Berlinale Shorts 2023. Short Talk with Kevin Contento

Colombian-American filmmaker Kevin Contento was born in Plantation, Florida in 1990. His debut feature film “The Conference of the Birds” premiered in Paris and won the Narrative Features Jury Award at the 2021 New Orleans Film Festival.

At this year’s Berlinale Shorts, Tara Karajica talks to Kevin Contento about his short film “From Fish to Moon,” the short form and what he is up to next.

What made you want to become a filmmaker?

Kevin Contento: Something was missing when I watched films. I had no clue what it was, but I could feel it. My mind had a penchant for spacing out in these sort of reveries: stories, visuals, and ideas would morph around each other and these were what I would call as my “baby-movie-ideas.” I worked at a movie theater early in life and there’s something strange about wandering carpeted hallways that connect to rooms with chairs and tall screens. It’s a place that can feed your soul, but I wasn’t yet in a place to take action yet. As time went by, I did take some baby steps and started picking up cameras here and there. Experimenting with the actual moving image and the art of editing. I think as filmmakers we spend a lot of time finding our voice or style. Editing is really one of those discoveries that took over my imagination and even today as a filmmaker I am always switching between that part of my brain that spent hours contemplating ideas in a sort of spaced-out gaze and the part that then sits down at his work place – instead of a canvas and paint, for me it’s keyboards and computers filled with audio and video clips that I can manipulate in a nonlinear editor. Going back to the question, I’m a filmmaker who is interested in exploring a symbolic language using the means I’m surrounded by. The folks and places in my films are my collaborators and without them I would be that overly imaginative person who has yet to actually make something.

How did From Fish to Moon come about? What was so cinematic about this particular grocery store?

K.C.: From Fish to Moon is both a culmination of years working within a small town with the same folks and then an opportunity that arose when Jean got a job at the Thriftway. The Thriftway is a wonderful combination of different spaces in one; like a gas station meets a grocery store meets a casino. It’s a funny juxtaposition of visuals and, in the end, film and storytelling are all about juxtaposition.

The film is about everyday routine, and the importance of small things, habits, pleasures in life, that are actually a big part of people’s lives. Can you comment on that?

K.C.: I think the answer is that from an early age I was naturally intrigued in the quotidian. In a car ride, I would look at the clouds; in a mall, I could watch strangers and observe contently. In Church, I spent hours listening and watching the back of people’s heads or the movements of their bodies and faces. Sure, I had a love for the grand, extraordinary and theatric, but as my opportunities as a filmmaker unfolded, it was always restricted to making something with my limited resources. I eventually found a cinema that nurtured this attention to the mundane. Other storytellers who harnessed this and explored our inner-worlds through what seemed like simple points of access. That audiences in Berlin can connect with From Fish to Moon is more evidence of the human condition, which we are all a part of. Attar’s poetry is from the twelfth-century and here I am moved by it for example.

Can you talk about capturing the essence of the place and its people? Do you think it is an homage to the store before its new owner?

K.C.: A big part of it I think has to do with making people comfortable. I can’t say that I was the key element in that, I believe it was Jean who made it possible for all the other folks in the film to open up. His relationship with Sue and Nestor allowed them to trust me and our intentions. By extension, his relationship with the town I think made it possible for me to do what I needed to capture the essence of the Thriftway. One of my roles was to make the technical choices in a way that didn’t ruin the hard work of making folks comfortable. I think the homage part is natural, but it wasn’t our outright goal.

“From fish to moon” is a common expression in medieval Persian verse, meaning “from the depths to the heights.” Can you elaborate on that? Can you talk about the title of the film?

K.C.: It means from the bottom to the top. There are a lot of iterations of this notion, but perhaps Attar’s was one of the first and, with that, it most likely meant going from furthest from God to closest to God. For me, personally, this is a driving force behind my work – all of it.

Can you talk about the shooting process?

K.C.: I can tell you that we shot in three sessions. Each one about an hour or just over an hour. I limited myself to static shots, one lens, and no panning or moving shots. There was no pre-planning or shot list or rehearsals of any kind. Essentially, that was the shooting process.

What do you think of the short form today? How is it in the US?

K.C.: The short form is alive and well in the US. I think in south Florida, it’s fairly young. Filmmakers have emerged, but its artwork is missing a guiding light to be honest, but that’s for each one to find on their own.

What are your next projects?

K.C.: I started something new with Jean in January. It will be my second feature and will deal with the transformative power of fatherhood as experienced by three different men in this rural Florida town. Once again, Attar’s poetry will play a prominent role in the structuring of the film and also lend a hand to key visual motifs seen throughout.

Photo credits: Courtesy of Kevin Contento.

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