A Q&A session with directors Erinnisse and Patryk Rebis followed the film “Shoulder the Lion” at Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest last weekend. After engaging dialogue between the audience and the directors, Patryk said that if a viewer could articulately describe the film they just viewed then, in a sense, the directors had failed in their artistic mission. This is an articulate and avant garde perspective, meaning that only the film can convey its purpose, any other description cannot do it justice.
So, with that in mind, I will attempt to convey my thoughts regarding this film.
Plainly understated, the film is about the uncertainty of the future seen through the experiences of the three main characters, attempting to ask what it takes for someone to keep on going in times of uncertainty.
“Shoulder the Lion” is labeled as a documentary, chronicling the lives of its three protagonists, all facing a debilitating condition that obscures their passion — a blind photographer, a deaf musician and a painter suffering from a traumatic brain injury. But while the film is non-fiction, the unusual portrayal of the characters had me turning to the friend I came with, asking wait, is this a documentary or fiction?
The creative liberty taken by the directors is apparent, and key in their mission: trying to visually, audibly and orally convey what life is like for these characters. We are made to feel as if we are connecting with each character’s unique perspective through artistic and creative devices.
As the photographer Alice Wingwall describes her blindness, the camera blurs and fades to a single color. As Fergal Sharpe, the Irish musician describes the agony of his hearing condition, a painful, high-pitched buzz builds, surrounding the theater and burrowing deep into your eardrums. As Katie Dallam describes life with half of her brain missing, confusing scenes are set to a television buzzing with static to portray her fuzzy mind.
Visually, “Shoulder the Lion” is astounding — a cinematic feat much like a living art exhibition, with each of its three subjects manipulating their natural environments to convey an abstract sense of what their life is like, in order to impart this upon the viewer who has no idea.
Interestingly enough, many parts of the film were actually shot in and around Kansas, a detail that was the strong motivation behind my viewing of it. Dallam, the boxer and inspiration for the Academy Award-winning movie “Million Dollar Baby” is a Kansas native. The film takes us through her now simple life in the visually stunning rolling plains of rural Kansas and Missouri.
However, structurally is where this film lost me. The fact that the film is not structured by vignettes, short stories from each of these, nor do any of the plot lines interact is where the issues originate. Cutting starkly from one character to the next, with unequal attention devoted to each character, not all of the protagonists are fully developed at the end of the film. There are still many questions about their lives, conditions and even their personalities.
For a film that attempts to convey what life is like to each protagonist, sometimes these details are pushed to the side to fulfill an artistic vision, obscuring the basis of the film. It could be argued that the film spends more time trying to replicate their disabilities than exploring the experiences beyond or leading up to that.
Despite this flaw, there is no question that “Shoulder the Lion” is unlike any cinematic piece I have ever seen — experienced — before. The result is a thought-provoking and deeply moving film. A beautiful and abstract portrayal of life that one hardly ever gets to see, hear or feel.