Storytelling has taken many forms. The original orators had to be skilled in manipulating their voices and contorting their bodies in ways that helped those around the campfire to “see” all the characters and places being presented. Authors used their literary abilities to “paint” all manner of odyssey in the mind’s eye. Theater began to pull the great works into manifestation with the aid of thespians, lighting, music, and props. Modern films began as a visual marvel that eventually succeeded in allowing us to literally see things that had previously only been imagined. The miracle of modern cinema is that it allows us, as viewers, to experience scenarios we will likely never actually be in and sometimes…even view the same situation from different emotional perspectives. This idea perfectly explains the premise of The Reunion as well as the experience of watching the film. Director/writer/producer Carmen Elly Wilkerson’s 2015 production has received immense attention in the past year and Justin Ivan Hong is the cinematographer whom she worked with to design the look of the film. It’s a tall order for a film which mostly takes place in a single room with the four female characters discussing their personal view of the conflict in the film. At the Cannes Film Festival, Kodak named Wilkerson one of 16 Filmmakers to watch. The Reunion received great praise and numerous achievements including: the Charlotte Black Film Festival – Audience Award, HollyShorts Film Festival – Audience Award, nominations at both the Pan African Film Festival (Best Short) and the Burbank International Film Festival (Best Short & Best Actress). The Reunion was also an Official Selection at the following festivals: Miami Short Film Festival, Black Harvest Film Festival, Urbanworld Film Festival, Reel Sisters of Diaspora Film Festival, San Francisco Black Film Festival, Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival, and the Gary International Film Festival. For a film with such a simple scenario (or maybe not so simple) as four women in a room discussing a pivotal moment in their lives, the film definitely garnered a lot of attention. The film that Wilkerson created is provocative and has the audience guessing as to what actually happened, all the while being enabled to do so by the believability of the world she created with Hong.
Justin was highly recommended by the American Film Institute’s head of cinematography, so Carmen had no trepidation when she contacted him about working with her on The Reunion. She quickly realized why Hong had received such glowing accolades. Wilkerson comments, “Justin and I immediately starting working to pre-produce the film even as he was on location in another city. He helped craft the look of the film and collaborated well. He was so thorough in his approach and extremely detail orientated. As a filmmaker, he understands performances and story, helping to elevate the script’s potential. Justin even stepped in and helped me edit a
few sequences that weren’t yet working. He’s one of those artists who adds to the mix and makes the director’s job easier. Justin is a very bright collaborator and cinematographer.” It would seem that the biggest challenge on this film production was the deceptively simple scenario; four girls holed up in their room, hiding from the outside world. From the beginning of pre-production, the discussion between the director and Hong centered around finding a way to sustain visual interest due to the fact that it was basically four characters talking inside a room for twenty minutes. Justin recalls, “We identified all the dramatic beats and worked out a plan of movement and blocking that flowed with the emotional flow of the film. In order to fully work within the tight confines of a bedroom, we planned out the different camera positions within the room in such a way that the blocking complimented the actresses’ movements and that in turn added a sense of fluidity and immediacy that fit the story very well.”
One of the things which cinema can achieve quite proficiently is to sometimes “deceive” the viewer with different perspectives. Everyone has the ability to color their memory with an emotional slant. Numerous psychological studies and experiments have been conducted in order to prove the effect of emotion on memory. Filmmakers often make use of this tool as well. The same holds true for the way the action of film can translate a mood based on the cinematography. Justin concedes, “Another aspect of the film was the ulterior motives of each character and the relationships they have, as it relates to the collective secret that they are hiding. I used subtle framing choices to visually portray this volatile dynamic between these friends. This also worked in conjunction with the blocking. When the four characters were feeling united and close to each other, I used wider lenses and included all of them in the composition. When they start to fragment, we had them walk away to different parts of the room and I used slightly tighter lenses and framed them alone, adding to the feeling of distance from each other.”
The Reunion is a compelling film which explores the varied ways that individuals can perceive the same circumstance. Presenting the same situation, colored through the lens of the different characters, and culminating in unique perspectives is a superior achievement which the film’s creator, Carmen Elly Wilkerson, the cinematographer, Justin Ivan Hong, and indeed the entire cast and crew can be proud of, as proven by the critical and public acclaim the film has received.