SXSW FILM 2012
By Don Simpson | March 20, 2012
Wolf works incredibly well because writer-director Ya’Ke Smith grounds the film firmly in reality, fully fleshing out his characters and never over-dramatizing their actions. (Smith certainly could not have done this without Jordan Cooper, Shelton Jolivette, Mikala Gibson, Irma P. Hall and Eugene Lee’s awe-inspiring performances.) The unbridled realism is what gives Wolf its gut-wrenching power. Wolf is definitely not an easy (or enjoyable) film to watch, but it is a film that truly deserves to be watched by everyone. Wolf is an emotionally challenging film that is sure to prompt deep philosophical discussions about power, corruption, religion and society. Is that not the purpose of art? To challenge us. To make us think. To make us react. (Read more of our SXSW 2012 review of Wolf.)
Smells Like Screen Spirit sat down with Ya’Ke Smith — a San Antonio native who now resides in Dallas — during SXSW 2012 for a conversation about the many subjects that come to light after experiencing Wolf…
Don Simpson: How do you expect the religious community — especially Christians — to react to Wolf?
Ya’Ke Smith: I think there will be some who will feel like I am criticizing the church or think that I am saying that all churches are bad or this kind of thing happens because you’re a blind Christian. And I think there will be some who can look past that and see my true intention. I am not saying that all churches are bad, what I am saying is that there are things in Christianity that we need to change. Christianity at its core is supposed to be about love, about truth, about forgiveness; it is not supposed to be about hiding things. I think sometimes we have a tendency to do that. There will be Christians who will say, you know what, we need this because we need to talk about this subject; we can’t sweep it under the rug any more. We can’t continue to turn our heads, because if we do that — one, we are not acting out of true Christian love; and, two, this will continue to happen. We will basically just destroy ourselves because we are not actually acting out the beliefs we are supposed to believe in.
DS: You mention forgiveness — that is a big factor in Wolf. Sometimes spiritual forgiveness and love are not enough. There are situations when treatment is required, such as with pedophiles. Many religions are incapable of handing pedophiles because they are so used to just doing penance or asking for forgiveness, hoping that the evil will just go away.
YS: There’s a line in Wolf that Bishop Anderson (Eugene Lee) says, “My scars are too deep for even God to heal” and Jaymund (Shelton Jolivette) responds “I thought you said that God could heal anything” and Bishop Anderson says “Only the things that you can forgive yourself for.” I think there is a difference between me forgiving you and you digging deep inside yourself, forgiving yourself and understanding that after you forgive yourself for whatever it is that you did, you need to go out and get help for whatever it is. It is like a drug addict. If you are a drug addict, you forgiving yourself is not going to help. You have to forgive yourself, you have to look at yourself, you have to admit that you were wrong, and you have to figure out what steps you need to take to change that behavior. God forgives us, but we then need to work it out; we have to find the treatment, we have to continue to heal ourselves. Just because you forgive me or I forgive myself that does not mean anything if I am not willing to take the steps to stop whatever it was that I was doing.
DS: A lot of people treat religion very superficially. They go to church. They say things like “forgiveness” and “love,” but they don’t actually mean it.
YS: Exactly. That’s what I’m getting at. I can stand up and confess that I did something, but that is really just for you, probably — to make you feel better about whatever it is that I did. It does not mean that I actually believe it. It is not until I believe it that I can be healed. We, as Christians, are so critical; we only do this because its part of our culture. We grew up in the church and we are just going through the motions. We don’t really believe what we are supposed to believe in. I hope a film like Wolf can open up that dialog. Don’t get me wrong — the film is about pedophilia — but it is also about church cover up and betrayal, and the idea that we are worshiping a man and not the God that the man represents. I would hope that in Wolf people will be able to see all of those things and we can start our conversations on so many different levels.
DS: Exactly. The power that is in the priest, minister or preacher’s hands — they can be so manipulative, especially over the young members of the congregation; they can use that for good, but also evil.
