Inspired by a flashback about his birthmark, filmmaker Lester Alfonso is convinced that making a film will help confront a distant trauma rooted in cultural superstition. A follow-up to his award-winning film Twelve (2009), BIRTHMARK is a wry, sensitive, and candidly confessional exercise in creative anthropology. Soliciting fellow mark-bearers to add their testimonies to his own, Lester documents his journey to find peace and forgiveness, and to quiet the voice in his head.
“It’s not only about the marks we are born with but the marks we imagine for ourselves.”
Project Type:Documentary, Experimental
Runtime:1 hour 18 minutes
Completion Date:January 1, 2018
Production Budget:100,000 USD
Country of Origin:Canada
Country of Filming:Canada
Film Color:Black & White and Color
ReFrame Film FestivalPeterborough
January 28, 2018
Lester Alfonso (LA) is best known as a filmmaker and video artist. His award-wining films include Trying to Be Some Kind of Hero, This City Has Wings, and Twelve for the National Film Board of Canada. Awakened to the power of moving images by Spielberg's Jaws as a kid, LA was transformed by Chris Marker's Sans Soleil when he saw it as a film student at York University. LA also creates podcasts, takes 35mm photographs, plays ukulele, and constructs site-specific multi-media installations for festivals and performances. His first feature-length creative nonfiction film BIRTHMARK premieres in 2018.
BIRTHMARK — Director's Statement
It all started when I entered Reel Asian's So You Think You Can Pitch contest. My co-producer Angel Hamilton had suggested that I could do well with that sort of thing and I accepted the dare. Before I applied, we had a chat about what project idea of mine I would pitch, What idea “had legs?”
We picked Birthmark. I had wanted to explore the idea of making Birthmark ever since that moment, when I was in complete despair and I “called out to God.” And He answered back! I wanted to figure out this puzzle but I was also reluctant. There was something from my past that I had not been aware of and it was connected to an incident with my parents. I had to dig deep here to come out the other side.
Four years later, reflecting on myself at that moment, about to step onto the stage at the pitch competition, I marvel at my courage. Now that the film is done, I see clearly how much I've changed for the better.
It was at the pitch competition that I met Han Han (the Filipino musician/rapper) — she has a large visible birthmark along her arm. I asked if she could be in my film. She said yes. Director Romeo Candido said “Maybe our projects could cross over.” They won the pitch competition but meeting them was like a sign to keep going.
I felt the urgency to investigate my own psyche. I simply had to find out the story at work behind the scenes that subtly influenced my choices. I wanted to talk to others to see if there was something at work with them and what they thought of themselves because of their birthmark.
I found a way to dialogue with the inner critic by talking to others. I did not know what I was going to get. I had to reach out. Are there others out there who were also prisoners of their own birthmark story? My ultimate take away: this is about self-awareness. What is more important than that? Start the change you want to see in the world, I said to myself.
The film is the journey of my transformation and healing. I hear from other people while I tell the story of the making of the film itself. I have constructed a mixtape of a movie. Scenes are constructed around clips of my radio and television appearances. I had access to all the content but editing ended up taking three whole years.
Rob Viscardis (co-producer, co-editor, director of photography) edited a version that was later expanded on and rearranged with the help of feedback from collaborators, notably, Mike Munn (the consulting editor.) The inclusion of the interviews with my parents, cousin, aunt, and grandmother were intimate moments that only I could manage because I had access to a camera and I seized the moment.
I keep learning how to make films better. I built upon the idea of the radio appearances to intentionally use it as a metaphor; the voice in my head is like a mental radio that does not shut off. The constant din of television sets became the subtle theme in the sound design specifically created by Michael Philipps. The room tone for most interviews were accompanied intentionally with the sound of a TV set that's ON somewhere in the background.
A long time friend and collaborator, Josh Rifkin, saw a cut of the film and said it reminded him of Adaptation (by Spike Jonze) about a screenwriter who was hired to adapt a novel but ended up hijacking the script to incorporate his own personal story about his writer's block and the struggles of writing of the screenplay.
Birthmark seems to refuse to simply be a documentary “talking head” or a film essay on birthmark stories and myths. Its effect replicates the annoying car passenger on long rides who skips through radio channels cutting off announcements and songs whenever bored. The filmmaker in this film continually intrudes with his self-doubt and asserts what the story is really about. He asserts, title notwithstanding, that it's not about the birthmark.
