April 17, 2003
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Bognar to screen latest film, ‘Gravel’

Crew members working at dawn during the filming of ‘Gravel,’ a short film by Steven Bognar. The film will have its local premiere this weekend.

Picture the shadow of a biplane rumbling across a grassy field in the late afternoon sun. To Steve Bognar, documentary filmmaker by day, narrative lyric filmmaker by night, that image is like the memory, a fleeting notion of something in constant change.

His short film “Gravel,” premiering locally Saturday, April 19, at the Little Art Theatre, cultivates a rich landscape of themes that subtly address the way generations remember their families and their cultural heritage while navigating through the multi-textured relationships that exist between them.

Local resident Iris Bieri, currently a student at Earlham College, plays a young daughter who leaves her urban skateboard life to take a day trip into the countryside with her mother. The mother, a social workaer played by Antioch theater director Louise Smith, finds herself compelled by a sense of romance to visit a former client (played by local resident Bruce Cromer) on parole. The 16-minute film is a glimpse into the conflicting bond between the two women, who are at intervals snarling with hate and full of needy adoration.

“One thing with these relationships is the contradictory impulses,” Bognar said. “The impulse to be kind is sometimes right next door to the impulse to be mean.”

Delving into the push and pull of this dichotomous relationship, Bognar said, is partly a result of helping his partner, filmmaker Julia Reichert, raise her daughter. Much of the emotion in the film hinges on the slightest curl of the lip or a sideways glance that shows the mother’s emotional discomfort with herself, and the daughter’s pushing her to go beyond that place.

“It was astounding how the actors would create these moments,” he said, “it was like a jazz improv, where they would do it one way and it would be amazing, and then they’d do it again a different way and that one would be amazing too.”

Bieri said she enjoyed learning how to transfer her theater experience from the stage to the screen.

“It was really nice doing something a lot more molecular,” she said. “And going to Sundance was awesome, getting to see a lot of other powerful films and being able to see myself on the big screen.”

Though “Gravel” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, some of the cast still hasn’t seen the finished version of the film to know which takes the editors decided to keep. Smith said she was looking forward to seeing which scenes they kept.

“Steve really crafted the story and script and tried to help us understand what he wanted,” she said.

Smith describes some of the film’s characters as punk rockers and said her favorite experience was dressing up like a rock star.

“I do have these Mick Jagger/Tina Turner fantasies,” she said.

The rocker theme goes well with the grunge feel of the central characters’ world of concrete and cement, filmed in Springfield, Dayton and Cincinnati. They come from a family of working class women who have left their Appalachian roots.

As the daughter remembers how her grandmother (local resident Willa Dallas) came to the city for factory work, the film turns grainy like gravel. It is a memory within a memory, which fades and changes as time passes. The concept is tied to the way a farming heritage is given up for streets and tall buildings and an urban life.

Even in a fiction film Bognar cannot ignore the potential for social comment. He is foremost a documentarian.

Two of his documentary films, Personal Belongings and “Picture Day,” a short, were featured at the Sundance Film Festival several years ago.

Bognar, however, will continue to devote most of his time to documenting real life issues.

The time consuming expense of making films brings a filmmaker to choose projects with great care and discretion. The stories should clearly be “worth telling,” and the subjects should “have more potential to be useful,” he said.

“Gravel” will be shown on Saturday, at 1 and 2 p.m., with an introduction and closing with Bognar, Reichert, who produced the film, cinematographer Michael King and some of the actors. The film then shows at the Neon Movies in Dayton on Easter Sunday, at the Nashville and Athens Film Festivals and in Atlanta in early June.

—Lauren Heaton