Festival Winner at the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival
Opens July 8 at the Arclight
by Genie Davis
The narrative feature A Great Lamp is a beautiful black and white film from director Saad Qureshi and his highly collaborative cast and crew. The film has a real heart as well as a beautifully defined artistic aesthetic. It’s the meandering story of three almost-lost souls seeking redemption: not from others, but from themselves, or the spiritual glow of that riverfront street lamp they hover under. There’s Max, an open-hearted, non-binary street kid posting flyers as a tribute to his late, much loved grandmother throughout the town; Gene, a drop-out from his job as an insurance processor — something he hated, but he still hides the fact that he left from his father; and Howie, an out of towner who fears a recurring dream, and whose mother may or may not have died, and who above all else hopes to view a rocket launch through binoculars.
Rambling and dreamy, the film captivates slowly, both from its visual beauty and its unfolding acts of caring and love. Set in Wilmington, N.C., the streets may be gritty but they don’t feel threatening; there’s a river walk to stroll, an ocean not far away, an ice skating rink to circle alone, a welcoming bar to perform stand-up and songs. The characters each touch on important emotions during their episodic wandering: love, fear, compassion, shame. Underlying all of these is a sense of tender innocence, friendship, and hope. The film is primarily improvisational in terms of dialog and story. It includes rough sketch-style animated elements, and lushly filmed, primarily-exterior locations.
It is rather miraculously successful: what could’ve been fey or graduate-school-esque feels real and heartfelt, and that vibes with viewers. At the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival, it received the Jury Award for Best North American Narrative Feature, and actor/animator/editor Max Wilde received a special mention award for his performance and animation work.
The film has an interesting back story to support its intimate connection with viewers. At the Mammoth Lakes festival, Qureshi said “I was having a very rough time in my life. So, since my friends and I all love each other, we quit our jobs to make the movie together.” Cinematographer Donald Monroe laid out the film and locations daily, choosing to use black and white digital shooting as a medium. “With no crew, I knew I had one light to work with, and black and white was easier for me to make a cohesive language.” Qureshi related “It was the best moment of my life to see my friends together. Life can be a sad thing, but the best way to survive is to be with your friends.”
Interviewing Qureshi, he explained that a great deal of the three main characters’ personalities reflected that of his friends who portrayed them. “The film is really about Max being himself the whole time. When he talks about his grandmother, that’s all true. I cast him because I knew that for a movie that would be so improvisational, it was important to have someone who had a really good personality in real life, and he’s the coolest person in the world.” He added that the characters of Howie, played by Spencer Bang, and Gene, portrayed by Steven Maier respectively, also reflected both elements of their own lives and passions, and Qureshi’s own.
“We have known each other for years, we went to college together at the North Carolina School of the Arts film school,” he explained. The friends created dozens of short films together, both in and out of school, with Monroe and Wilde collaborating on a previous feature, In the Tree Tops.
“The visual look of A Great Lamp was Donald (Monroe)’s idea. He created the visual language of it as we went. In terms of the post-production, we wanted to make sure the film had an identifiable aesthetic that wasn’t just low-fi, so the scratchy animation came from that, to create a distinctive look not like every other indie film. We just played around a lot.” Qureshi added that “We believe that there is no rule-set for how movies are made. Film as a medium is just over 100-years old; any other art form that young wouldn’t have such fully formed rules, so we felt free to make up our own.”
Wilde edited from his Philadelphia home, sending Qureshi segments 5-minutes at a time. The air then discussed, altered and finally put each section into a cohesive whole. “I never sat in the same room with him, but it was a highly collaborative process.”
While the film seems to vibrate with unspoken references to today’s socio-political climate, Qureshi says the filmmaking team did not set out to do that. “It’s simply impossible today to make something that’s not political; our feelings and realities reflect the real world. There was a scene where Max talks to this guy he was supposed to have known in high school, and those people were actual homeless people we met on the street. We believe it is impossible not to include the rest of the world in a film you make today. We didn’t discuss politics or the world, but we made ourselves vulnerable and bare in depicting ourselves, and our location.”
Qureshi had filmmaker influences as well. “We didn’t specifically talk about other films, but we are huge fans of the early Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, and we did talk about Jean Luc Goddard, and the French new wave in general. We had one scene where the character of Howie is sitting on a fence that looks just like the cover art of 400 Blows. However, I’d say my main reference is a Hong Kong filmmaker, Wong Kar-Wai who made the movie Chung King Express. That film was important to me, because the way the guy makes movies, he doesn’t write full scripts out, but uses short stories he creates for each character and then figures it out as he goes. Everyone stayed in my apartment during filming, and I woke them up every morning showing that movie.”
The film was shot in ten days, using a borrowed Sony FS 7.
“Coming out of film school, I felt confused and lost about how you make movies, and this came out in desperation. It was really easy to put together because we all cared about each other, and it turned out very cohesively. I want people to know its easy. You can make something quickly and with no money. I would just tell people if you want to make a movie, don’t wait years and years, put your ego aside, just make a film together. We had no hierarchy really, we were just a bunch of friends hanging out, doing something deeply personal.” Shot in December 2017, the film took approximately 9 months to edit. “There were several moments it could’ve been done, but we just kept going with it, tinkering with it, until it was time to submit it to Slamdance and the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival.”
While the film was essentially unscripted, Qureshi and Monroe write many projects, and Qureshi feels that “We were good with doing it this way because we already knew we were good at story telling.”
The film will be screening at the Arclight Hollywood July 8th, and is scheduled to appear at a variety of other festivals up until December, with the friends plan to start work on a new project. Like the message of the film itself — ultimately, to embrace your true self — the filmmakers plan to continue to do just that with the movies that they make.