There's an image George Orwell crafts in The Road to Wigan Pier of a northern English miner preparing bread and tripe. The miner's hands are so stained with coal dust that, when he passes the writer a slice of the bright baked loaf, a thumbprint is left in the spot where it had been pressed.
BLACK CANARIES, a short film by Marlboro filmmaker Jesse Kreitzer, conjures similarly empathetic and personal vignettes in his darkly woozy story of three generations of toilers at the Maple mine in Iowa. Described as a tale of "a coal miner's plight against a land gone rogue," the film carries a whiff of country gospel at the service of forces well beyond religious intervention. In one of the most atmospheric scenes evocative of van Gogh's Potato Eaters, the family sits for supper at their empty plates. In another, Mother (we never learn the family names) pulls away the bedding topsheet in her morning chores, revealing the soot-made shadow of her husband who had been laying next to her. The next scene shows Mother working outside at a bathing basin, silent and impassive, the stained material churning in the water like the souls of the oppressed.
The film, which takes its name from the tiny miners' friend used to measure oxygen presence in the isolated coal shafts, made its online premiere this weekend. Produced on a $40,000 budget with $10k raised via Kickstarter, the film realizes a vision well above its cost and beyond its director's years.
The story of BLACK CANARIES blends a documentary style with slow-pulsing narrative that work together to produce an experience of poverty as crushing as the weight of the collapsed mine that has ruined the family's prospects. Told almost entirely within twenty yards of the family's squat and spare cabin, it feels as though the men, women, and children of the family and the land between them are all that they know -- and will ever know. Though coal is a poison in their lives, the sense is that it is the only life the characters can know. Shot in early early winter, the cool light and bare earth amplify the film's taught mortality, drawn between the family we're born into and fate we must carve for ourselves.
At just over 14 minutes, BLACK CANARIES produces a remarkably powerful fable that is at once familiar and darkly otherworld. With characters and moments as beautifully composed and recognizable as a Dorothy Lange photograph, BLACK CANARIES is an immersive world of suffering. The sound design works well with the strong camera movement and visual effects, weaving narrative throughout a soundscape that alternates between soothing and abrasive. What is most remarkable about BLACK CANARIES film is the casting -- gaunt and timeless faces, the characters' stories told through eyes that shine with the faintest flicker of desire. The make-up and costuming are handled with care and soaked up by the camera -- a funereal parade of deep stained skin weathered by work and wear.
Together with a direct and accessible script, the production realizes a powerful meditation worthy of much more than the fourteen minutes it will take to absorb the film.
Nearly five years in research and production, the film is drawn from personal history and meticulous research of a Kreitzer family patriarch, his great-great grandfather Thomas ("T.C.") Clarence Chapman. "An ode to T.C. and the labors of my mother's family," the author writes, "It's the story of rural peoples dependent on the land, a relationship brimming with simultaneous harmony and discord. It's a story of the impoverished, and the collective fears and desires to escape their cyclical existence."
Watch BLACK CANARIES.
A filmmaker from Marlboro, Vermont whose interests include rural storytelling, agrarian life, and folk cultures, Jesse uses genealogy, oral histories, and archival material as creative conduit. His films explore the fragility of memory, family lineage and tradition. His work has been exhibited at festivals, galleries and museums worldwide including: The National Gallery of Art, Museum of the Moving Image, Biografilm, Raindance, Oldenburg, Camden, and Ashland, among others, and have received Oscar®-qualifying and regional Emmy® awards. Kreitzer earned his MFA, summa cum laude, in Cinema and Comparative Literature from the University of Iowa, and his BA, magna cum laude, in Visual & Media Arts from Emerson College. He was the recipient of the Vermont International Film Foundation's 2016 James Goldstone Award for Emerging Vermont Filmmaker. In 2018, he received the LEF Foundation Fellowship to attend the 64th Robert Flaherty Film Seminar.
Kreitzer is currently producing CAREGIVERS, a documentary hybrid about eldercare in the hills of rural Vermont. Told over the course of four seasons and featuring live accompaniment by the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the film is a powerful meditation on acts of compassion, guilt, and the search for closure. You can learn more about CAREGIVERS and support the film here.