Battered by immigration laws that compromise civil rights and backwards education policies, Arizona has become a symbol of a racially divided America in popular media. This image of the state and of a city like Phoenix specifically, overrides the thriving arts and culture scene that flourishes there, often times unbeknownst to those of us on the coasts. However, it is this vibrant, vintage/modern and picturesque Phoenix that young filmmakers Eduardo “Ayo” Bernal and Efrain Robles make an ode to with their short film Deserted.
Deserted tells the inner psychological story of a heartbroken woman through both its non-linear plot and experimental narrative structure. There are sudden jumps in time, it has no dialogue or natural sound and relies heavily on performance, music, and evocative images to present its case. By minimizing the narrative tools at their disposal, the filmmakers free themselves to experiment with montage and seemingly disparate sequences of images. Moreover, the film solicits a higher degree of audience engagement, because it requires us to fill in the blanks. As the filmmakers put it, the audience provides the dialogue.
The short is well-served not just by Efrain’s and Ayo’s unique approach but also from local Phoenix talent like that of lead actress Nuvia Enriquez, who is the emotional anchor and whimsical sails of the film — no small feat for a movie with no dialogue. She shows wide range in her ability to play a tender companion and as well as a scorned, evil lover. She’s at times even unrecognizable scene to scene.
On the heels of the film’s recent premiere in Phoenix, (or La Phoenikera as the city is affectionately called), I chatted with the Ayo and Efrain to find out what inspired them to tell this story.
How do you two know each other?
Efrain: Ayo and I kind of stumbled into each other because we were both hanging out in the same scene downtown with various friends, and we were both sort of working toward the same goals. We met, I think it was at a cultural center or something, and we kind of just said, “Hey, we’re creative soul mates here; let’s do something together.”
Did you start working together around a specific project or was it just the instant chemistry that brought you together?
Ayo: You know you measure people up — when you know you want to do something with them but you’re not sure because of past experiences, falling-outs with other projects, and stuff like that, and you don’t know if it’s going to work out. Efrain had the project in mind and he had been working on for a while. But then we started talking about it and realized that it would benefit the project if we worked jointly.
Efrain: Deserted was something I had written a first draft of and after creating storyboards and sort of pushing it along the way, but Ayo and I expanded on it. We wrote the second and third drafts of the film. So even though the ball was rolling on it, that partnership, that collaboration was the catalyst to push everything forward.
Can you give us some of the background of the story? What was the genesis of the idea?
Ayo: Well, what we really wanted to do was go inside someone’s head when they’re going through a break up. So when we conceived the story we initially wanted to show how this body was being dragged through the desert and what was going on in the mind of the person dragging it — what images would come into that person’s mind. The imagery makes you question the reality of what you’re seeing: is this girl really dragging a body with some Jimmy Choos on and wearing this beautiful outfit and looking all beautiful? What’s the reality of it? That’s what we wanted to do but at the same time we didn’t want it to be something that was completely surreal. So we do have this conduit, we have a linear explanation or a narrative, which is this woman getting out of the car and then pulling a cadaver through the desert. Then she dumps it somewhere. But what happens in between, that’s what we were interested in, with that window of time.
“The project was conceived out of my own heartbreak. I wanted something that felt like what I was feeling inside.”
Efrain: The project was conceived out of my own heartbreak. I wanted something that kind of felt like what I was feeling inside and so when I wrote the first draft, it was sort of a visual look at what’s happening and at the characters. The whole thing changed because of various drafts and it became something bigger, something where we see that initial concept become a conduit for many different themes and ideas for Ayo and I to explore. We do that both through the actions in the scene and in the way that we composed the edit to marry between a cinema verité style and cinematic, darker look. That was the origin of the story but really it just gave us a playground, something like an Alice in Wonderland — a magical reality.
And that’s why we want the audience to be the part the story because we wanted to create something just close enough but not so close that it would define it: you put yourself in those moments and figure out in your own way how the characters got there because that’s kind of how you got there. So also playing with the universality of heartbreak — everyone wants that piece of memory or that bad experience, they want to burry it. They want to put it somewhere where they can’t find it. That’s what we intended to do, to create something universal where people understand what it feels to be thirsty, what it feels like to be dragging something under 115, 116 degree Fahrenheit. So that’s why we decided not to have the dialogue.
What was the reception to the film like?
Efrain: We had the premiere recently and the reception was beyond my expectations. I couldn’t speak to somebody who wasn’t touched or affected by it. And what was fantastic about that was that in the audience there were people from the rancho and people who host radio shows or have high positions in corporations, whose backgrounds vary so distinctly, and both those crowds and everything in between loved it, were affected by it. They followed the rabbit of the story. Mom, she took four of her friends and she cleans buildings for a living, and going to an artsy film on a Thursday isn’t her typical thing but they all digested the film, they all sort of got into the conversation, it propelled them to try to figure out what was happening and that discussion was very interesting to see.
Ayo: The reception, to tell you the truth I was expecting more haters. People that would say, “What is this?” People, when they go to a film, they usually go with a certain expectation, they bring their own baggage and you know, to a certain extent we wanted that. There were some people saying, “Did she kill him? Or she didn’t?” And that’s what we wanted to do is challenge the audience to go a little beyond and not have something already digested for them. Some people went back and saw it again and found other things. We want the audience to go down and find the story because ultimately that’s what they’re bringing. They’re bringing their own experiences. The audience is the missing piece. The audience is our dialogue. So the reception was great.
How is the story specific to Arizona?
“Phoenix was always intended to be the third character in the piece.”
Efrain: Phoenix was always intended to be the third character in the piece. It’s obviously been our home for many years now and we have an intimate knowledge of it and it’s that intimacy that we wanted to bring to the film without cluttering the character of Phoenix with anything else pseudo-political. We wanted to bring the texture of the brick of the city as a character to the film. It is a very Arizona film for me. The Sonoran desert is home and it’s what I see. But I know that the desert as a location, while it’s in a place like Arizona, there are many places around the world that can be just as symbolic and just as dangerous to any individual; somebody in Norway could have some sort of forest that could be just as deadly and just as dangerous. One of the things we discussed was why not make Phoenix a great romantic city like a Paris or a New York? We know the love stories that happen here and we know how beautiful and how much of a character the city plays in those stories. Phoenix is often referred to as La Finikera and for me that was kind of the essence of that character.
Ayo: We’re from Phoenix. Of course we want to show it but we didn’t want to be preachy about it. When they see the film, we want people to question where is this film, where was it shot, where did they find all these places? We wanted to show the duality of this urban setting and then also the desert, which is basically a representation of her state of mind. So it was intended since the beginning to show Phoenix, Arizona, its character without being like, oh, here’s Phoenix and street signs. At the same time, people who are from Phoenix and look at it, they know it’s a love letter to Phoenix.