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The Retrieval USA 2013

Posted by keith1942 on July 19, 2018

This film appears to have only had screenings at film festivals. I saw this US Indie at the Leeds International Film Festival in 2013 [a UK première] and it was attended by the director Chris Eska. Since then it has not surfaced anywhere in my range. This is a shame. It is both an excellent film and an interesting variation on a major genre: the US Civil War movie.

The film is set in the later stages of the US Civil War, 1864. The Union armies are into the Confederate territories and we see both a violent skirmish and the aftermath of some battle. However, what makes the film distinctive is that it focuses on black slaves, runaways and freed slaves caught up in this great conflict. For much of the film we are alone with a small trio of black men. There is thirteen year old Negro boy, Will [a fine performance by Ashton Sanders]. His mentor is Marcus (John Keston) who has trained him to work alongside as they assist a gang of white mercenaries who are hunting down runaway slaves for the bounty on their heads.

Marcus with Will is sent north into Union-held territory to bring back fellow Negro Nate (Tishuan Scott). He is not a runaway but a freed slave. However, six years earlier, in resisting an attempt to capture and enslave him, he shot a white gang member. So the journey involves both revenge and a bounty. Marcus and Will use a tale of a sick brother to entice Nate back close enough to the gang’s camp to enable his capture. As readers can imagine, this is the point at which the contradictions of the war and the period come to a climax.

Most of the film is taken up with the journey and the changing relationships between the three men. On the way they encounter both a live battle and the strewn corpses of the aftermath of another. A civil war film that spends most of its time with three black men is distinctive. However the story in which they are embedded is fairly conventional. I could reckon many of the developments before they arrived and the resolution of the film became more clearly predictable over the course of the film’s 92 minutes.

The writer and director Chris Eska also wrote the screenplay and edited the film. He is quoted in the Festival Catalogue:

“I start with the emotions first, then I tend to work backwards to find the setting of the characters that are going to highlight those emotions and themes.”

Using a civil war setting seems to have been the third possibility considered. This explains why there are so many familiar tropes in the film. In fact the emotions are the strongest aspect of the film. The characters interactions and developments are engaging. There is one very fine sequence when Nate and Will visit the homestead Nate left six years earlier. And they meet his former wife and her ‘new man’. It is sensitively filmed and acted.

The visual aspects of the film are also very good. The film was shot by Yasu Tanida in the 4K digital format. And the landscape along the journey looks great. The ratio seems to be 1.78:1. This is not a a cinematic ratio. I wondered if this was down to using digital or the hope that it would get screenings on television.. Whether that happened I am uncertain but it has been available on online streaming. Eska does not seem to have been able to make any subsequent features.

But there is also a serious weakness to the film. This is the music score by Matthew Wiedemann and the Yellow 6 band. Wiedemann seems to have provided the primary input, with ‘sixteen tracks’. The majority of the score accompanies the sequences of the journey. The music accompanies the changing landscape and also signals dramatic development. But at times it did not seem to have a discernible function. I thought the film was over-scored. This is a shame, because the natural sounds on the track when they appear are extremely well done.

I assume the music was worked out with Eska as he remarked that he and Wiedemann had worked together before. Eska participated in a Q&A after the screening. I, unfortunately, had to leave to catch a bus. A friend told me about some of the discussion. Eska remarked that finding funding for an independent film in the USA was hard: harder than a decade ago. I had found the final closing sequence of the film the most conventional. Eska explained that this was added because one of the producers would not accept the original ending. He talked about the editing which he found was essential in creating the structure that he wanted. He also talked about working with the Afro-American actors, for whom these were the first opportunities to play a leading role.

The film clearly failed to find a British distributor or elsewhere, even in the USA. Independent film distribution has decline din recent years but this would also seem to be an example of the neglect of the Afro-American experience in US cinema. At the time that it was exhibited at the Leeds International Film Festival that famous epic Gone With the Wind (193) was enjoying yet another re-release. This film is, among other matters, an eloquent rebuff to that film. I wonder how long I will have to wait to see it again at the cinema?

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