Monroe’s story is one that you could hardly believe if you saw it in a movie. Growing up in Houston, and driven by the urge to help his family, the future filmmaker found himself cutting corners to success, and petty theft became bank robbery by age 16. In prison with little to do to turn his life around, he taught himself as much as he could about filmmaking from books, and wound up after his release at NYU. At the time he told his thesis advisor about the film he wanted to make, no one even knew he had been to prison. After premiering to rave reviews at SXSW last year, Monroe launched a successful kickstarter campaign to give the film a theatrical release, as well bring it to schools, detention centers and prison. “The biggest thing I learned was how much work it truly is,” Monroe tells me, “even though the film was completed, and that film took seven years, I was just not really prepared for just all the work it took to get it out and to release it.”
I am catching up with Monroe at Sundance, where his brilliant six-minute short DIRT played. The last time I saw him he was back in Austin at an Austin Film Society screening of EVOLUTION, with an amazing panel that included members of law enforcement, prison reform advocates, reentry leaders and community organizers. It’s one thing for a filmmaker to present their work again and again at different venues, its quite a different thing when that work is so personal, and you have to talk about these mistakes you made day in and day out for a year. “It was painful, it was painful,” Monroe admits, “I was thankful to have the opportunity to talk about it, but I didn’t realize just how – you know, even in Austin it was tough. Because we’re dealing with serious issues, we’re dealing with reality. And so even though it’s my own life, there are so many other individuals who’ve gone down a similar path.” Monroe’s knowledge with these issues began as a very personal one, but as he has talked to people with the film, he has learned more and more about the larger issues surrounding the personal experience, and had heard countless stories from people who have gone through parallel experiences “There is a silver lining, because I am out, and I have had the opportunities that I’ve had,” he says, “but to know that we still have a long way to go in terms of the prison industrial complex, it just doesn’t make it easier, but I’m glad that the conversations are happening.”
In moving back into narrative (he had done a few shorts prior to his feature), Monroe creates in DIRT, a stark, emotional, almost lyrical, journey of one man who also must make a change in his life. Segun Akande plays a man who buries a body and then gets in his car and drives – the camera stays focused on him for the whole drive as we watch him deal with what he has just done and prepare for the rest of his life with that in his rear view mirror. The effect is exhilarating, it’s simple, provocative, uncomfortable and so rich with space to fill the narrative with your own thoughts and guilt. Without a doubt, it was the strongest short at Sundance this year. “After doing EVOLUTION,” he explains, “if you notice, in the re-enactments, there was no dialogue – they were somewhat stylized and visceral in a way.” With DIRT he decided to push that even further – no dialogue, no music, just the viewer, taken on a ride by the film and fully in the moment. “I wanted it to be a true first-person experience for the audience,” he says, “dealing with something that was not just meditative, but sometimes personal to me as well.”
Shot in Eagle Lake, TX, the story of the film came to Monroe after the death of a close friend in 2013. “I kept having this dream or a vision,” the director remembers, “it sort of weirded me out, because I kept seeing a body in a trunk- and I knew it wasn’t my friend, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.” The filmmaker woke up one day, and wrote the treatment for the film and, he says, “I realized that it was me just not only coming to terms with the loss of this friend, coming to terms with my own mortality, but also realizing that as you get older and go through life you’re gonna have to deal with a lot of things that you have to bury, cut off, and get rid of to survive.” The film captures more than a loss of innocence, it speaks to the way we have to not just compartmentalize portions of your experience, but destroy and entomb them to move on with life. And even when you do, that may not be the end of it. “It’s really difficult just trying to carry and hold on to every single thing,” Monroe says, “and sometimes you have to bury certain situations that may reappear later and you have to do it all over again. And I feel like that’s just a part of human evolution and the whole human experience.”
Segun Akande had the privilege of being the only character in the film, and he says his discussions with the director were not about the role, or his motivations, but really just a conversation about death. “It was a continued exploration of just being and exploring this human condition about what death is and what this,” he explains, “the experience of it, impact of it on yourself.” Of course, with no dialogue, this happens entirely in Akande’s character’s behavior, and, for the most part, in one very long take. “I like a long take,” Monroe laughs, “especially if they are still active and you’re still engaged. Even in the treatment it said the guy was driving from that location to another location and I knew he was going through all the different levels of emotions that one would go through at a funeral, in a mourning process.” Instead of seeing him go through the various stages throughout his day, we sit with him in the car and watch him relive it while driving,
“There was something powerful about just sitting with him and watching the wave of emotion crest and just sort of rollover, and just and go back down again, in the same take,” the director says.
Not only was the shot done in one take, it was only done once. “Pressure, right?” Akande laughs, “there’s a lot of just trying to be in the moment, be as present as possible. I did ask my mom to write me a letter. I told her to just write me a few words, and so I had that with me – and so before we shot that scene, I read it.” The emotion of the film feels so raw, so realized, that it is quite easy to just sit with Akande in that car as he drives, and watch his new understanding of the world wash over him. By the time he arrives at his destination he is somewhere else, spiritually as well as geographically. It is an elegantly simple film, with a depth and subtlety that few features achieve. It is also a complete film. DIRT’s ending really ties up the arc of the journey and it never feels like a teaser for a longer piece. It is a story in and of itself. “I don’t think a short should be a baby feature,” Monroe says, “it should feel like a moment. And I definitely feel like that you can, even in a moment, have a full experience. It may not be a three act structure, but you can still have just the necessary beats that keep the audience on the journey- keep them engaged and provide fulfillment at the end.”
Monroe’s next short TWO CITIES premieres at SXSW as part of the Texas Shorts program. The film, made as part of NEW ORLEANS: HERE & NOW, a short form documentary series executive produced by New Orleans native Patricia Clarkson and “NCIS: New Orleans” star Scott Bakula, recounts what it means to be part of the displaced New Orleans population in Houston. Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika, biologist and community activist, came to New Orleans to finally put down roots, until Hurricane Katrina drove him out of town. Shot in black and white like a moving photo album, Darius Clark Monroe lets Sanyika guide us through the modern social reality that is a city’s citizens without a city, or at least a city they can call their own.
What’s next for Monroe? Hopefully, his psychological thriller set in New York City entitled YEAR OF OUR LORD. The idea came to him in 2008 and he finished the first draft in 2011. “It’s something that I am on fire to get out,” he says, “something that’s burning up in me. Especially just seeing how fast media coverage and how fast news moves now, with technology. The film is contemporary, our relationship with technology is really impacted.” I ask him “so, somebody needs to pick up the script and give you money to make it right now, right?” He smiles big, “I think it’s gonna happen.”
If it does, I’m sure it will be fresh and something worth waiting for. DIRT premiered at Sundance and plays next at NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS. TWO CITIES plays as part of SXSW’s Texas Shorts program. EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL played on PBS as part of Independent Lens and is available on iTunes.
For more on EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL, read my original interview with Darius.