Filmmaker Terence Nance offers a real slice of Americana via his psychological dive into a drug called love.

Words & Interview: Aimstar
Images: Courtesy of Terence Nance and Sundance Film Festival

“Love, unrequited, robs me of my rest: Love, hopeless love, my ardent soul encumbers: Love, nightmare-like, lies heavy on my chest, And weaves itself into my midnight slumbers!” William S. Gilbert once said, describing the insatiable madness that often accompanies a love gone unreciprocated. Throughout history men and women alike spoke of it, trying desperately to articulate the emotions entangled within those somber moments fraught with incessant pangs of the heart. Feelings, we call them mostly— we ride to the center of them only to find that solitary question that seems to ring true for all of us no matter the community: Why?

Filmmaker Terence Nance digs deeper with his film within a film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, which recently premiered during a special screening within the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program just a few days ago. Unearthing his own psychological missteps on the course to true love, Nance, who is the film’s the main character (and also the director, writer, animator, music supervisor and one of the producers), has got it bad. He has subsequently fallen for the pretty, round-the-way girl, Namik, and then in true cinéma vérité style, employs himself to document the entire exchange (and then some).

Without any forethought or premeditated inklings to drive the film, An Oversimplifcation becomes an honest and uncanny representation of “going through the motions”, one that the viewer can’t help but ride shotgun alongside the director, while trying to swim good up out of Nance’s sometimes heart-wrenching and often replayed memories. (I so badly wanted Nance to win within the first half hour of the film…) Much like what one would anticipate if Brooklyn Godfather and director Spike Lee were to create the male version of his Nola Darling character, Nance is the answer to this, though not as calculated; delving into untapped creative subcultures subliminally (and right on time) all the while trying to make it in the land of love lost.

The film is brilliant. It’s amazing to see a work of art—literally because of its mixed-use of formats (like live action, claymation, illustration and others) and styles to transition between thoughts, moods and “episodes”—made by a director, who would most likely prefer being referred to as an über creative as opposed to filmmaker to watch. But after watching An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, you’ll understand that what some say with regard to the director who earned his MFA in Studio Art from New York University and easily slips into the new generation of cultural creators who are creating their own scene, is unjustly, oversimplified, and his work is truly beyond common definition.

Your film teeters on the idea of whether it is a work of fiction or truth, much like The Blair Witch project. Which one is it, Fact or fiction?

The short answer is that it is both. Everything in the film happened to me in reality or in a dream. I say that to say that the info in the film is reliable as fact, as much as anyone’s memory is reliable as fact. Of course it’s proven that memory is the most unreliable source of information ever, so in that way the film is fiction.

You never touch on whether the other women who are addressed in the film have seen the film, or what their perspectives were/are post viewing if they have seen it. Have they and any new developments or thoughts?

Namik saw the full film for the first time at Sundance at the premiere, and I won’t try and repeat what she said when asked this question. I’m sure she will be happy to answer. You’re right though that no one else has seen the film. The other women in the film are mostly real, but sometimes I had to combine stories to make up one woman when it was really something that happened in several different situations so it gets more complex. I don’t think any of them would have a reaction because all of the situations depicted have been long since resolved. They would mostly interact with it as a movie that they like or don’t like for how it engages them as a film. But if anything happens when I show it to them, i’ll let you know.

How did you feel after watching your film the first time once it was completed?

The first thought I had was, “Honestly this is hard to watch, but I’m impressed… whoever made it has some talent.” I kind of did this excercise of watching the rough cut as if I were someone else and that was my reaction. It was mostly hard to watch because at the time it was over two hours long.

An Oversimplification is not your conventional love story, and I imagine that the love stories or films that inspire you aren’t either. Can you name a few of those?

Films about love that inspire me… hmmmm… maybe inspire is the wrong word because I saw most of these films after I finished my film, but in no particular order: Fellini’s 8 1/2, [Michel] Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine [of the Spotless Mind], [Jean-Pierre] Jeunet’s Amelie, [Paul Thomas Anderson’s] Punch Drunk Love. But also books: Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, [Toni] Morrison’s Sula. I also just saw Andrea Arnold’s Wurthington Heights, which was like old school love, when love was like the only thing you could do with your free time. I think to me it’s like a Blues song, so Robert Johnson and Leadbelly were big influences.

You seem to draw influence from everywhere and successfully experiment with a variety of formats (live action, claymation, illustration) in this film. Why all of these? Was this your intention when you initially started to make this film or did it happen along the way?

The original short film How Would You Feel? was all live action, but in my attempt to expand and contextualize the story I felt the need to document a lot of un-documentable things that happened between myself and Namik: dreams, letters and some very hidden internal emotions. You couldn’t really film a dream, so I leaned on animation and illustration to depict those moments. It was a very calculated decision in that I used live action to the extent I thought it accurately illustrated the ideas and emotions I was trying to visualize. When it could not do the job, I had to use other methods.

Why did you change the name of the film from How Would You Feel to An Oversimplification of Her Beauty?

I actually didn’t change the name HWUF is a short film that exists within the feature film AOOHB. The feature is an attempt to make a portrait of my time with Namik and on some level show the world who she was to me. The title of the feature is really an admonition that what I’m attempting to do is impossible. No matter how hard I try to come to understand her, I can only show you what she shows me of herself. And, even in my attempt to re-create that small part of her, I can only show who she is within the limitations of my ability to articulate who she is. It’s like I will never find the right combination of words, sounds and images to capture her accurately, so you will have to settle for this “oversimplification” which is still pretty beautiful.

