Film

The Makers of BAMcinemaFest’s “Feast of the Epiphany” Devise a Daring Two-Part Structure

Collaborators Michael Koresky, Jeff Reichert, and Farihah Zaman discuss the bifurcated thinking behind their experimental fiction feature

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When the lights come down on Feast of the Epiphany’s BAMcinemaFest world premiere this Saturday, the production-company logo may be familiar to some viewers: It’s the mirror-flipped R and S of the online film journal Reverse Shot. For most of this century, Reverse Shot has been an aspirational standard for and generous platform to almost every serious film critic to emerge in New York City (as well as to this author). The three co-directors of Feast of the Epiphany Reverse Shot co-founders Michael Koresky and Jeff Reichert and contributor Farihah Zaman, with whom Reichert directed Remote Area Medical among other politically inclined documentaries — aim to continue the Reverse Shot ethos to “question everything we see,” as Koresky terms it. This time, it’s with a film whose formal experiments offer the viewer the abundant food for thought promised by the title.

The first half of Feast of the Epiphany, scripted by Koresky, is — like Joyce’s “The Dead” —  set around a dinner on January 6, the holiday celebrating the revelation of Christ to the Magi. Abby (Nikki Calonge) spends the day shopping at the Grand Army Plaza farmers’ market, then cooking for a group of once-inseparable friends who’ve drifted apart following a recent loss. The awkward, heart-bruising dynamic is concentrated in performance styles Koresky described as “mannered,” and we’re cued to an overarching artifice by the series of interviews with the actors — discussing family ties, food, and sexuality — which opens the film.

And then, at the midpoint, comes a cut away from snow falling over brownstone Brooklyn to a leafy-green spring in Roxbury Farm, a community-supported concern in Kinderhook, New York, run by Judy Bolluyt, who begins each day’s agricultural work with a reading from Rudolf Steiner. The second half of the film is a documentary set there; while watching it, the viewer also considers ways to bridge the gap back to the preceding fiction. There’s a literal connection, or at least a potential one, in the sense of farm-to-table, even though produce as a crop registers only on the margins of the internal dynamics and food rituals of the first section. By pivoting on a seemingly incidental element of everyday life to look at where our food literally comes from, Feast of the Epiphany becomes a political prompt, reminding us to consider the origins of our consumables and the processes and structures that shape them.

Or perhaps another reading may occur to New Yorkers: As grief surfacing in Brooklyn turns to open-air manual labor, you may recall moments in your own life in which you’ve fantasized about leaving the stresses of city life behind and restoring yourself by working with your hands somewhere in the Hudson Valley. The second half does touch on farm labor and migration, the economics of agribusinesses big and small, and sustainability, but all are addressed without the narrative tension of the first half. The problems of modern life are by no means resolved on Roxbury Farm, but they are at least absorbed into routine.

The bifurcated structure is, as Reichert points out, in line with the Reverse Shot tradition of putting two separate works in dialogue with each other, as in their symposiums evoking such themes as “East Meets West” or “cinema vs. TV”: “It’s sort of ridiculous that we didn’t realize at the time how Reverse Shot of an idea this was.” The Reverse Shot approach to film criticism as exploration informed the trio’s filmmaking spirit as well: The directors met the challenge of making their first fiction film with what Zaman calls “an ‘it’s OK that you don’t know what you don’t know’ attitude.” The filmmakers spoke to the Voice ahead of the BAMcinemaFest screening.

In the press notes, the three of you talk about how you had wanted to make a part-fiction, part-nonfiction film with a bifurcated structure. I’m curious about why — is it a matter of your respective interests or film practices, or was there something you had in mind that you thought a bifurcated structure would be able to achieve?

Jeff Reichert: When we first started conceiving this film, the hybrid form was in the air in the critical discourse, which we’re all tied into and impacted by. I wouldn’t say it was a rhetorical question, but it was an idea: What if you put these different kinds of elements in the movie but didn’t ask the viewer to negotiate moment to moment what it is — how would that play? And could you build a coherent whole from two very disparate parts that were speaking to the same thing in different ways? So there was a bit of an experimental idea to it.

Did the two halves develop separately and move toward each other, or did they start from a moment of overlap and branch away from each other?

Michael Koresky: The movie was such a process of discovery that it’s hard to pinpoint a certain moment. But because we had this bifurcated structure, and because the first half was so meticulously planned and the second half was so open-ended, there were moments of revelation that seemed to come bit by bit. Right?

Farihah Zaman: Yeah. Jeff and I know this as documentarians: You can plan meticulously for a documentary as well, but really the best parts of the process are the surprises. All the things that happened while the three of us were filming the documentary portion, those surprises were filtered through what we had already filmed and experienced on set. So it was a new way of being open to surprise.

JR: Just to give a little more context: We thought we would film on the farm for five days. As you see in the movie, we shot something like 25 days, over three seasons. Our documentarian impulse kicked in. We wanted to keep following this tale of this farm, yet simultaneously that impulse to keep following them was informed, as Farihah said, by this idea of what we’d seen in the first half. The fact that we’d landed at a farm that is run by two sisters became really interesting to us, especially in consideration of the first half of the movie.

FZ: It was always very important to Michael, writing the film, that this was a central female character. Those strands came out even more because of the conversations we had with the lead actress and what you see in the beginning, where she talks about traditions around eating and the table in her home — who gets served first, and the place of women in this space. On the farm, there’s also this short scene where one of the people who works [there is] being ribbed by the other farm boys about being in painting school and, quote, “drawing the junk.”

