This year’s Maine-made horror, dark fantasy and all-around spookiness short-film anthology, Damnationland, is shaping up to be one of its most thought-provokingly frightening yet. A few weeks back, I talked with 2018 Damnationland director Shannon Meserve about her upcoming contribution, “Compliant,” in which a dystopian tale contains timely messages about women’s rights and societal oppression. This week, it’s Samuel James’ turn, as he’s prepping his Damnationland film, “The Moment,” which similarly utilizes genre film (in this case, science fiction) to introduce some heady ideas into this year’s looming October lineup.
James, known to audiences in Maine and around the world as a successful touring musician and to lovers of deadpan internet comedy, Maine music and cats as the creator of the weirdo-brilliant webseries “Kitty Critic” , says he’s excited to be the first black Damnationland director. He’s also bringing along Portland-based Theater Ensemble of Color actors René Johnson and Khalil LeSaldo to play the leads in his eight-minute mindbender of a short film. I talked to Sam (who, like Damnationland co-founder Allen Baldwin, worked alongside yours truly slinging movies at Portland’s late, still-lamented Videoport) about “The Moment,” representation in the movies and how science fiction is “the most responsible film genre.”
Q: Hi Sam. Where am I calling you?
A: I’m teaching at this guitar camp in West Virginia. It’s sort of a nice break from everything that’s happening in the world. These people are fun, man.
Q: So what’s “The Moment” about?
A: Well, let me think – how do I not ruin the whole thing. I mean, it’s only eight minutes. (Laughs.) “The Moment” takes place in a world where time travel is as ubiquitous as the internet, and like the internet, everyone relates a lot more coincidentally. Everyone uses the technology to work, goof off, whatever, all in their own personal time stream. The main character (played by LeSaldo) starts to discover that things have changed since the time-travel app came out and that nobody else seems to realize it. The movie is basically a conversation between him and his girlfriend (Johnson) where he confesses how he’s been misusing the app and tries to get her to see what’s gone wrong.
Q: Of all your many pursuits, you’ve never made a film before, so what drew you to this story and Damnationland?
A: I had the idea kicking around in my head for a while. I write about race as much as I can (James also writes a column called “Racisms” in Portland monthly The Bollard, among other places), but it’s not enough really, and I don’t get a lot of opportunities to write fiction. When Allen told me there’d never been a black director in Damnationland, which I love, I felt it was the right time. Honestly, most white people don’t know any black people, and they think they do because they’ve seen them on TV and in the movies. But we’re not represented well there, either, so I felt like it was important for that reason.
Q: On your crowdfunding page for the movie, you say, “We’re gonna put the ‘black’ in ‘Black Mirror’ (the acclaimed British TV anthology about the potential horrors of technology).” Sci-fi, horror and fantasy have always been fertile ground for writers from marginalized or oppressed groups to sort of smuggle in social issues, right?
A: We used to talk about that at Videoport. Science fiction is the most responsible genre in a weird way. The best sci-fi is supposed to show you something you couldn’t see otherwise. It can dress it up in fun things, but it can also be ruthless. Something like “The Terminator” is a great statement about technology and identity, and “Black Mirror” is warning us about the terrible things technology can do. So, yeah, since both actors plus the director and writer – both me – of this are black, I like to say we are putting the “black” in “Black Mirror.” (Laughs.)
Q: Plus, you don’t have the budget for “The Terminator.”
A: We don’t even have the budget for this one! (Laughs.) Plus, I have no idea what I’m doing. But I’ve got (Maine filmmaking fixtures) Jeff Griecci and Ian Carlsen on board, who both know their stuff and are just really great dudes about town. And (other Maine movie stalwart) Andrea Nilosek is co-producing. Basically, I’m making a fun movie. It’s got “Memento” sort of twists, and it’s a good story. I’m really proud of it.
The Samuel James-written and -directed (and -edited and -scored) “The Moment” will be one of this year’s Damnationland short films. Shooting in the next few weeks, the filmmaker and his crew welcome donations to make up their modest $2,500 budget at their crowdfunding page, gofundme.com/representationinfilm. (They’d already raised an even $1,000 as of last week.) The ninth annual Damnationland will have its world premiere at Portland’s State Theater on Oct. 12. Check out damnationland.com for details.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
USM’s LUTHER BONNEY HALL
Friday and Saturday: “Bluestocking Film Series.” Maine’s only Bechdel Test-approved, woman-centered short film series kicks off its amazing eighth season of international movies with complex female protagonists, for a change.
CONGRESS SQUARE PARK
Tuesday, Aug. 7: “Swim Team.” Space Gallery and the Friends of Congress Square Park co-host a free outdoor screening of this inspiring documentary about youth swim team the Jersey Hammerheads, formed by parents of autistic teens to give their children the sense of accomplishment and inclusion they need.