Artist Discussions: Producer Josh Penn on Beasts of the Southern Wild in Conversation
I spent this past week traveling around Puerto Rico showing Beasts of the Southern Wild to a variety of audiences in San Juan and Ponce with Film Forward. Over the past year and a half I have screened Beasts in many places and done tons of Q&As and events around the film, however I can very safely say that none of the other screenings or events were anything like this week.
The week started with the opening night screening at the incredible Teatro Arriví a beautiful restored old theater. Before the screening the Puerto Rican theater collective “Y no había luz” performed their play “Diego El Ciego” which despite it being in Spanish (which I barely speak) I absolutely loved. The play had an energy, creativity, humor and visual storytelling style that transcended language. I also got to spend much of the evening with the group as well as take part in a panel where we discussed the play, Beasts of the Southern Wild, artistic collectives, and many fascinating topics that were sparked by the two pieces. They were a truly inspiring group and I left wishing that they were performing with us at every screening and that I would have more time to see more of their pieces and hang out with them as they seemed like a truly inspiring and exciting group. The panel/discussion afterwards was invigorating and unique, some of which you can read about more in my previous blog if you are interested.
The next morning we had a back-to-back screenings of Beasts and Musa Syeed’s Valley of Saints at Beta-Local (a space for local artisits). It was my first chance to watch Valley of Saints and I fell in love with the film, its characters, boats, landscape, cinematography, and storytelling. After the screenings, Musa and I as well as a few others discussed the films and I was taken by how much the two films were in conversation with each other and brought up very similar questions. The discussion also gave me a chance to learn more about the inspiring way in which Musa had made the film.
In between the very busy week of events I got a chance to explore San Juan a bit and try as many local cuisine options as possible and ate more than my share of mofongo (a mashed plantain based dish), empanadas, and gazpachos as well as many other delicious meals. We also were invited to an amazing artist collective party at Contrafuertes (a museum space in a restored building), which was complete with bands, performance artists, a beehive and various beautiful pieces of art. We also found time to jump in the ocean, which seemed to be at the perfect temperature.
On Friday, Sundance held a ShortsLab, the first time that one had been held in Puerto Rico. The day started with showing a number of the panelist’s films, I showed a short I produced called Glory at Sea. All four of the films were fantastic and I found myself again especially taken by the work of my Film Forward compatriot Musa Syeed, who showed his brand new short film The Big House. A film that in five minutes manages to completely engross you in its world and characters as well as be both profound and poetic. That was followed by a panel discussing the shorts, short filmmaking in general as well as the impact of film festivals on our films (both short and long). We then watched a series of Puerto Rican short films, which were still in rough-cut form and gave feedback on ways the final product might be able to improve. The films were quite strong overall and the group’s feedback seemed to be truly helpful to the filmmakers. It was my first experience in a ShortsLab and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the entire day and found it to be both enjoyable as a cinematic watching experience and it seemed productive for the films seeking guidance.
On the final day we traveled to the city of Ponce where we held the final screening of Beasts (as well as Valley of Saints and The Loving Story). We screened the film in the Museum of Art of Ponce. In the final screening I was taken at how shy the audience was at the beginning, when I tried to engage them before the screening there was almost no reaction and when we first asked for questions from the crowd exactly zero people raised their hands, however as the Q&A progressed, the crowd became more and more vocal and engaged and it grow into quite a impassioned conversation with many people left with their hands raised as we ran out of time.
Needless to say it’s been a truly unique and invigorating week. The conversations that were sparked here are exactly the kind of conversations I hoped that Beasts would spark when we set out to make the film four years ago. I hope the Film Forward experience is one that I get to take part in with many more films over the years as I think these types of conversations and audiences truly enrich the experience of bringing a film to the world.