November 10, 2008

Taking It Home: Ballast

Over Spring Break in 2001, I led a community service trip to the Mississippi Delta. Fifteen college students coming from Boston, none of us, including myself, having ever been south of Memphis. Our work was to assist in the classroom at several schools in the area, from Little Rock to Clarksdale.

To say that we were shocked at what we saw in the Delta is a significant understatement. This was an area that, according to those teachers who hosted us, first received electricity in the 80's. This was an area with the worst performing schools in Mississippi, itself already the worst performing state, academically speaking, in the country. This was an area that by all measures appeared to be still living under Jim Crow laws; never I have see a place so racially segregated. Although "Whites Only" and "Colored Only" signs were not actually displayed, they sure seemed to be implied.

Like most service trips to developing areas, the members of our group left (hopefully) with a new worldview and a new appreciation, in this case, for our own educational backgrounds. Whether or not we actually accomplished anything of significance during our week there was, unfortunately, unknown and unprovable. I've shared my observations of that world with people in the years since, but I'm afraid I haven't been nearly as successful as Lance Hammer's compelling Ballast, one of the year's best films and one of the most accurate depictions of the Delta that I've seen since that trip seven years ago.

What makes Ballast so extraordinary, aside from the beautiful technical production and arresting performances, is that it allows the viewer to relate so intimately and effortlessly with its characters. It is a coincidence that Hammer's film has come at a time when financial and racial tensions in this country are so high, but this is a timeless story that ultimately speaks more about people than place. Hammer makes no overt statement about power, discrimination, privilege or circumstance (if he makes any political statement, he admits it's toward gun control), and this is not a film about race relations or desperate poverty. It is a film about grief, forgiveness, redemption and hope.

In a Q & A session following the screening of Ballast, Hammer (whose background is in architecture and whose Hollywood credits range from Batman to The Man Who Wasn't There), said his concept for the film originally dealt more directly with the racial history of the South, but that as a white man from Los Angeles, "it was naive and innocent, and it was the wrong thing" for him to do so; he realized "how little authority" he had to speak about the issue. Instead, he developed a story that he thought would "speak very delicately about universals" and "the dignity of persevering in the face of adversity." Hammer said he desired to get out of the Hollywood blockbusters and instead "talk about something as truthful."

I really admire his commitment to accuracy and truth in making Ballast, especially in relation to the landscape of the Delta. The physical location is untouched and raw (Hammer spoke about the irony of his background as a production designer and how the ideal of a "real" set was, in this case, organically perfect). There is little sunlight, but yet it's always light; it's a bright, cloudy landscape that prevents you from knowing what time it is throughout the day. Incidentally, Hammer said they used no lights during filming (learn more production details in an interview with Lance Hammer by Getafilm favorite Craig Kennedy).

There's something that concerns me about the reaction to Ballast, however, and it has to do with the praise I just awarded it. At the screening I attended, a majority of the questions and compliments for Lance Hammer were about the aesthetics of the film, or his screenwriting process, or the experience of the actors involved. In other words, it seemed few people were interested in the story or the themes or the lessons or even the history of the Delta. Granted, I saw it at the Walker Art Center so the audience was primarily comprised of contemporary artistes, but come on, people, let's check in with reality for a second. Those amazing performances felt so real because they were real. The outstanding cast (Michael J. Smith, JimMyron Ross, and Tarra Riggs) was found in the Delta, living lives perhaps similar to those of their characters in Ballast. When the actors felt something in Hammer's screenplay wasn't authentic, they would reinvent the scenario to reflect the reality they knew.

Maybe because they're not technically categorized as documentaries, it's so easy for us to lose sight of the truth in films like Ballast, Chop Shop, and The Pool. Even in my reviews of those latter two films, I highlighted the artistry of the filmmaking as much as anything else. Are we connecting more with the scenery than we are with the story? With the colors and lighting more than the characters? I hope not, but the Q & A experience after Ballast forced the question upon me. Fortunately, Hammer did his best to redirect the conversation back to the issues at hand, such as hope in the midst of despair and protecting the potential of a child. I kind of hoped Hammer would have addressed the title of the film and his interpretation of its symbolism, but of course I didn't think about that until later on.

I know it's possibly the last place in the country to which most people would willingly travel, but a few days in the Delta will give you a very different perspective about the lives of your fellow Americans (or for those of you who are abroad, the lives of Americans you may never meet). If never make it there, it will at least be worth your time to check out Ballast.

What did you take home?

(Note: Lance Hammer pulled out of a distribution deal with IFC so he could maintain full control of Ballast. He's currently taking it on the road himself - check here for a list of "tour" stops.)


