From hundreds of submissions, five short films were selected to screen at the 23rd annual HBO Short Film Competition at this year’s American Black Film Festival. The festival will be hosted on ABFF.com from August 21–30, with more than 100,000 virtual attendees from around the globe anticipated to attend. As part of this year’s Short Film Competition, emerging writers and directors presented narratives that ranged from gut-wrenching tragedies to subversive comedies and a journey into self-exploration.
International filmmaker Darius Dawson is a Los Angeles native. After undergrad, Darius went on to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Asia in Singapore for graduate film production, with a concentration in cinematography. Darius shares more about his experience transitioning from the advertising industry to directing A Rodeo Film.
Why did you decide to submit your film to ABFF’s HBO Short Film Competition?
ABFF is a well-known festival, especially amongst Black filmmakers. It’s just something that I’ve always known about, so I knew I wanted to submit even before I made Rodeo. Last year my brother’s film, Gummi Bear, was part of the 2019 Emerging Directors Showcase. I AC’ed [Assistant Camera] another film, Blueberry, that was part of the same showcase, and one of my boys from AFI had his film, Outdooring, participate in the showcase that year as well. A lot of people around me have come through ABFF, so it just made sense. I think what attracted me to the HBO Competition specifically was the history of filmmakers that have participated; Ryan Coogler, Saladin K. Patterson, Steven Caple Jr. It seems like a place for Black creators to get their start and to get some recognition as well.
Given that your film focuses on the very American rodeo experience, how did your experiences learning and working in Asia impact your work on A Rodeo Film?
I think working abroad has really made me appreciate home. You remember things fondly when you have the luxury of distance or time between you and where you come from. It took living on the opposite side of the Earth for me to realize that what I’m most captivated by has been right here all along. I love stories in rural settings. I love stories about love and lust and characters that are flawed and don’t have all the answers. That’s the people I grew up with and myself. As far as rodeo being really American — it’s kind of funny because rodeos are pretty big in other places too: Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina. I think what’s uniquely American is the cowboy. The term cowboy was once a derogatory term for a Black ranch hand. Now it’s something that literally represents the United States.
What inspired you to write this story? Do you have a personal relationship with the Rodeo and/or rural California?
It all started a few years ago when I saw images from the Bill Pickett Invitational. I was taken by the images of people that looked like me — with tattoos, curly hair, brown skin — but they were doing things that we’ve been told belonged only to white people. Bull riding, Bronco riding, barrel racing, steer-wrestling. I knew about Black cowboys before this of course; if you’re Black, you know all about the Buffalo Soldiers, but this was something else. This was a rodeo for Black people by Black people. I developed a relationship with Bill Pickett, they’ve really taken me under their wing and taught me a lot. They even showed my film before one of their rodeos. Now I know cowboys all across the country, and not just Black ones. I met these two young cats from Argentina who do rodeos as a hobby, but as a day job they transport steer between North and South America in 747’s. I know a family of Black ranchers in Oklahoma who’ve been in shootouts with rustlers; the youngest one is like 11 years old. It’s definitely personal now. I’m still an outsider because I don’t live this life day to day, but I’ve made friends with the people who live this life and those relationships have been very rewarding.
As far as the love side of the story, I think that’s something I’ve always explored in my work. There’s the love triangle in the film, but for me what the film is really about is the love between two brothers. I have a brother. Relationships amongst men can be really complicated, especially with Black men. There’s a lot of stuff we just don’t talk about. If men are expected to be tough, Black men are expected to be stone walls. While I’m not trying to make a commentary on toxic male masculinity, I am interested in how much can go unsaid before we can’t take anymore and find ourselves screaming at the top of our lungs. Maybe I get into more of this with the feature, but that’s a big driving force for me: what goes unsaid between Black men.
Love and duty are big themes in your piece. How do these topics complement each other? Do you think one cannot exist without the other?
You guys are asking all the tough questions. Hindsight is always 20/20; film is no exception. You learn so much about what you’re trying to say after the film is done. I’ve learned a lot about myself as a filmmaker and about what’s eating at me as a Black man from making this film.
I’m not going to pretend to know exactly what love is. Sometimes it’s hard for me to distinguish love from lust. I do think that when we feel love for someone we also feel a sense of duty to that person. It’s like ‘It’s my duty to protect your heart,’ or ‘It’s my duty to defend your life with my life.’ I think love can suffocate us as well. Love can be unfair. Sometimes when we’re in love we can’t tell where we begin and the other person ends. This is especially true in romantic relationships, but what about with family? What about with the Black family? I can only speak for my family, but growing up, my mother made my brother and I responsible for each other in a way that was perhaps unrealistic. It extended even to career. If he got a directing job it was his responsibility to see how he could bring me along, if I got a job shooting a commercial I was supposed to see how I could get him on set. I love my brother and I’m sure he loved me, but at some point I had to ask myself: who am I outside of this social contract? Am I spreading my wings as much as I could knowing I’ve got this duty to another person?
Maybe love is saying “you feel this sense of duty, but because I love you I relinquish you of that duty.’ I don’t know. To answer your second question, no. I don’t think there can be love without at least a sense of duty.
What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers trying to break into the film industry?
Film is collaborative; always empower your collaborators. If you’re directing, it’s your responsibility to create a space for them to do their best work. You never know where the best idea is going to come from. In A Rodeo Film the entire cross motif was thought up by my Production Designer, Jessica Cole. We were going to rodeos and researching colors and costumes and a unique thing that we always came across was jewelry. I’m a Black guy. When dudes wear chains I don’t even really see them anymore. It’s just a part of our culture, at least where I’m from. We call them Jesus Pieces. They still wear grillz and rock spinners on their cars where I’m from. Jessica, as an outsider, took notice of this and thought it would be a nice prop to support the narrative. Be open to all ideas. You don’t have to take them all, but be open and really willing to hear out your collaborators. You have them for a reason.
The second thing comes from a great directing professor I had at AFI, Rob Spera: ‘The work is the reward.’ Notoriety is cool, I suppose, but for me, the coolest thing is being able to wake up and do this. We all have to support ourselves, so money is great of course, but what really gets me going is getting that next job or having that next opportunity to step on set as a director. I’ve worked with Peter and Bob Farrelly a bit; these guys just won an Oscar. How often do you think they talk about it? Never. I think Peter lets his friends take turns keeping the Oscar at their house. He just really loves having the opportunity to tell stories. He’s an amazing writer, he loves it when someone reads his scripts and responds to it in some sort of fashion. I think what’s gotten these guys this far is their love and respect for the craft and the honor and privilege to be able to do it. Now, more than ever, there’s space for creatives of diverse backgrounds to tell their stories. Let’s take advantage of it and create, then keep creating. Being able to work in this field is the reward.