Professor's latest film explores loss, survival
Roughly 10 years ago, Britta Sjogren read a newspaper article about a Hollywood screenwriter whose child drowned in the backyard pool while he was engrossed in writing.
"It seems impossible that anyone can move on after such a tragedy, but course people do," said Sjogren, a professor of cinema. "I became interested in how those who have survived tragedy or who have committed catastrophic mistakes find a way to surmount the grief, to reinvent the meaning of life, or even find a way to contribute something again."
From that newspaper article came the first seeds of Sjogren's latest feature film, "Redemption Trail," a contemporary Western set in Sonoma County. Though the characters and setting have evolved in the intervening years, the central theme of survival remains.
"Redemption Trail" tells the story of the unlikely friendship between two women who are both haunted by the pain of the past and who face the question of how -- and whether -- to recover. The pairing begins when Tess, a reclusive vineyard manager and daughter of a former Black Panther, stumbles across Anna, an affluent white doctor from Oakland who has attempted suicide.
"Once I started rewriting it and changing the story to focus on these two women, the film became engaged with the question of redemption and the question of the guilt that people take upon themselves for things that aren't even their fault," Sjogren said. "The way the past can hold onto people in the present and keep them pinned, psychologically or emotionally, to something they can't do anything about, something they witnessed, something fate handed them."
Filming took place over the summer of 2011, and several SF State students were involved with the production. The movie will have its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival on Oct. 6 and 8.
As Sjogren wrote the film, she began to realize how many of its elements mirrored those traditionally seen in Westerns, a style of film she had always wanted to make. The similarities included archetypes familiar to this genre, such as conflicts between East and West, city and country, good and bad, law and vigilantism, and society and the individual. Additionally, she was inspired by the color palettes and landscapes of rural Marin, where much of the filming took place.
"A lot of the things that were already going on in my script fell very readily into the conventions of Westerns and I was able to push them further to bring out that Western element," Sjogren said.
Another goal of the film, she said, was to portray the types of female characters she finds are often lacking in cinema: complex women who are neither wholly good nor wholly bad.
"I think that certain kinds of female characters have not been sufficiently explored, either by mainstream cinema nor by feminist filmmakers who have often gone the route of trying to only show the strength of women, to show only their positive attributes, and forget the complexities, weaknesses, fragilities and perversities that women have, just like men," Sjogren said. "I'm really interested in exploiting the dimensionality of female characters, to allow that they may be a hero but they may also be really screwed up."
The filming of “Redemption Trail,” done mostly in Marin County, did not come without its challenges. Crew members slept in tents and converted wine barrels, and used an outdoor shower. Temperatures soared in the day, and were freezing at night. Generators would be hauled through difficult terrain and hills, only to give out as an actor was delivering a fantastic performance. Tug, the horse featured in the movie, made a habit of mooning the camera.
"Redemption Trail" is also partly a family affair for Sjogren: Her daughter, Asta Sjogren-Uyehara, appears as one of the film's two child characters.
Sjogren's course load at SF State includes classes on production, directing, screenwriting, sound design and critical studies courses on genre and theory. She says her professional experience helps her to prepare her students for the realities of modern-day filmmaking, something the cinema department prides itself on.
"I think it's probably helpful for them to look at somebody who has just finished a feature and know that that person made some mistakes and they've learned from it and they still have succeeded," she said.