  1. That's a wonderfull relating of what you took home from Ballast, Daniel. You took a great, elegantly intimate look at this here.

    I found this to be quite a terrific picture. The point about it blurring the line between narrative and documentary is quite accurate.

  2. Cheers, Alexander. I really liked this bit from your poetic review: "picture is about the aftermath, not the build-up, and the psychological resurrection, not the death". Exactly, which is why it was such a refreshing surprise. Although depression and angst hang over it throughout, the last scene (as was the case in Chop Shop) shows that hope springs eternal.

    And you mentioned Bresson in your review. In another interview I read with Hammer, he laughed at how a critic had suggested, maybe snidely, that Hammer had kept a copy of Bresson's "Notes on the Cinematographer" in his back pocket - which was, in fact, actually true!

    He said he learned that every shot was to be used intentionally. It was definitely the case here. I couldn't find one wasted second.

  3. I took home much of what you did Dan, and was fortunate enough to speak directly to Mr. Hammer myself in a Film Forum Q & A weeks back. I review the filma day after that and ascribed to it many of the same observations that Alexander and yourself have mentioned, primarily the Bressonian textures and the direct comparison to films like CHOP SHOP. In fact a Bressonian question was posed to Hammer in the NY interview as well. I was particularly imprssed with that yellowtoned cinematography, which capturedthe setting and tranquility in a most persuasive way.
    I was most moved and impressed with the fact that you were part of that 2001 comminity service trip to the Mississippi Delta, and this gives your review so much added perspective. In fact you made note of the film projecting "accurate depictions of the Delta."
    Your blunt statement(in bold) that the film is about "grief, forgiveness, redemption and hope" has nailed it, methinks and most eloquently conveyed too.

    Awesome piece here.

  4. Daniel, thanks for your review. I spent 10 years living in East Mississippi, and traveling back and forth to the Delta doing agricultural research. The thing you describe is economic segregation; obviously Jim Crow is indeed over. The exploitation of African Americans to produce the cotton that makes our t-shirts is ever-present and very real. Seeing third-world poverty right next to the homes of millionaire cotton farmers was an extremely discouraging, daily experience; it shows just how deeply flawed our economic system is.

    Ballast has come nowhere near me here in West Alabama; I hope I get to see it someday.

  5. Rick: I never knew you are from Alabama, nor of that research you have done in the Mississippi Valley.

    I cannot wait for your review of this film!

  6. Yes, Sam, I remember your recounting of the great meeting you had with Hammer at that screening. Craig also made the comparison to Chop Shop. Between that, Ballast, and The Pool, this year has really seen a new wave of cinema verite.

    Rick, thank you for sharing that - THAT's the kind of discussion I was hoping would come out of the Q & A with Hammer, because I don't think you can see this film and ignore the reality behind it.

    Certainly I agree that the segregation in the Delta is, as you rightly describe, based more so on economics than racism (when the two can be separated).

    You know it would be quite appropriate for Hammer to make his way down to your area for a screening. He must have shown it in the filming communities by now. If you do get ahold of it somehow, I'll be anxious for you to review it.

  7. You really haven't done your homework on the actors of this film. Two our colleges educated and live very prosperous lives and one is or use to be a Sag actor. The actress isn't from the Delta at all, she is from Chicago IL and is a season theatre actor, see her website or her imdb. I failed to see spending a week in Mississippi, qualifies you to make economic assumptions about tax paying citizens.

  8. Thanks for commenting. That's fair criticism since I'm not a native Mississippian, but what's with the attitude? You're free to say what you want about the movie here, so you don't need to remain anonymous. I never understand that.

    Well maybe you're right. I admit I did absolutely zero homework on the actors before writing this. The only information I used was the production info that was distributed at the screening, as well as my notes from the Q & A with Lance Hammer afterwards.

    And, the interview with Lance Hammer by Craig Kennedy: "Mike Smith who plays Lawrence was the son of one of the pastors and that’s how I found him. Tarra Riggs who plays Marlee responded to an open casting call. JimMyron Ross who plays the boy James, I found him at like the 11th hour at a Boys and Girls Club in Mississippi. Johnny McPhail who plays the white guy, he’s the only guy that had some acting experience. He responded to an open casting call."

    And, with your help, Tarra Rigg's website. There's your proof that at the time she worked on Ballast (a stunning film debut, I might add), her resume was paper thin.

    But we're arguing minor details here. What bothers me more is the charge that I've made "economic assumptions about tax paying citizens." What does that even mean? That I think these actors are poor in real life or something? I didn't mean to suggest so, but even if they aren't - as you've proven, I don't think it takes away from the reality of the story anyway.

    I'm not trying to be snide here. I just don't really know what you're getting at...?


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