When watching, HWUF seems to resonant so much with the idea and feelings of unrequited love, so much so that it touches on those hidden parts the viewer himself has (This was the case for me.). But rarely in those moments do we feel the range of clarity you were able to address in the film. How did you come to this understanding? Was it really a process of simply being alone and creating? Or was there more to this that you did not share?

I definitely withheld some things, not because they are weird, or crazy or too private, but mostly because the movie had to be a reasonable length. The evolution required for me to have an honest and self-aware perspective on my situation was almost instantaneous. When the rattle snake bit, I knew instantly not to play with it anymore. It felt like it all happened in that moment, but really, the consequences of my mistakes happened over time. So that “moment” was probably so effective because of the cumulative effect of being bludgeoned in the face by the consequences of f#$%cking up so royally during all of my romantic encounters.

Cleverly you introduce unique voices in the American Black experience, that of the starving artist and the Black male perspective (especially when the girl he likes likes girls) —ideas which are hardly ever showcased. You get it right, and from the way the film is produced and executed, your approach (with respect and sans use of clichés) to this “experience” seemed to be of the utmost importance. Can you talk about this approach and your thinking about this?

I wasn’t thinking about it because the film is really me playing me so it contains all of the things you mentioned involuntarily. I think at some point in post-production I realized how there are very few films and TV shows that depict our niche of Black culture. Unfortunately, “I” don’t exist in the media really and because of that I will be perceived to be making a political statement in just the act of making the film and thus inserting my image into popular culture. That is sort of depressing in a way, that there hasn’t been a “ME” since Doug E. Doug was on the second Cosby show.

What is your involvement in MVMT and The Swarm, and how did they help to foster the production of this film?

I am a co-founder of a collective called MVMT which is a collective of artists, companies, entrepreneurs and organizers whose missions align to promote the arts, social entrepreneurship and collective empowerment. My production company Media MVMT is one of the companies in the collective, and in general, I think it’s always important to formally collectivize around shared ideas and deliberately be a contribution to your community. A huge advantage to the film was how committed MVMT was to spreading the word about our last ditch effort to fundraise for our Sundance premiere. I’m also a part of a filmmaking collective called Cinema Stereo, and we are collectivizing in general to make sure audiences and the industry are aware of how connected the next generation of filmmakers making films about the worldwide Black experience are. CS helped me fundraise, but also a lot of Cinema Stereo members were involved in the actual production of the film.

The Swarm is kind of a different thing, it is the demographic that I belong to. I just happened to name it “The Swarm” because of our… flight patterns. The demographic has four or five markers; you don’t have to meet all of them, but generally, you will know if you are Swarm if:

1. You are of color or culturally of color (a lot of my European brothers and sisters are still Swarm).
2. You went to a university or educated yourself in a way that parallels that experience.
3. You work in a non-corporate environment or aspire to work in a non-corporate environment, most often the arts, education, media or philanthropy.
4. You live in a Swarm neighborhood, but are not actually from there. In NYC that is Bed Stuy, Crown Heights, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene—Ironically it’s never Williamsburg or really anywhere in Manhattan. There are some Swarm in other parts of the city, but the fact that this population concentrates itself in these neighborhoods is the inspiration for the name. Also a lot of NY Swarmies relocate from other boroughs to participate in the Swarm social life, but actually live near the neighborhoods they grew up in (Queens, Canarsie, LI, the Bronx etc.)
5. You deny that you are in the Swarm. Most Swarmies are very free-thinking communal people and hate the idea that they can be labeled or categorized. I prefer to think of it as belonging to a very vibrant and beautiful community. I consider myself lucky to be in The Swarm and I think the movie will speak most clearly to members of this community.

* There is a Swarm in every city, but my theory is Brooklyn, DC, the Bay and Chicago have the biggest ones in America. London, Rotterdam and Paris probably have the biggest ones in Europe.

* Swarmies are not Hipsters or “Blipsters”. In fact, for some reason Hipsters/Blipsters and Swarm don’t really get along (pending research will determine why).

On the film’s site you say, “As you can see, I am in the post production phase of my first feature, which is not unlike being in purgatory.” I find this hard to imagine as your film has received rave reviews. Can you elaborate on that feeling and also how you are feeling now?

I should update that because of course I’m now finished. At the time, however, I had worked on the film for so long that I knew I was going to finish, but could not tell anyone exactly when because the nature of the work was so that the results were indeterminable. Editing is like climbing a mountain whose pinnacle is obscured by fog. Then at some point you actually get inside the fog and you really don’t know how far it is before you reach the summit. I knew I would finish the film, but the due date kept moving until finally things started to come together at the end of 2011. Now I feel like I had a really complicated baby, who is super heady and smart but confuses some people by the way she talks. I’m SOOO happy that she is finally out of the womb, cause that was the longest most difficult pregnancy of all time.

Did you ever get your girl?

I did, and I also did not and everything in between.

For more information on MVMT, visit their site HERE.

Follow Terence Nance on Twitter, @TerenceNance

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