YS: When you join a church, you assume that the preacher has your best interests in mind. He is supposed to pray with you, counsel you — do all of those things. You don’t ever want to think that he can use that influence that he has over you to harm you. Not all preachers do that, there are great preachers. They use their influence for love and to influence you to help change your life, I have been to those churches; but then there are others that use that influence to manipulate people. That is where it all goes wrong. When one preacher does it, then everyone assumes that all preachers are bad, and that all preachers are trying to manipulate us. The good ones don’t get the press, it is the bad ones who do.
DS: That could be one possible criticism of Wolf — is that it lacks a positive portrayal of a preacher.
YS: That would have been difficult to do, but that is my attempt at the end of Wolf — to show that there are good ministers out there. I know that it is such a small part of this film, but that was my way of saying that they went through this hell but they came in and they found a church and a minister that is good. Trying to go too deep into it would have clouded and muddied the story.
DS: You mentioned during your Q&A for Wolf that pedophilia is typically linked with white churches even though it exists in black churches as well, why do you think that is?
YS: In the black community as a whole, we equate pedophilia — especially when it is a man victimizing a boy — with homosexuality; and homosexuality is such a taboo thing in the African-American community that we don’t want to believe that our preachers could actually be gay, we don’t want to believe that this is happening. These two things are not the same exact thing. I loved when Jim stood up during the Q&A and pointed out that pedophilia and homosexuality are two completely different things. There was a review that came out that compared us to a film that was about a homosexual teen — it didn’t bother me, but that is not what Wolf is about. It is about so much more than that.
Most men are not going to admit that this happened to them. My wife’s father is a counselor, and he deals with a lot of black men who have been sexually abused and it takes so much time and energy to get through to them because they cannot admit that it actually happened to them.
My research shows that pedophilia happens just as much in black churches as it does in any church. I found chat rooms exclusively for certain African-American church denominations for people who have been molested and/or abused in their churches. In those chat rooms they say “We want to pretend that this is not happening, but it is happening and we need to talk about it.”
DS: While on the subject of denial… I find it very interesting that Nona (Mikala Gibson) is studying psychology in college, yet it is still very difficult for Nona and Jaymund to accept that Carl (Jordan Cooper) needs therapy and treatment.
YS: It is interesting that psychiatrists can treat everyone else; but when it hits home, they can’t deal with it because its too close, even if they see all of the signs. Nona sees some of the signs. She sees that Carl is distant. She sees that he has shut himself off from the world; that he isn’t eating. She just couldn’t admit it to herself. Again it’s like “Oh, he’s okay. We are good parents. That’s not happening. There’s nothing wrong.” It isn’t until she must face it, that she finally admits it. That was very purposeful on my part because we have that tendency that we can help everybody else but when it comes to us we can’t help ourselves because we don’t want to admit that we have a problem.
DS: Wolf has a striking visual sensibility, can you talk about your approach to the visual aspects of this film?
YS: Yuta [Yamaguchi] who shot it was a former student of mine. He shot my short Katrina’s Son as well.
When I write I am already thinking visually about how I want to shoot it, what sort of compositions I want, what themes am I going to be pushing through, not only with the screenplay but with the camera. How can the camera help further those things? When Yuta and I sat down to talk about Wolf, we talked about three things. First was the idea of reflections. The idea that these people are always having to look at themselves. Next was the voyeuristic point of view. The camera is behind doors or looking through windows to give you the idea that someone or something is watching. Something is ready to jump out at any moment but we don’t know what thing is. Also, the color palate. The idea that Carl would wear red in the dreams; there are red apples on the table, red accents in the house, and certain people would have red clothing on. The idea of blood, the idea of water. We spent a lot of time talking about it.