MK: Once you open yourself up to all kinds of ideas, then you start to see the ideas everywhere. There are things that parallel exactly: Both [halves] build to a meal, you see people making salads, that’s a literal thing. But also, like Farihah’s example just now: You have this scene where someone finds himself in a slightly homophobic space, and is clearly a little uncomfortable about that, and the first half of the movie is clearly about someone who’s created queer safe spaces. We just want people to look at everything they see in the second half and say, “Yeah, remember those people that we were just following for all this time — how do these spaces relate to each other, how would they function in this space?”

The split in the middle: In the press notes, you guys talk about Apichatpong. It reminded me a bit of something Malick might do: challenge the viewer to see how these two radically different storylines and locations and forms do fit together, are part of the same world, do belong in the same film. That’s something I found gratifying to be…confronted with? Presented with? I’m not entirely sure which word I should use.

FZ: It’s in some ways easiest to talk about this film as an intellectual exercise. However, while there is this core structural experiment happening, it’s very emotionally driven. It’s the most personal work I think any of us have done.… It became folded into the intellectual exercise, actually, because the idea is: Can you experience a unified emotional arc even if there is this total narrative shift?

JR: I think the film is a provocation, but I think it proves that a provocation doesn’t have to have all the aggressive connotations you associate with the word. We have very consciously chosen elements to highlight in both halves that create certain resonances, but we’ve been really excited so far by how many things people have pulled from the juxtaposition. The very first test screening, somebody who’s not a filmmaker or film writer watched the movie and came out and said, “Wow, this is a really lovely ode and meditation on the creative process.” I’d never thought of it that way, but now that she’s said that I can’t escape it. Because everybody is creating spaces, creating moods, creating meals, creating community.

MK: It’s a film about collaboration on all levels, and one of those is, yes, how we work together. But sometimes that shared purpose is finding ways of healing each other, and it’s interesting to make a movie that’s about grieving and the healing process without making it feel either religious or New Age–y. What happens in the first half is very much related to how I felt at times in my life, and still feel, and the way Farihah feels: the way we dealt with the loss of parents, the way that we were and were not able to relate to each other after that loss. And then because those things are really inchoate and hard to even talk about, internally or externally, it’s interesting to let a film formally deal with it. So the second half is a way of letting the characters work out things that they can’t work out in their lives.

I know you guys are adamant that it’s not a hybrid film, but there is a moment in the interviews where you realize that one of the actors is running lines, and it makes you wonder whether the previous to-camera interviews were also in character. It’s a moment when there isn’t a definite fiction or nonfiction split. It’s also fun to realize, later in the film, that the lines he was running to the camera were partly cut — which, again, is a nonfictional trace of how this fiction was constructed. So: In this film that you’re adamant is not a hybrid film, why do you have these hybrid elements?

FZ: Very saucy, good question.

MK: Every time we talk about it not being a hybrid, because that’s how we initially conceived it, I think about that exact moment, when [actor Meng Ai] starts to read the lines. That first section of the film does function somewhat independently of the two — it’s almost a prologue that sets up the ideas of documentary versus fiction. So yes, it’s setting up the first half as a performance, and it is about the construction of something, and it calls attention to itself. So…yeah, it’s a little meta.

FZ: Maybe the most contentious thing we discussed was the inclusion of the interviews, and it’s because the interviews, and gaining a better knowledge of the actors’ lives, did end up feeding into the way their characters were constructed. There’s a specificity to what the main character is cooking that was very important — it’s not just anything, it’s the idea that she’s connecting with her culture and family through this act of making a meal, in addition to the people who are at her apartment. So giving a viewer that hint to the characters you’re about to witness — even though it’s coming from a documentary place, and they’re not playing themselves, exactly, it seemed like it would add to the overall portrait.

I love that, in the moment when you explicitly reference “The Dead,” you show it in this Melville House pocket-paperback version. It’s very, “This is Joyce, but in 21st-century gentrified Brooklyn!” Did you think much about how much this story, this structurally ambitious film, should look like everyday life? Were you hoping to transform or elevate the setting in a way that made it look less like whosever apartment it was, or was part of the appeal that this story would exist in a space that looked like life?

FZ: The short answer’s both. I can start to speak to this because with Roberta Mercuri, who worked on the film, we did a lot of the art direction. Particularly the food — Roberta did a lot of the cooking and was so smart about thinking through when things have to be a certain level of ready, which is so difficult. I would not have known how to do that.

The funny thing is: For practical reasons, but ones I now look on with affection, most of the stuff in the house belongs to us. We had no money to make this movie — we essentially re-created my bedroom for it, including the mess. There are definitely references to very specific things about our day-to-day lives — like, that copy of “The Dead” belongs to Michael. There are earrings that the main character wears that I had gotten on a trip to Bali; she’s wearing this tote bag at the farmers’ market that was my father’s before he died. So, it happened for practical reasons, but became more emotionally resonant. But I think you can see, as the first half goes on, that it becomes a space that’s less rooted in mundane reality. That shift happens in the style of the acting, in the lighting — you have more of these stylized shots. When Abby stands at the window and you have the stained glass falling on her, yes, it’s rooted in the reality of living in an apartment in Brooklyn, but…

MK: When we first walked into the kitchen, we were like, “Can we make this kitchen work?” But the more we looked at it, the pots and pans and the tile — like, it looks like Jeanne Dielman’s kitchen. Farihah touched on this, but as you move along in the film, it gets into increasingly dark and more surreal spaces, so by the time you get to the dinner there’s more candles than they’d probably have. It’s very stylized.

FZ: The mundane and the ordinary can have moments that are transcendent or surreal. We experience this in life, in spaces that we live in and see all the time: that we see them in a new light.

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