Cauleen Smith first gained notoriety in 1992 with her short film “Chronicles of a Lying Spirit (by Kelly Gabron),” an experimental rumination on identity that quickly found an avid audience on the media arts circuit.
The film began as an installation made up of a series of photographs but Smith realized that she could take the images and put them together in a moving collage, then repeat the sequence of images almost exactly. The result is a film that layers voices and images, and addresses issues of subjectivity and history, but rather than being a boring or predictable self-portrait, “Chronicles” is lively and visually complex.
The short film, which is one of several that Smith has made, also highlights the director’s manner of working.
“I like the arts-and-crafts aspect of making films,” she says, and indeed, many of her films feature elements that are proudly handmade. Smith, who was born and raised in Sacramento, earned a music scholarship and attended school in Orange County before going to London and then on to Northern California where she enrolled in the film program at San Francisco State University. She initially wanted to study art direction and set design.
“I liked the idea of designing sets and doing installations,” she says. “But once I started hanging out on sets, I realized that the director combined all of these different skills that I really liked. Also, at San Francisco State, all of the filmmaking is very hands-on.”
After finishing at San Francisco State, Smith began applying for grants while writing a short script.
“As I kept applying for grants, the film kept growing,” she says. “First it turned into three separate shorts, but eventually I realized that it could actually be a feature.”
As she was writing, however, Smith also was finding the grant scene fairly dismal. In 1994, having been out of school for several years and not yet found enough money to make her films, Smith decided to return to film school. She enrolled in the graduate film program at UCLA and, ironically, almost immediately received several grants, including a Rockefeller and a grant from the National Black Programming Consortium. These formed the initial funding for what would become her first feature, “Drylongso,” which was the script that developed out of the short-film project.
Smith’s feature debut starts with a simple but volatile idea.
“The premise is that black men are an endangered species,” explains Smith. “In the film, a young woman decides to use her camera to document these men, but in the process begins to realize that she, too, is in jeopardy.”
“Drylongso” marks Smith’s first real foray into a more traditional form of filmmaking.
“This film is really about trying to tackle narrative,” she says. “I set aside a lot of experimental techniques in favor of focusing on more straightforward storytelling.” While the film does have its more experimental moments, it also announces Smith’s very clear talents as a narrative filmmaker.
Smith shot “Drylongso” in Oakland on an extremely limited budget using many of the same hands-on techniques that characterize her short films. The film screened for the first time at the Independent Feature Film Market last fall where it garnered strong praise from critics, several of whom praised in particular the director’s deft handling of her cast, as well as her sense of visual style.
Smith is currently working on another short film, and is writing two feature scripts.