Director Sam Wainwright Douglas talks about releasing Through The Repellent Fence in Donald Trump’s America at SXSW

  • Larry Heath
  • March 24, 2017
  • Comments Off on Director Sam Wainwright Douglas talks about releasing Through The Repellent Fence in Donald Trump’s America at SXSW

While at SXSW, we caught the brilliant documentary Through The Repellent Fence: A Land Art Film (read our review HERE). The film documents a Land Art project by Post Commodity, situated on the border between Mexico and the United States – the future home of Trump’s proposed border wall. I sat down with the film’s Austin based director Sam Wainwright Douglas to talk about the project, which in its release, finds itself unexpectedly set against the backdrop of Trump’s America.

Talking about this film in many ways opens up a can of worms in the current political context. Two years ago when Post Commidity (the art collective behind the piece featured in the film) were doing this project it wasn’t that, it wasn’t the hard pressed issue it’s become. Are you frustrated at all by the way that it’s gone in terms of the public discussion with the wall and Trump and all that? Might it overshadow what the original message was supposed to be? Or do you think it enhances what they were trying to do anyway?

Yeah I think what they were doing two years ago is even more relevant because the border has become even more of a hugely politicised issue, and unfortunately the discussion continues to be very narrow, it’s binary, it’s either this or that… But it’s so much more complex. Life there is so much more complex than that, life is so much more richer than that. It’s not all cartel violence, and you just don’t see that in the media, and you definitely don’t hear that from our president, I don’t even like to call him that.

It just feels dirty.

It does, it does. It does. So yeah I think the piece and the film really speak to that and that’s a big goal is to complicate that narrative and to make it more nuanced.

How did you find out about this project. What are the origins of discovering this was happening?

Back in 2011, 12, I started shooting a film on land art. I didn’t quite know what the narrative was, what the story was going to be, but I was very fascinated by land art, and I was shooting with some great people who appear in the movie, but I wasn’t coming up with a narrative. There wasn’t a thread to tie it all together.

Just grabbing things and seeing what stuck?

Yeah. And I really wanted a contemporary project that was happening now and was going to be big and that was going to have some social relevancy and speak to something going on now. There was an artist I was talking to and he recommended Post Commodity, he said, “You should look these guys up they’re friends of mine, and all their stuff is oriented with land and people” and then a friend of mind, one of our producers, Julianna Brannum, she happened to be friends with a couple of the guys. When I brought them up she said, “Oh yeah they’re amazing look them up” and I saw that they were doing this two mile long piece on the border. And I though, “Wow this is wonderful. This is an issue that I care about. I care about expanding the dialogue about the border and telling a story of something positive that’s going on down there” I’m from Texas and I love my Hispanic brothers and sisters, and I just thought this would be a really good thing to be a part of. And they are just fantastic artists, and they’re so open about their work, and they were so collaborative and so helpful in making the film, and I’m very pleased with it.

And it was a unique piece too because it looked so beautiful on screen. Like it was so grand, and as much as land art can be grand, I don’t imagine every piece necessarily is, so that worked in your favour as well for a cinematic purpose.

Absolutely yeah. Yeah I loved making this film, it’s really heavy on cinematography. It’s a very immersive experience. We really took our time with the pacing and let you enjoy these environments and get lost in them, and the score really works together with the visuals really well to do that, and these places are environments you go into, and the landscape is so much a part of it. So we wanted to be able to see these things over the course of the day and how the light changes them, and how weather changes them, and yeah. And different angles, we’re above, we’re below, we’re all over the place. We’re down at human scale, we’re up in the air. It was exciting.

I like how the concept of the work also fits into the narrative of indigenous land rights and the aspect of this is beyond just the US versus Mexico border, there are other people here as well. Do you think it’s important that that’s part of the dialogue as well?

Absolutely. That’s a huge part of it for Post Commodity. It’s hard for me to talk about Native American land rights and issues. I’m not Indigenous myself but, yeah, I would say that’s a big part of it. Like the guys talk about, how the notion of Native American often sort of stopped at the border, but Indigenous people have been going back and forth from South American to Canada for thousands of years. It was a heavily populated hemisphere before all the white dudes came.

And that’s sadly a common thread all over the world, including Australia, so it’s something that we connect to in that as well. How have the artists responded to the film?

It’s great because they love the movie and that really heartens me and it’s a real rush that they like the movie so much, and they were proud to be a part of it. And they came to the premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and we do great Q&As. I wish they could’ve come down here, but they’re really taking off as artists, because they’re in the Whitney Biennial, which opens in New York in a few days, so they’re up there for that. And they’ve got some other huge exhibitions coming up. But yeah it meant the world that they were into it, and that I got it.

You mentioned the great score in the film. Can you tell me a little bit about the composer and how the collaborative process there to create such a beautifully entwined piece in that respect?

Yes definitely because I was glad you asked that because I love promoting my friends who did the score as much as possible. It was the fourth film, actually the one I’m directing now is the fourth film I’m doing with them, but the composers are Brett Orrison and his partner’s Alex Maas who’s in The Black Angels. Great Psych Rock band.

Local heroes.

Yep. Yep. And Brett and Alex are just really talented composers and can do a whole spectrum of things. And when we work together they really blissed out on these long visual sequences, and they had a lot of fun with it. And we were just always talking about how the music needed to compliment the cinematography in a way that it didn’t overpower the visual. You couldn’t have the music too present, but you didn’t want to undermine it and have it be some bland little score in the background. Anyway long way of saying I think they really hit the sweet spot mixing it well with the visuals and not overpowering anything.

For sure. But at the same time it could almost have a screening at the Austin Psych Fest later in the year.

And I’m talking to those guys about a soundtrack, like, “We need to do a soundtrack” it would be great.

So the film premiered in New York. We’re now here at South by Southwest, it’s your second consecutive year at SXSW I should mention. Honky Tonk Heaven was a fantastic film as well, got to catch that last year. So what are the plans for the film from here?

From here, well we’re going to some really good festivals, but I can’t talk about it yet. They’re going to announce their lineups probably next week, so that’s good. And then we’re starting to book some semi-theatrical screenings, but I’m holding back on that for the most part because we do have a sales agent who’s working on some things, and some nice things are developing out of festival, so I’m just going to knock on wood and hope those go well.

You should do some projections on the wall, just some … turn it into a cinema.

Yeah. Yeah it’s great, so we’re hoping for TV broadcast, and a really good VOD rollout and all those different things, and lots of semi-theatrical, maybe some small theatrical bookings, well see what happens.

Well the timing, it just feels like the timing has worked out very much in your favour. Not for good reasons, to the de-value of others, but at least there’ll be more value to this film potentially. More people will see it and I think that’s very important, both for the message that it’s trying to create, and also for the awareness about land art as much as we’re talking about the wall and all that. This is about land art and what that is… Are there some resources people can go to if they want to find out more about land art?

Yeah definitely. Let’s see there’s … well one of the characters in my film, Chris Taylor, has this programme at Texas Tech University. It’s called land arts of the American West. And he describes it as a semester abroad in your own backyard, and his website is great. It’s a really good resource. Centre for Land Use Interpretation has some links to some amazing sites and the history about those sites, stuff all over the country, and those are the only specific ones. New Mexico also has a Land Arts of the American West programme. They have cool stuff on their site. Those are some good starting places.

Through The Repellent Fence screened at SXSW.

Photo supplied.

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Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.