By Katelyn McBride
What do a ukuleleist, a manager, and a Chihuahua have in common? All are characters in a short film by two University of Iowa graduate students that was recently selected to be screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
Joe Bookman and Jesse Damazo wrote and directed the 15-minute film “The Agony and Sweat of the Human Spirit,” which will be shown in France next month as part of the festival’s student film competition, Cinéfondation.
International Programs, along with several other UI units, is helping fund the students’ travel to the festival.
Bookman, a doctoral candidate in communication studies and Damazo, an MFA candidate in film and video production, had been wanting to work on a film together for a while but first had to decide on the plot.
“Joe first proposed an idea for a movie about a balloon ride called Human Friend Adventure. I counter-proposed a film about an erotic book-on-tape narrator and his manager. We ended up with a movie about a ukuleleist and his manager making a children’s folk album,” Damazo said.
The film’s title is a reference to a William Faulkner speech, which plays an important role in the story. The two hope to expand their ideas into a feature-length production based on the 15-minute short.
Damazo and Bookman also star in the film alongside the only other character, Edie, an ailing Chihuahua.
Bookman explained that the decision to cast themselves in the film was motivated by convenience more than anything else.
“When you don’t have money to pay cast and crew, it’s often less awkward to do things yourself rather than to call in favors,” Bookman said. “We had confidence that we could nail our respective parts, so all in all, acting ourselves seemed to make the most sense.”
Each of the film’s mere five shots took an entire day to shoot. This technique of long take filmmaking was a requirement of an assignment for their UI course at the time, “Colloquium on Film and Video Production.”
Damazo said that although he first met the long take constraint with resistance, it ended up being very productive for their project.
“Absolute freedom can be crippling; sometimes a limitation can be the best possible thing for a movie,” he said.
“The Agony and Sweat of the Human Spirit” was one of only 16 films selected for the Cinéfondation out of almost 1,600 entries from 82 countries. This is also the first time UI filmmakers have received a Cinéfondation nod.
Neither Bookman nor Damazo expected to receive the rare honor to screen at Cannes. In fact, neither of them seriously considered in their early college years that filmmaking could be their life-long ambitions.
Damazo first went to law school in New York before he realized he wanted to make films.
Bookman, on the other hand, had an early interest in filmmaking but didn’t pursue it seriously until he arrived at the University of Iowa. He first studied fiction writing in college, which he said has given him a solid foundation to create narratives in film.
Now both of them know filmmaking is what they want to keep doing.
“If we don’t have any money, we’ll continue making movies in our backyard,” Bookman said. “If we can raise funds, maybe we’ll do something a little more involved. Whatever happens, our game plan is fundamentally the same: to work with whatever resources we have.”