multiple ideas / sequences developing concurrently and they sometimes cross pollinate. In most cases I’ll write a script too, mainly to help the actors and coordinate the production but usually it happens after the idea has been explored and developed visually.
More specifically and to speak about the beginning of Onere: I had been working on a feature-length project (a period fiction) and one of the scenes portrays a woman dragging a body, someone she had killed, for a long distance through the night. As I was thinking about the scene, I became convinced that she would view this as a necessary penance or atonement for the sin she had committed. Given the distance it would seem like an eternity to her.
A few months after I had finished the feature script, I was invited to Italy for an artist residency to produce a short film and conduct research. I had a few months to prepare and began working on ideas for short films that I could shoot there. Since I hadn’t been to Italy before, or worked with the producer that was facilitating the trip, I decided to develop a series of vignettes that I could choose from and then adapt if necessary, when we arrived. I had kept one of the drawings on my desk and, overtime, I started thinking about adjusting that scene (of the body dragging) into its own short film as well as considering other ideas as options.
As I worked on developing this particular short, I decided I wanted to refocus the the idea into a self-reflective film so I started fresh with a series of new drawings and storyboards around the idea of internal conflicts, burdens and self-acceptance.
About a month before the residency I decided I wanted to shoot Onere in the U.S. before heading to Europe. This was primarily a creative decision—there was a foreboding canyon near where I lived that I thought would be a good setting. It was also a pragmatic decision too—a way to prepare for shooting in Italy, get comfortable with new equipment, as well as work with our actress Alexandra Loreth, whom we were bringing with us. We also hadn’t shot anything for a while so I wanted to get our camera team dialed back in, Ed Jakober and Peter Galante both did a wonderful job with the cinematography. In fact the whole team did a great job, especially given the cold and wet weather.
In terms of developing the aesthetics and imagery, I like to take photographs and draw or digitally paint over them as concept art. These concept paintings help me establish the color palette and tone for the film and help me pre-visualize and test camera angles. All in all, it's a pretty long development process but it makes the filming and post production go smoother and ultimately it produces a better film.
- Do you decide about the aesthetics of a film, or it is, in fact, the film narrative that guides you in your decision?
That’s a really good question and I think the answer depends on each project. In general, I think the aesthetics drive the decision making, however, I’m balancing that with narrative considerations too. In this film I think the narrative is brought forward as well. I was having a discussion with a few filmmakers and a critic at a festival recently, and a question came up as to whether I considered Onere (or my other films) to be “experimental” to which I responded that I don’t really consider them experimental.
One aesthetic decision that I do stand by is I always attempt to leave room for the viewer to help complete the narrative or the meaning of the film (artwork). I’m probably more interested in poetry rather than narrative.
- It’s lovely to see that your film is very successful. It’s being shown at several festival and wins awards on top of its continuous travel. I’m particularly happy about this because it’s really easy to say about Onere that there’s nothing of importance happening. That is, if you only read the surface of the film, the so-called first image. To me, the success shows that the viewer is looking beyond this first image. What do you personally think, why is Onere such a “hit”?
Thank you, it's been wonderful that Onere has received positive attention and has brought us to places and festivals that we might not have visited. It’s worth noting that there are plenty of festivals that did not program the film so it’s definitely not universally accepted. That said, we’ve been very fortunate.
I think the key to its success is that Onere is a unique and very thoughtful film. It was thoughtfully researched, conceived and strives to address meaningful questions. Our actress gives a very authentic performance. The cinematography and design is very beautiful and the sound is strange and immersive—especially on a large screen in a theatrical setting. The minimalistic approach and the slow pacing gives the viewer time to think and the space to help complete the meaning of the film. I think all of these contribute to the success of the film.
Along with many filmmakers, I am starting to formulate theories and strategies about festival programming. I think a big part of festival success is doing the research on what different festivals are interested in and focusing our energy to support the festivals that seem complimentary to the sorts of films we’re making. It’s as important to support and grow festivals and independent programs as it is to support filmmakers. So I see this as a two-way street and I think festivals enjoy the energy, efforts and partnership that we bring to the events.
- Onere is part of a series. Can you tell me more about the series and how Onere fits into this?
Onere is the first film in a project we’re producing under the project title “The Poetry of Penance”. Each short is a vignette, or canto as I’m referring to them. Most, but not all of them, feature the same character and use magical realism to explore similar themes.
Initially, I had imagined creating a series of short vignettes to explore the backstory of one of the characters from a feature project that I’m developing. However, during the ideation and development process, I decided to shift the short films into a different direction. They are still loosely related to the feature but not directly.
We’ve produced three of the films so far. The second short, Pescare, has been traveling around to festivals and having good success. We’re just finishing the third short, Vanita, which is almost complete.
Additionally, I have three to four more shorts I plan to produce over the next two years that relate to this project. Two are ready to shoot and two more are still being revised in development.
In the future I may package some of them together (possibly two triptychs) but for now I’m focusing on each separately. I really enjoy the process of creating the short films. In some ways they remind me of drawings, where I can be pretty free with ideas, but I’m also finding that, the shorter the film, the stronger the gesture needs to be.
Along with the films, we’re also producing a book for each of the films and a few large exhibition photographs. We just finished the designs for the first two books and sent them for proofing. Each book features an essay, the original drawings and prints from the project.
- I’m sure that your plan for now is to settle in your new home. But do you also have plans for a new film?
Yes, as I mentioned before, I have a few more short films planned and I’m continuing to develop a feature, “The Burning Branches”, which I’d like to produce in the next few years. The feature project, which takes place loosely in the European middle ages, is the story of an ageing pagan sculptor, with witch-like powers who seduces a prince by killing and impersonating his young mistress. The project has been moving along and we’ve shot two short teasers as proof of concept and to help with fundraising.
All that said, I’m excited to move back to northern California. I think it will bring many other opportunities and a fresh influx of capabilities.
- Many thanks for this interview.