Ballast Article

Here is the full text of the article I wrote about Ballast, it includes quotes from the interview that I did with director Lance Hammer.

After 10 years of research, Lance Hammer shot a film in the Mississippi Delta, starring local African American non-actors. “Ballast is not so much about race, but about universal human suffering,” said Hammer. He encouraged the participants to use their own distinct vernacular and rather than hand them a script, he provided situations and encouraged them to improvise dialogue. This method has yielded a steely, classical, cinematic gem. Ballast is a starkly tragic play of emotions, which seems to take place in real time.

Few recent films have portrayed African American protagonists with as much complexity and integrity as Hammer’s first feature, Ballast. Set against the backdrop of the Delta’s desolate beauty, it tells the story of Marlee, a single mother, who struggles to support her 12 year old son James. He is lost in the chasm between childish devotion to his mother and manhood expressed through experimentation with crack, guns, and older boys. “Left to his own devices, there is a lot of pressure on James to grow up really quickly, and to have emotional maturity,” Hammer said. “It isn’t actually fair to expect this from a kid. James makes some innocent choices, a few of them turn out to be bad ones, but he’s just trying to make his way in this world.”

James’ already delicate balance is derailed by the suicide of his estranged father. He begins to know his dad posthumously through association with Lawrence, his father’s twin brother. The complications of inheritance catapult James, Marlee and Lawrence into a shared working and living situation. Forced intimacy requires the threesome to either mutually rebuild their fragmented lives or further destroy each other. Individually, they also continue to grapple with private sensations of loss and depression. “I chose extreme tragedy as the one window into the human experience that I would explore in this film,” Hammer said. “I wasn’t trying to imply that the Delta is a depressed place. On the contrary, the full chromatic spectrum exists in that region. There is so much joy there. You can think of it like the seasons, in the summer it is verdant and full of life, in the winter it is the opposite.”

Hammer decided to focus his lens on tragedy as a means of working through the depression that he was personally experiencing at the time. This process helped him to heal he said, “I will always make work that deals with mortality. That looming specter of death is very important to me, because only with an intimate understanding of mortality and suffering can we truly appreciate what joy is.” He continued, “I identify very strongly with Marlee. We share that rage and frustration at being powerless, as well as the persistence and strength of character to simply refuse to give up.”

The decision to build his tragic window around the narrative structure of a twin’s suicide was also a very personal one for Hammer. “Because my mother is an identical twin,” he said, “I understand that the kind of grief that one would feel over the death of their sibling is intense. My girlfriend told me a true story about an identical twin, who came home and discovered that his brother had committed suicide, without any prior indication of a desire to leave the world. That story really shook me.”

This scene is expressed in the film when Lawrence, distraught upon discovering his dead twin, shoots himself, leaving a blood stain on the wall. He does not die, and weeks pass before he can bring himself to remove the stain. The repetitive image of Lawrence’s bloodstained wall is characteristic of Ballast’s haunting, visceral cinematography. Another poignant scene depicts James overhearing a conversation about himself. The people speaking appear blurred in the background, while the focus is on James, half-listening. “This scene is a good example of my artistic vision,” Hammer said. “James is the subject of that conversation, and the fact that he is tuning it out is significant. I think it was Goddard who expressed that it is best to put the camera on the listener when you really want to show what’s happening in a scene.”

Ballast has been honored by multiple film festivals and Hammer is still surprised and delighted to have received such support for his ‘Delta project.’ “I haven’t gotten over the fact that Sundance even took it into their festival,” he said. “We are all very fortunate. The cast poured their emotional souls into this and it worked. Their commitment has earned them much deserved recognition, a kind of wealth that fills the void left by the very small financial reward that independent films like ours can provide.” Despite the lack of profit, Hammer has succeeded in distributing this gentle humanistic composition. Ballast typifies avant-garde cinema; it is daring and full of integrity.

by Robyn Hillman-Harrigan Brooklyn Socialite (!)

One Response to “Ballast Article”

  1. […] up with a situation and encouraged them to ad lib. Although this technique was quite successful in Ballast it fell very short in The Girlfriend Experience. Soderberg claimed, during his talk back, that if […]

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