The way Yuta and I work is that we either watch films together or we tell each other to watch movies. Then, we just start taking screen grabs and email each other back and forth. Before you know it, on my iPad we have like 90 pictures — I want you to frame it just like this, or these are the colors I want to use. We spent a lot of time with that. After we hashed all of that out, then we brought in the art director (Nicco Vasquez) and costume designer (Janice Janacek) and we all sat down. We spent a lot of time talking about the visuals from a very thematic point of view.
As a filmmaker I hate lights. I know that sounds weird. But I like gritty — as real as it can be. Yuta and I go back and forth because he likes more of a traditional style or aesthetic and I like a gritty style. We are on two sides of the spectrum, but as we are talking we figure out ways to bring those two styles together. We create this weird new thing. I love working with that guy.
DS: Were the dream sequences always part of this film?
YS: The dream sequences were not originally in the woods; they were in the church. When we started shooting, it just wasn’t working. So I went back to my hotel room and I thought it might be interesting to get him in the woods. He is running from this unseen force, this thing that is chasing him. Get him into the woods. We’ll get the nice greenery, get him in that red shirt; there are more things for him to run around, more things to shoot around. Of course people think of Red Riding Hood running from the wolf, you know? Also, in Carl’s mind, he’s confused. He doesn’t know where he is. When I started editing the film, I only had the dream sequence in the very beginning. I had a screening and people thought the woods sequence was good, but they wanted to see it more. So I started finding those moments in the film when Carl was just thinking. Carl is trying to fight this thing, but he is stuck. He is always trying to get out, but he’s stuck. That is why at the end you have to see him walk out — he walks through the woods and walks out, symbolizing that he is leaving that space, but this is still going to live with him for the rest of his life.
DS: How does being a lecturer at UT Arlington benefit your career as a filmmaker?
YS: The university has been so supportive of my work. UT Arlington — anything that I need, they are going to figure out a way to make sure that I have it. I had so many students intern on Wolf. The first and second AC’s were my students; Yuta used to be a student of mine. The University has allowed me to use my students and I love that because I feel like my set is an extension of my classroom. I can stand in front of you and lecture all day, but it is not until you actually see me in action and I give you the opportunity to get your hands on set, that you will learn.
Quite honestly, it is difficult to balance. I have to leave SXSW tomorrow because I have to get to Dallas because my students are shooting. It can be a difficult balance because I want to make sure that I am supporting their work, reading their scripts and giving them notes, helping them with their shot lists and their visual design, as well as editing my film all night long. When we first wrapped Wolf, I was awake 20 hours a day. I would teach all day and edit all night.
But teaching is something that I always want to do. It helps me to decompress and get out of the film world. My students give me ideas. I learn a lot from them. I have some really savvy students. They challenge me just like I challenge them. It is a great relationship. I am going to teach for the rest of my life, as long as I can. Of course filmmaking is what I want to do, that’s what I love, that’s what my heart beats to do — but I always want to teach.
DS: As a black filmmaker, how important is it to get a film like Wolf into the mainstream? Even in the film festival circuit, black filmmakers are still under-represented.
YS: That is the nature of the beast. As African-American filmmakers, we do struggle to get our films into the mainstream and film festivals. Sometimes when you see a film starring just African-Americans you automatically throw it in that box. The mainstream audience might not be interested. I think sometimes we don’t get a fair shot. Just because a film features black people does not mean it is for only a black audience. A film like Wolf is so universal — and there are so many African-American films that are universal — yes the stars are black and it takes place in a black church, but this is talking about all religions and all people. It kind of upsets me that white films are not labeled that way. I get reviews that mention the African-American family in my film, but they wouldn’t say that about a white family — it would just be a family. Why do I have to be boxed in on this side? It makes distributors afraid because they think the film will only be marketable to black people. Do black people want to see this kind of film right now? They may want to see another kind of film. Film festivals are the same way. We struggle with that, but I am hoping that we can overcome it. There are a lot of African-American film festivals where our films can be showcased, and a lot of us are venturing out into the mainstream film festivals. I am hoping that film festival programmers and distributors will wake up to the fact that we can make universal stories as well.