During one scene in Monica Peña's debut feature, the cryptically-titled Ectotherms, four young people nestle in the shade between two derelict double-decker buses and bitch about their high school grades. The scene unfolds in an unseen lot in Miami. The surreal presence of buses normally seen on the streets of London is true to a landscape few outside the so-called Magic City hardly see. Of course, those familiar with the city's backyard know where these lorries loom.
Peña has come to the Little Haiti bar responsible for bringing the buses to the area, the British Pub Churchill's Hideaway, to talk her debut feature film. Ectotherms will have its world premiere screening at the Miami International Film Festival Tuesday, March 11. She couldn't be more excited that the city, so quietly the focus of her brilliantly meandering experimental film, is playing host.
For MIFF Executive Director Jaie Laplante it was a no-brainer. In his synopsis for the film, Laplante writes, "Everything about Peña's approach - her mise-en-scène focused on the sides of the dialogue speakers, her unexpected cutting, her sound design full of ambient noises that enforce time and place - is simply startling, cinematic syntax that heralds a new future."
Though her film education comes from the formalist world of UCLA where she earned her master's degree, Peña has deconstructed her knowledge of cinema and breaks many rules of filmmaking.
"I've studied many different kinds of filmmaking, and I walked away with some impressions of certain waves of filmmaking," she says. "One of the things that was always interesting to me was styles and filmmakers who were okay with making imperfect films."
She offers long takes and improvised dialogue by non-actors, who were only made aware of a few tiny plot points. She particularly appreciates the small moments where man and nature inadvertently interact.
"We were shooting Kami [Critchley]," she says, referring to one of the characters. "He was sort of spitting rhymes by the side of the pool. We kind of let him go and go and go, and when I looked at the footage after, I noticed that every few minutes he was slapping mosquitoes off his body, and I thought that spoke to the sense of place and the atmosphere and the mood that we wanted to convey."
For Peña, it's personal. Specifically, she is a first generation Miamian from Cuban parents who shows a sensitive awareness of her background, from social history to the primal environment she grew up in. Subsequently, she has created a work that draws on her experiences as a young person growing up in South Florida. She even called upon her high school Spanish teacher for a presence in the film. Martha Miranda plays the disembodied voice of a grandmother who has just passed away while the film's only female character (Chelsey Crowley) languorously applies dark eye makeup.
Peña says Miranda's narrative came out of a conversation with her about the teacher's grandfather that resonated with her.
"She comes out with this very beautiful story about her grandfather returning to Cuba and dying of nostalgia," she says, "and there was so much in that. It spoke so much to our experiences."
Chelsey Crowley in 'Ectotherms'
In between contemplative moments, the soundtrack is overtaken by grating black metal music generated by a local band called Slashpine, whose guitarist, Brad Lovett, happens to moonlight as a volunteer in the Everglades eradicating invasive plants. She notes that his explanation of a genre of music that originated in Norway inspired her choice to include it on the film's soundtrack.
"He explained to me that [the music] was sort of a genre that came largely out of a sense of place and that place is usually a very cold, wintery, blustery, icy kind of environment, and that atmosphere was conveyed in the music," she says. "What he does with his band Slashpine is transplant that icy landscape with the grimmer parts of the South Florida landscape. It's the swampland, the heaviness of the swamp, the oppressiveness of the heat."
By presenting her film as an experience over a cinematic narrative, a special alchemy unfolds. What gradually evolves and ultimately gets under the viewer's skin is a portrait of interconnection between humanity and nature, be it the ashes to ashes sub-plot of death or the viscerally alive moments of youth in lush landscapes. It's the small things, hardly treated with the sort of reverence, that Peña explores in her film. From the shallow focus of the camera lens on tiny leaves of saplings, to the suffocating swamp lands that enshroud another character, it all builds to an incredible mood piece few narrative-driven films can capture.
Though she is unfamiliar with the work of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, her style may be most similar to his. His blending of spare, sometimes mundane narrative with almost fetishistic presentations of the jungle have received much praise in the art house world. But if there is one foreign filmmaker she credits as an influence, it is the German director Werner Herzog, someone who has long-explored narratives of man versus nature on many levels. She specifically credits his interest in non-actors to bring something special to the work.
Though she went to a well-known film school in Los Angeles, a city most aspiring filmmakers want to finally move to in order to find success, she was excited to bring her new-found craft back to Miami. She's just another exceptional artist among many that continue to add relevance to Miami's art scene.
"I still had creative friends here, in the art scene," she says. "I was kind of hearing about the work that they were doing in Miami, and I thought it was so much more interesting than anything that I was hearing about, coming out of anywhere else. I thought that it was really original and really kind of rooted in the experience of being from Miami."
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Ectotherms has its world premier at the Miami International Film Festival today, Tuesday, March 11, 9:15 p.m., and Sunday, March 16, 4 p.m. at Regal Cinema South Beach. The director will be present to both introduce the film and indulge the audience in a Q&A. Tickets.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.