Birthmark is a comedy-musical-documentary. The film is confused about what to call itself. I held close to my heart what perhaps my filmmaking pioneer heroes like Alan Berliner, Chris Marker, and Ross McElwee would have done. In the age of YouTube, I wanted Birthmark to come off as the Birth of a Nation for selfies. On top of that, I brought along a ukulele to the cinematic tradition.
I dared to write it all down to explain what I was going to do. And then, unexpectedly, the grants came. First from Ontario Arts Council, then it was followed by a successful crowd-funding campaign to start the film and then the Canada Council for the Arts supplied the finishing funds. Now I really had to put my money where my mouth is. Now I really had to drop my pants.
We started Principal Photography in September. By December, I had already written fifteen thousand words of my “memoirs” which was to be the source of the voice-over in the film. Around this time, I had learned that my grandmother was seriously ill and was rushed to the hospital. It became imperative to have an emergency family reunion that Christmas which included my Dad's two sisters and all their families. I took the camera along with me and I had intimate access to a family still raw from a close call.
I discovered the StoryCorps app for my iPhone which was designed to inspire dialogue between family members by providing many questions in different categories. I felt an urgency at the time. My grandmother recovered from her illness but for how much longer do we really have each other? This inspired me to sit down with them to ask a few specific questions for posterity. And while we were at it, what do you know about birthmarks?
These interviews became part of the footage in the hard-drive that we used to edit. Rob went through them all and made notes. It was difficult for me to see myself and my family as an objective filmmaker so Rob really helped in this regard.
To meet the HotDocs deadline, Rob and I worked almost round the clock through Adobe Premiere's remote collaboration features. He'd work during the day from his place. I'd take over the updated project file at night from my place. I continued writing and evolving. I was invited by James Kerr from Trent Radio to adapt Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Birthmark for radio and, of course, I could not refuse. We brought the camera in.
Another opportunity that did not make it into the final cut, was a panel in which I participated called Courageous Conversation. It addressed race and race relations in Peterborough. There was a cut of the film with a scene from this panel where I insisted that it was the voice in our own heads that was at the root of everything. It seemed like a perfect ending for the film but also too “on the nose.” Finally, it was left on the proverbial cutting room floor.
We watched The Oscars one night and Louis C.K. was presenting the award for best short documentary and he made a joke about short documentary filmmakers all driving Honda Civics and they'll never be rich as long as they live. It stung me big time because I drove a Honda Civic not only in real life but also in the film I was editing! His joke seemed to hit the nail on the head. Unmet expectations lead to self-loathing. The struggling short documentary filmmaker will never to get legitimate fame, pay, or audience. That bad luck birthmark was true after all. The voice in my head reiterated that I was a loser.
I realized that I became whatever the Voice in my Head told me. I knew that I had to break free and the only way was to recognize that I was NOT the voice in my head. I was the Silent Listener. And to recognize there's a difference, I can widen the gap. Through this specific personal story, I aimed at a universal truth. We all have negative self-talk. Where does it come from and why is it there?
The film opens with a quote from Carl Jung “If you do not make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” But another quote, from a lesser known thinker, appears near the beginning of the film. It's by screenwriting teacher Richard Krevolin — “In the end, one writes stories to learn, to further one's growth as a human being. That is all.”
The film was my way in; I needed to make the unconscious conscious — it's the deepest I've ever been and it was also my way out of a kind of prison. My transformation would not have been possible without it. I used the film as therapy... and it worked.
I hope the audiences come away with a bit of a wake up that there might just be a voice in their own heads that's telling them something false about themselves. Through the film, I found others who talked about their birthmarks with varying degrees of negative self-talk. Yet, it's not just birthmarks that give us that self-talk. It could be any undesirable physical feature or a label that someone suggested in childhood.
My deepest gratitude to my friends and family who continually believe and support me. A million thanks to The Ontario Arts Council and The Canada Council for the Arts for making it all happen. I also could not have done this without Angel Hamilton who stood beside me throughout the whole process. Thanks to my amazing collaborators and contributors Rob Viscardis, Micheal Philipps, Wayne Eardley, Mike Munn, aquapher (Jared Bremner), Matmos (M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel), and Han Han. And, for their love, especially my Mom, and specifically my Dad, who gave me significant financial support to help make the film.