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Sundance 2019 showcase, PAHOKEE

by Gina Lewis, Talk2SV Correspondent

A love story to Middle America and the parts of Florida most times overlooked. As a viewer who spent all of their teenage years in Florida, this documentary film had a familiar hometown feel while exploring the paths of high school teens throughout their senior year.

As their first full-feature debut, directors, husband and wife duo Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresan sought to tell stories of Pahokee, Florida with one mission in mind: adding it to the small town American landscape with faces, stories, identities and native tongue that–in today’s landscape–are constantly called into question as to whether or not they are truly American. The feature is a part of this year’s U.S. Documentary Competition at Sundance, and expands upon the duo’s former short films, The Send Off and The Rabbit Hunt, which are also set in Pahokee, Florida. Bresan proudly expressed being from Middle America, and wanting to focus on Middle American stories.

Pahokee, Florida is not what most would imagine when they think of Palm Beach County, Florida. With last updates noted from the 2010 Census, Pahokee’s population is over 50% African-American. The balance of the population is predominantly Hispanic, with a large presence of those with Mexican heritage.

Told through the lens of four high school students – 3 African-American and 1 Mexican-American – each with their own identities, aspirations and struggles, the story uniquely highlights how they navigate some of the most important decisions in a young person’s life. It focuses and points to how these decisions can make generational impact for their families and those in the community around them.

The subjects of the film spoke of the directors’ ability to seamlessly immerse themselves into the city of Pahokee after making the decision to move and live in the place where they sought to capture and tell its story. A fantastic display of intimate documentary filmmaking, they occupied many personal spaces while handling the emotions of determined high schools students in the delicate manner that they should. They expressed that their process of making the film was about capturing what happens, being humble, and putting the relationships first.

Their stories are set amongst the imagery and experience of high school football games, soulful cheerleaders and marching bands, passionate locker room coaching sessions, after school jobs at various quick serve food restaurants, barbeques, homecoming and prom–all of it shown with a southern comfort and familiarity.

As communities of color are showcased on film, many colorful moments are also captured, showing that no matter how “small-town” or disenfranchised a community may appear to be, there’s a creativity and resilience to make any situation a celebration. You see this on display after the town comes together at a park for the ultimate high school prom send-off in red-carpet-ready gowns, full-faced make-up, and suits that coordinate with luxury cars. This same park was devastated by a shooting during an Easter celebration; also caught on film and shown in the documentary. You see these students honor their communal triumph at prom, where a room full of decked out high school seniors proudly rap every single word to Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares”.

In the most intimate and Blackest of moments, I starkly questioned whether it would capture the hearts and understanding of audiences who did not look like the subjects of the film. Hearing the snickers of a predominantly white audience during a scene where scalp and edges pop under the wrath of a hot comb while 17-year old Na’Kerria discusses her aspirations of attending a 4-year university over a community college – was both familiar but conflicting at the same time. I understood this, but the audience is laughing and all of a sudden feels too personal to be on camera.

Another standout moment captured on film is the glaring disdain of Harvard University recruiter at a local college fair, as if southern drawl and braids don’t merit even speaking or smiling at the students who approach their booth with questions about the application process and requirements.

My heart softened at the end of the film during the Q&A, when audience members asked a range of questions. Looking to seek familiarity with the subjects of the film who graduated from Pahokee High School in the spring of 2017 and find out what they were up to in their young lives, many shared commentary that they saw themselves in the film – both uplifting and surprising to me for a majority white audience.

Lela Klein of Dayton, OH attending Sundance Film Festival for the fourth time, expressed that she was able to see herself in the story of Pahokee because of her upbringing in a working class community. Klein shared that she sees the story for its honest capture of life, hope and optimism beyond economic struggle and color lines.

One audience member questioned the extent of invasiveness or intrusion when telling stories that are not of their own and what boundaries are necessary to ensure communities are not exploited. When asked what rules were put in place to ensure their subjects where protected and not exploited, especially in this case of racial differences, co-director Patrick Bresan answered simply: there were no rules, we just ensured that the movie was secondary to their subject’s lives. You could see the proof in this, as the subjects of the film explained the experience and connection of the film and their story as life changing.

Pahokee is a feature in the U.S. Documentary Competition with several screenings during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

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