Niav Conty is an active freelance director, cinematographer and screenwriter in New York City. Her award-winning films have travelled to festivals worldwide. She is a recipient of the Kodak Award for cinematography, and the prestigious Princess Grace Award. Small Time, her 2020 feature shot in rural Pennsylvania, is out now. It has won 9 awards, including the Spirit of Freedom Award, the EDA award for best female-directed feature, and four Best Feature awards. She is currently in post-production on her newest feature, Person Woman Man Camera Tv, about an interracial couple disintegrating during the 2020 pandemic. Read more at her official website, niav-film.com.
Double feature: The Elephant Man and Gallipoli. That was my first experience of cinema in an actual theater, at the tender age of nine. I grew up deep in the woods of upstate New York in a “commune” (no, not a cult … probably not a cult) without access to media or pop culture. It was a very sweet not-a-cult, and I enjoyed my childhood. One year, my grandmother sent us a TV. The gift wasn’t received with enthusiasm by my parents and it was kept locked up in a closet, except for the occasional special screening: Once a year, our mom made popcorn and all three sisters piled into the living room sofa bed to watch The Wizard of Oz. This was a highlight of my youth.
I listened to a lot of classical music. Bach was a favorite. I had one cassette tape of the Beatles that my older sister gave me at age 16, perhaps as an initiation of sorts. By college, I had heard of Michael Jackson, but I’d never heard his music. It was in China, during my year abroad studying classical Chinese painting, when I first heard “Thriller.” I was, indeed, thrilled. Not so much by the song, but by its juxtaposition with the rural marketplace in China where it blared tinnily from bullhorn-like speakers. It felt somehow fitting that it was the Chinese who were, at last, teaching me something about American pop culture. A few months later, I heard “Like a Virgin,” in the same market, for the very first time.
My mother is a wonderful and complex person. The thought process that led her to bring me, at age nine, to a double feature of two of the saddest films ever made, is lost to time. But I loved these films. I was wide-eyed to the different worlds they showed me. I was wide-eyed to the utter sadness. I wept for a full week. I didn’t sleep, irrationally afraid to put my head down. I got a tape of the Albinoni adagio for strings from Gallipoli and listened to it over and over, each time reliving how the violin strings had pulled my heart out as the bullets tore through the soldiers, blood droplets scattering and spreading like a blooming rose through the dusty battle air at 160 frames per second. When people wonder why I make such dark films, this first cinematic experience seems like an obvious answer. It primed me for melancholia.
Memory has never been my family’s strong suit. Perhaps we have weak memory genes. Perhaps it’s something that has more to do with our lived dynamic. As a scholar of the labyrinth, my father was the most explicitly concerned with memory. His life was lived deciphering and retaining paths and codes, and then transforming them into magical, Gordian paintings. My sparse memories of growing up more resemble my mother’s lifetime of general, willful forgetting than my father’s obsession with decoding and pathfinding. And now, as my father slides into Alzheimer’s, memory seems more and more to me like quicksand. After all, who are we except who we remember ourselves to be? And what has our life been except the life that we remember it to have been?
Recently, I asked my mother if I truly went with her to that double feature. She could not confirm with certainty, but she did seem to think it probably happened as I remembered it. However, she was at a loss as to why she might have chosen this experience for me.
My memories of these films, like all of my childhood, are by definition a child’s memories, and the lens of childhood remembering exaggerates both impact and scope. So, as an adult, I revisited these two films that held such a mythical place in my mind.
The intense, eternal slow-motion run across the lines of the battlefield that I had so vividly remembered passed by in less than a minute; far from the Tarkovskian eternity I remembered. How could this most intensely dramatic, quintessentially sad, painfully long and incredibly nuanced slow-motion event in my memory actually have been so restrained? There was no slow-motion, just a quick run in silence, followed by a freeze frame when the bullet hits, then cut to black and the music starts. I was shocked, at once saddened by the betrayal of my memory and admiring of its expansion, its imagination, its willingness to reinvent. My imagination. My willingness to invent.
While Gallipoli didn’t age particularly well, The Elephant Man was much more nuanced than I had remembered. My nine-year-old self overlooked a lot of depth, a lot of detail, and a lot of trauma. I had forgotten much of the horrible treatment John Merrick received. For years, the film in my mind mostly revolved around the pillows he piled on his bed to prevent himself from suffocating, and how that final act of removing them must have been the softest, gentlest suicide.
My recent feature, Small Time, is a dark tale (no surprise there) about girlhood, rural poverty, addiction and the American Myth. It is drawn from memories of my own childhood. Not the idyllic, bohemian ones of my sweet commune, but the darker ones of an addicted family member and a motorcycle ride that probably should not have happened. The film is constantly jumping around inside about three years in the life of Emma, our young heroine. The time jumps are neither really flashbacks or flashforwards, rather the film as a whole is a non-linear textural voyage through these three years of experiences.
Small Time’s audience may rightfully be terrified for Emma as she waves loaded guns about, helps her junkie friend cook heroin, sells drugs to skeevy guys, and generally navigates an unending stream of wholly inappropriate situations. But I think the film succeeds also in creating an undercurrent of fun, a spirit of wonder and a genuine feeling of youthful curiosity. This is in equal measure because it was shot through young Emma’s perspective and through my memory. A seven-year-old who goes on a Harley ride with a possible pedophile, is left alone at a yard sale during a drug deal and then has a return to unexplained sheer panic, should be a problem for any half-conscious adult, but for me it was a really great day of wind in my hair and speed and discovery and exuberance, albeit tinged with a creeping feeling of confused guilt. And so it is for Emma in the film: this episode in the film is the one that hews most closely to my own experience.
I wonder, can memory and “reality” coexist? Or is memory all reinvention: a coded, translated version of what was? Small Time is the past seen through the lens of childhood, and distorted through a filter of memory, and part of Emma’s youthful perspective is the giddy result of memory’s incessant lies. If what shapes us is how we remember ourselves, then perhaps memory is realer than reality. It is what we have, and what we use to piece together meaning. Just as for me Archy did run for 15 minutes through bullets in slo-mo to be ultimately killed by the saddest violin strings in history, and John Merrick never died, because death doesn’t exist, Emma believes in essential goodness, because she needs to, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Last night, during my usual non-sleeping, I realized that my memory was probably a liar. It was far more likely that I was 15 or so when I saw these films, and perhaps it wasn’t such an odd choice on my mother’s part. I looked up the films’ release dates, confident that my mind had overdramatized this event. Not so: It seems I was, in fact, seven years old for that wonderfully tragic double feature. (My curiosity about my mother’s judgement in that moment intensifies.)
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Audrey Grace Marshall, the amazing young actress who plays Emma in Small Time, was seven years old when we started shooting (as was her character, Emma). Is my subconscious somehow sorting through these experiences, organizing them and transforming them from celluloid, to memory, to imagination, and finally back into cinema? I had forgotten the age I first discovered pure sadness through the power of cinema, but it had, apparently, not forgotten me.
Featured image (left) shows Niav Conty with Audrey Grace Marshall on the set of Small Time, and (right) Niav Conty as a young girl.