This past Friday evening, I had the privilege to see two works by Richmond Filmmaker and VCU Photography and Film alum, David Williams. This was an experience that I had waited six years for! I have known David since enrolling in VCUarts MFA Photography and Film program. At that time David was teaching and I was lucky enough to have him as the chair of my thesis committee. David’s unique style of combining real people and places with dramatic structure was also a technique that I was attempting in my thesis film Nunna Mia e la Barca (a film about my grandmother’s experience of enduring the sinking of the Andrea Doria.) The feedback and inspiration David gave me while working on my piece was pivotal in my maturing as a filmmaker. His charming, modest, and gentle personality are very much a part of his films.
Dreams in the Night (short, 1983) captures the timeless quality of Richmond’s historic Shockoe Bottom district and the back of the Main Street Train Station with an ethereal quality. An African American character moves in and out of the interior of his home and then through the streets of Richmond. His figure is often fragmented in the frame – the viewer sees a portion of his arm or hand against the backdrop of the tracks and the downtown skyline. The close textures of hands and the way the back lighting shades the man’s eyes and facial features seem to suggest there are different versions of himself. The man proceeds to observe a well-dressed white man and woman conversing. He changes from casual clothes to a shirt and tie as if to fit into a more gentrified society. One feels the themes of class and race being handled delicately as the man seeks to find his identity and perhaps begin a relationship with the Caucasian woman. In a Maya Deren fashion, this beautifully shot 16mm black and white film lets the viewer make connections and create new associations with symbols and space. The electronic synthesizer used to create the soundscape adds to the overall free floating feeling of the piece.
Thirteen (feature, 1998) begins with a celebration of Nina’s thirteenth birthday and follows one year of her life. Nina plays herself as the daughter of Lillian Folley. Lilian reprises the role of herself too – a mother and caregiver to the sick and elderly from David’s earlier feature film Lillian (Lillian was on Roger Ebert’s list of top ten films of 1993). David’s camera follows Nina as she embarks on a journey of adulthood – she runs away and lives on her own only discover that she misses Lillian. When she returns home Nina becomes inspired to get a job and save up money to buy a car. Although we follow one year of her life, Nina learns so many lessons from her jobs and the adults who help her along the way. Some moments overflow with perfect sincerity and humor – such as when Nina poses for the family’s artist friend. Nina proceeds to negotiate $4.00 an hour for her modeling services – especially since she has to stand. Another scene that exudes charm and insight is when Lillian and two other women discuss love, marriage, and God. One woman who has been married for over forty years assures the others that a marriage is hard to maintain but can be done. Lillian emphasizes the spiritual component and how God’s relationship is the key to a successful marriage. In the post screening discussion, David mentioned how real this conversation was and how his camera was able to film so many unscripted and sensitive moments. No other filmmaker has captured this beautiful blending of documentary and drama. David Williams elaborates and fully realizes the potential of true docudramatic form. David’s collaboration with the characters and actors alike is honest, tender, and respectful. One can feel David’s connection to Nina and Lilian in the genuine improvisation that occurs throughout the feature. The film overflows with moments that make the viewer open up to the situations enfolding on the screen. In the end, we return to Nina’s love of Lilian as Nina searches through the house to find her mother who she thinks is lost. Nina discovers Lillian in Lillian’s bedroom folding clothes in the sunlight. Nina whispers and Lillian’s voice-over recounts this moment when Nina discovers how love of family continues beyond death. Nina knows how to live without Lillian’s physical presence.
I really wanted to see David Williams’ films several years ago, but am so glad that I waited for this newly remastered DVD to be screened at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts brilliant Leslie Cheek Theatre. Dreams in the Night and Thirteen were both shot in 16mm and the quality of the transfer and the projection really made the subtlety and details of David’s piece emotionally register. The organic qualities of the 16mm film texturally enhance the unpretentious relationships in the film. Natural lighting by Williams emphasizes closeness and invites the viewer into Nina and Lillian’s life. If the DVD can look this good, I can only imagine how brilliant the film prints are. Thank you David for sharing yourself and this genuine body of work with our community. I cannot wait to experience Lillian!
The films of David Williams have recently been released by Doriane Films, a French distribution company, and can be purchased from the James River Film Society during the festival. Please do not miss out on this wonderful opportunity to see brilliant cinematic art!