First Time Fest, beyond all its star-studded packaging, is at its core about showcasing new filmmaking talent, and perhaps the most fascinating and fully-formed talent featured this year is director, actress, and performance artist Josephine Decker, who now has two accomplished features under her belt.
The first, Butter on the Latch, which had its world premiere at last year's Maryland Film Festival and its international premiere at this year's Berlin Film Festival, is in competition at First Time Fest. It's a horror film of sorts, and a truly original take on friendship and rivalry between women, the menace and mystery of the forest, and the power of mythology and folklore. The film very impressively renders the psychological state of its protagonist in striking visual terms, and represents a wonderful artistic symbiosis among its collaborators. Decker's inimitable vision fuses with the fine improvisational playing by actresses Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence, Ashley Connor's cinematography which often resembles abstract painting, and Mike Frank's eerie sound design to create an indelibly memorable experience.
We first meet Sarah (Sarah Small) soon after congratulating a friend for an avant-garde theater performance she has just attended, when she gets a frantic phone call from another friend. This friend has apparently gotten herself in a situation where she's woken up not knowing where she is, and is surrounded by presumably dangerous people. Sarah, now frantic herself and in tears, urges her to get out of the house as quickly as possible. This early scene establishes the visual style: a swirling, restless camera swoops around Sarah as she is on the phone, going in and out of focus, reflecting Sarah's mental state. It is a deeply subjective point of view, putting us directly in Sarah's head, eschewing the omniscient stance that most other films adopt.
Elliptical, fragmented editing - during which Sarah screams on the street and rattles a house's front gate - transitions to Sarah dancing with some guys in a nightclub, and then awakening in what looks like some sort of garage or warehouse, next to a couple of men, one of them a tattooed guy playing a harmonica. She clearly has no idea how where she is or how she got there, and has found herself in a weirdly similar situation to the friend she was on the phone with earlier. She hurriedly gathers her clothes and flees the scene.
After all of this, Sarah decides to make her escape from an urban environment where she seems to be ending up in potentially dangerous situations. To this end, she travels far from New York, all the way across the country in fact, to a Balkan music and dance camp in the forests of Mendocino, California. (This is an actual place that Decker featured in a short documentary, and which allowed her to shoot this feature there, presumably among actual teachers and participants.)
At the camp, Sarah reconnects with an old friend, Isolde (Isolde Chae-Lawrence), who has just come off of a recent breakup with her boyfriend. They bond by exchanging funny sex stories, including Isolde's recollection of an erotic encounter at a massage parlor in the East Village. During the day, they drink and hang out with the other campers as they sing and play instruments, while at night they go to dance parties and afterward wander the forest at night, with headlamps attached to their foreheads and carrying flashlights, often drunk and laughing, in scenes that, at least visually, are vaguely reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project.
Sarah studies with a singing teacher and learns how to sing a Balkan folk ballad that has thematic connections to the film, about a dragon that falls in love with a woman and entangles itself in her hair and burns the forest as it carries her away. (Another Balkan folk song lends the film its title.)
However, this idyllic getaway soon becomes nightmarish and hallucinatory. This begins to happen around the same time of - and may be triggered by - her introduction to Steph (Charlie Hewson), a handsome, banjo playing camp participant, with whom she attends nightly dance parties. Steph sometimes talks to Isolde as well, which clearly stirs some jealousy in Sarah, although the two friends never seem to openly compete for Steph's affections.
Sarah and Isolde's friendship begins to disintegrate after one night in which they drunkenly wander the forest at night, and Isolde blames Sarah for getting them lost. Soon after that, events become increasingly fragmented and surreal, as Sarah begins to lose her grip on reality, seeing women dancing in the forest. It's as if the eerie, mysterious environment of the natural surroundings and the ancient folk songs that echo through the trees have drawn Sarah into their embrace, and have become more menacing and threatening. Sarah's mental breakdown - which may or may not have disastrous consequences for Isolde and Steph, depending on how one interprets what we're shown - engulfs her completely, with the final scene depicting Sarah losing herself in the atmosphere and sounds of folk singing and music.
In Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker has created a fascinating and truly original work of art. As with many first time feature filmmakers, there's still a sense of its creator still developing and refining their style. But Decker, who has previously made several short fiction and documentary films, is well on her way. Her second feature, the very slightly more conventional Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, a film of eroticism and violence inspired by Steinbeck's East of Eden, confirms that Decker is a filmmaker with a unique voice and sensibility well worth watching.
Butter on the Latch
screens at First Time Fest on April 6, 9:30 pm. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit First Time Fest's website