Director Mark Thiedeman’s films all share certain qualities: a predilection for natural light; a soft, worn-down graininess; stories that explore youth, coming of age and Thiedeman’s own experiences as a gay man. But beyond that, the films have a wide range of tones and settings. Thiedeman’s first feature, 2013’s “Last Summer,” tells a sweetly melancholic story about two boyfriends separated by the end of high school. Thiedeman’s thesis film “Dragonslayer,” which confronts the pain of love during the AIDS crisis in rural Arkansas, had its first screening in April. It’s slated to be part of a three-part, feature-length narrative, along with Thiedeman’s “Alex in the Morning” and another as-yet-unnamed film, to be shot later this year. “The three films are each long shorts,” Thiedeman said, “but together, they paint a picture of life as a gay man in the rural South over the course of 20-ish years, beginning in the ’90s with ‘Dragonslayer’ and ending in the near-future.”
In October 2018, Thiedeman teamed up with the Southern Documentary Fund, a nonprofit out of North Carolina, to screen his first documentary, “Kevin,” at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. When the film was screened, it was still a work in progress. Since then, Thiedeman, 37, said, the project has taken on a life of its own. The 12-minute short he originally conceived swelled to a feature-length 70-minute cut — the one shown at HSDFF — and is soon to make the festival rounds.
Originally from south Louisiana, Thiedeman’s move to Arkansas in 2010 was a return. He’d gone to high school in Little Rock, then lived in New York for over a decade, where he attended New York University’s undergrad program for film and television production. Since he’s been back, he’s directed 10 films and served as artistic director and feature programming director for Kaleidoscope, Little Rock’s festival of LGBT cinema. He’s now working toward his master’s degree in film at the University of Central Arkansas.
“I spent a lot of time in New York just sort of trying to learn how to be a filmmaker,” he said. “[It’s] not something that comes naturally to me. So it’s been a constant learning process.” Much of the draw of filmmaking, Thiedeman explains, is the opportunity to creatively explore his own memories and emotions. “It’s an emotional experience, because I see my feelings rendered in color and light and shadow in front of me. But it’s very helpful. It helps me understand why I feel things. It gives me a new perspective.”
Of “Kevin,” Thiedeman said the film’s catalyst was a matter of “absolute chance.” Originally, he’d set out to make an entirely different documentary, an experimental essay film that used images of abandoned buildings to explain a past relationship. “And the day before I was going to start that documentary, I realized that it would not be a mentally healthy thing to do and that I should stop that immediately.”
Thiedeman then stumbled across a Facebook video of a blond teenager on a skateboard.
“I’ll stop myself before I get too sentimental, but I really feel like this was a divine occurrence. There was just something as soon as I saw this video. I was like, ‘This person should be in a movie.’ ”
The skater in the video turned out to be Kevin Wands, an iconoclastic 18-year-old from Paragould with dreams of becoming a professional skateboarder. When Thiedeman messaged him about the idea for a documentary, Kevin agreed enthusiastically — “Hell yeah, I’d be stoked!” — and Thiedeman starting filming in Paragould the next day.
From there, Thiedeman said, “His story revealed itself to us very, very quickly.”
Kevin dropped out of high school in ninth grade to pursue skating and work toward a life outside of Paragould. The film follows Kevin as he navigates through the hardships of coming of age and then some — from dealing with the effects of drug abuse on his friends and family, to trying to hold down a job, to undergoing open-heart surgery.
Kevin and his friends constitute their own kind of counterculture in their town, one that responds to adversity not with resentment, but with optimism, hard work and plainspoken belief in their own dreams. “ ‘Kevin’ is my kind of feel-good movie,” Thiedeman said. “I know that it’s a movie about circumstances that many other people might find unpleasant, but that isn’t the film to me. The film to me is this very, very hopeful story, made by someone who’s generally hopeless, catalyzed by the spirit of this highly cinematic person.”
Paragould, like many other rural towns in Arkansas and beyond, is blighted by industrial decline, poverty and drug abuse. It’s the kind of place that, when it makes it into cinema at all, is often played for its downsides, the abandoned buildings mined for their aesthetic forlornness, and the residents either elided entirely or used as props for a filmmaker’s political argument.
