Ah, the ReFrame Film Festival—those three days in winter where practically everyone we know is marching briskly along that slushy stretch of George between Market Hall, Showplace, and the Venue to catch the next film on social justice and environmental issues.
This year, Peterborough cinephiles had the pleasure of seeing the world premiere of local documentary filmmaker Lester Alfonso’s new feature film Birthmark.
Over seven years in the making, Birthmark opens with the scene of a struggle, a re-enactment of a real-life group therapy session. The filmmaker himself takes central focus, struggling like a wild animal, as three people in the background restrain him—an arresting, non-verbal encapsulation of the story.
The film revolves around the belief that Alfonso’s birthmark is unlucky, a story imprinted on him in his formative years and which he subconsciously accepted as true. He believes this is the reason the family has a flat tire. The reason he got an F in an Alternative Cinema course. The reason he feels sad and lonely. The reason for his divorce.
“Sometimes the worst place to be is inside your own head,” writes Alfonso. “What more can you really do except to be aware about what’s at work? What is subtly influencing your choices? You’ve been interested in the behind-the-scenes back-of-your-head shut-the-front-door open-your-third-eye back-to-square-one open-the window-to-your-soul kinda thing for a long while now.”
Following in the footsteps of his previous documentaries Some Kind of Hero and Twelve, which won the NFB’s Reel Diversity Competition, Birthmark is a quest to unpack the intensely intimate mythologies that shape our lives for better or worse. His films almost take the form of self-help, exploring the rituals, milestones, and missing pieces of our lives, as non-linear as a therapy session, yet compelling and satisfying.
If you know Lester Alfonso, there’s a good chance you’ll eventually find yourself in one of his films. His deeply personal style of documentary filmmaking draws on many of the one-of-a-kind characters of the art scene in Peterborough and he weaves his interactions and relationships into his narrative.
Alfonso is a player in his own film, no less vulnerable than the subjects he interviews. He carefully probes the history of others’ beliefs about their birthmarks. Some have been told the birthmark is a source of power, a remnant of an experience in a previous life, a thumbprint of God, the mark of an unborn twin. His immediate family also provides insight into the origins of the bad luck tale with its inherent dualism—one part cultural superstition, one part convenient explanation for misfortune, intended to be a little bit ‘jokey.’
With his own voice as the calm, analytical, and measured commentator, he alternates between being an objective witness and embodying the unravelling of his own inner conflicts. Are his encounters staged for the sake of the film, even unconsciously, or is he truly revealing himself and his subjects to us? Will exposing the shame that he harbours give us the key to our own dark stigmas? This psychological tension holds our attention as if we were watching a detective drama.
Alfonso’s prismatic approach is a rich and complex way to bring a story to the screen, but never gratuitous. Though the still photos, analog film, screen grabs, and digital video fragments independently read as ephemera, they keep us engaged: TV outtakes of the moon landing; childhood snapshots; a script development session with Mysterious Entity’s Script Club; interviews with friends and strangers who have birthmarks; a Uke Box radio spot with his daughter on Trent Radio; a drop-in birthmark photo shoot at Artspace with professional photographer Wayne Eardley; a pitch to the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival So You Think You Can Pitch? contest (he lost); a haircut by his mom in his apartment.
If you’ve ever watched Ross McElwee’s rambling 1986 documentary Sherman’s March, which manages to forge unlikely associations between a cultural history of the American South and the filmmaker’s self-conscious search for a meaningful romantic relationship, you’ll get a sense of Alfonso’s knack for cinematic mixology, his editing range, and his finely tuned sense of timing.
“Getting the music just right in Birthmark was crucial,” says Alfonso. An album by Baltimore electronic duo Matmos, with additional music by aquapher, with whom he has worked before, integrates seamlessly within the film.
From another perspective Alfonso’s oeuvre is not just a series of films, but an open-ended archive of autobiographical questioning. Though Philippine-born Alfonso is an integral part of the Peterborough community, he manages to speak to the immigrant experience, painting himself as something of an outsider still in the process of reconciling his identity, even while he knits together the fabric of Peterborough and our human vulnerabilities for us.
Images courtesy Lester Alfonso.