“It’s a world we choose to ignore,” Thiedeman said. But his film neither exploits nor ignores it to tell Thiedeman’s own story. “The film is at once a portrait and a document of America today,” he said. “I think the movie has to be both things. Those two things work hand in hand. But the emotional core of the movie is to be found in Kevin and his friends.”
That said, Thiedeman’s sentiments do show up onscreen. The film never loses hope in its protagonist, allowing Kevin’s dogged optimism to resonate. “Kevin is like the antithesis of all of the negative things that happen in his town around him,” Thiedeman said, “but I think through watching him and patiently observing his story, we learn a lot about a type of America that we, even as liberal Democrats, just are completely unfamiliar with.”
Fans of cinema verite documentaries will recognize many of Thiedeman’s strategies. There’s no voiceover narration or orchestral soundtrack. Thiedeman shoots in natural light with a handheld camera and interviews his subjects without appearing on screen. But while the verite movement deemphasized the personalities of their subjects (think JFK lost in a crowd of voters in “Primary”), Thiedeman does the opposite.
“It’s shot with human faces in the center of the frame so that our attention is always on a person, a face, rather than an environment,” Thiedeman explained. “There’s something to be said about how we frame a face or how we compel somebody to observe the feelings that register on someone’s face. And I do that the same way whether it’s an actor or whether it’s Kevin.”
It’s Thiedeman’s way of framing faces that sets his work apart. He cites atmospheric directors like Claire Denis (“High Rise,” “Chocolat”), Lucrecia Martel (“Zama,” “The Holy Girl”), and Kelly Reichardt (“Certain Women,” “Wendy and Lucy”) as personal influences, and it’s easy to see how their sense of pace and tone inform his work. For Thiedeman, though, the emotional expression of the subject is, itself, the atmosphere. His filmmaking isn’t so much naturalistic as it is humanistic, creating images that literally put emotion in the foreground. In his fiction films, characters often explain what they’re thinking at length while the camera watches them in close-up. In 2012’s “Cain and Abel,” the film opens with Cain (played by recurring Thiedeman favorite Samuel Pettit) telling a spiritual leader (Tucker Steinmetz) how he feels betrayed by God; in “Last Summer,” Luke (Pettit again) talks to his summer school teacher (Deb Lewis) about his boyfriend, Jonah, leaving for college.
The result is that Thiedeman’s films, whether they’re set in small-town Arkansas, a Biblical wasteland or a magical, mythological forest, all feel grounded in emotional experience. The same is true for “Kevin.” It’s Kevin’s experiences, expressed in his own words and through his own face, that get screen time, and Thiedeman’s camera presents them to the audience in their full complexity.
When I first started talking with Thiedeman, I was thinking about his camera’s lingering gazes on its subjects, their lives and their faces, as a form of generosity, a decision to eschew editorial control and allow people to speak for themselves. Thiedeman didn’t quite agree. “I don’t know that it’s generosity so much as it is fascination and admiration. And when you’re fascinated by a person you become very patient, you know?
“That’s where it all starts with me. In fact, if I’m writing a fictional film, I usually start because there’s some actor that I want to work with, because I want to observe that person,” Thiedeman said. “And so if I find somebody that I’m that interested in, that I find that compelling, then I don’t need to impose myself very much at all.”
With “Kevin,” Thiedeman’s growing relationship to his subjects over the course of filming shaped how the story unfolded onscreen and, he says, the movie made itself. “Unlike a normal documentary in which you have all of this footage that you’re cobbling together and reordering and all of this kind of stuff, we actually included everything, and we included it chronologically. Because the story that you see unfolding is the exact story that I saw unfolding in the order that it happens. It’s the story of me becoming friends with a guy I admire more than anybody.
“I think that being young is inherently dramatic, and I think that we as adults can learn a lot about ourselves by going back to our childhood, to our fears, our traumas, towards the events that shaped us and made us who we are, and to understand that everything that we go through in life molds and shapes us. … I’ve always been very interested in young people because they can live their lives with a smaller set of rules.” In the images Thiedeman captures, the viewer must trust Kevin’s own agency to change his own life. “I’m there to create a portrait of someone, and that’s what ‘Kevin’ is. It’s a portrait of Kevin. It is not my opinion of Kevin, it is not a manipulation of any truth, it is me with a camera allowing Kevin to tell his story as he wants it told.”