‘It’s something you don’t always see’: Sundance short, from San Antonio, challenges misconceptions about sex work

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April Maxey has shaped her career around sharing new perspectives. Now, his most personal film offers him his biggest scene yet.

SAN ANTONIO — The word ‘coronavirus’ is never spoken, nor are any masks worn in writer-director April Maxey’s new short film”Jobabout a former lap dancer who briefly returns to work while skirting heartbreak.

But the San Antonian native says her movie has nonetheless been shaped in a major way by the pandemic…or, at least, the isolated vibe she and millions of others have enveloped her in over the past two years. What once had a happy ending has instead been deepened, she says, with “more turmoil and conflict” to accompany an open-ended finale for its protagonist, Gabriela.

“Oh my god, I changed the whole story,” said maxey31. “I went through a breakup and was like, ‘I can’t do a romance right now. And really, the movie ended up being about her finding her way back to herself. and going well in solitude and finding peace in that. I feel like that’s also a very important theme with COVID.

The mode of production for “Work” was equally consistent with COVID and its effects on film projects of all sizes since the start of 2020. Maxey could only afford to change the trajectory of its story so drastically because filming – supported by her participation in the AFI Women’s Leadership Workshop – was delayed 10 months by the pandemic.

When the cameras finally started rolling in May 2021, Maxey had a better idea of ​​what “work” was supposed to be. Surrounded by queer creative colleagues, she also got a better perspective on her own story as a dancer — a story that creating “Work” has helped her better understand.

“This once in my life has always been, you know, in my head even though it was many years ago. I’m like, ‘There’s a story there, I think.’ And it’s one that I’ve never seen before from where I’m from,” she said. “I just thought there were so many different levels of experience coming together. were producing for me at that time.”

Several months later, post-production on Maxey’s fourth short was completed. And his now screening at the all-virtual 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which continues through Sunday.

“Beyond the Flaw”

For as long as movies have depicted sex work, it has largely been portrayed as a one-note lifestyle – a tool to titillate audiences, rarely doing anything else.

There are exceptions, like Alan J. Pakula’s “Klute,” “Working Girls,” and the recent hit “Hustlers.” But sex workers are not otherwise a community that Hollywood has bothered to give much depth to, the stereotype that has only occasionally been broken.

It’s the expectation that Los Angeles-based Maxey says she hopes to thwart with “Work.”

“I think there’s this prevailing idea that sex work is bad, that it’s shameful. I really try to present it as, in fact, there are a lot of people who do it,” a- she said, “I didn’t want him to be portrayed as (I) glorified him, or anything. I just wanted it to be very real. Like, I hope, if somebody who’s ever been a dancer looks at it, they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah. Yeah, I think that scene where she’s being rejected is very real. And that’s something you don’t always see.

In fact, just about everything about body-positive “work” goes against the grain of the industry, even as Hollywood is moving down a more inclusive path.

The cast, anchored by Marisela Zumbado, is almost entirely non-white. The same goes for the crew, which also has several queer contributors. And Maxey isn’t the only one with a Texan background; producer Skylar Andrews is from Dallas, while associate producer Nava Mau spent time in San Antonio. The spirit of the project can even be found on the soundtrack, for which Maxey sought out independent musicians.

This range of perspectives was essential, according to the director, to produce a story from a point of view that was not historically emphasized in the films.

“Me and my producer really wanted to build a team of people we could trust, interesting people to handle the story with delicacy and nuance. You know, trying to say it beyond the default way of doing things. things.

There are plenty of signs that “Work” isn’t a movie by default, starting with its pragmatic approach to sex workers as an occupation, with successes, failures, and a confidence that comes from familiarity with the job. . Meanwhile, Gabriela’s return from Zumbado to the club she used to work at marks her return to the agency which has been rocked after an off-screen breakup.

“Work,” which spans an ambitious visual spectrum in just 13 minutes, offers a glimpse of Gabriela into happier times via grainy imagery tinged with bittersweet. According to Maxey, these scenes were shot on a few rolls of 20-year-old film that a friend had stored in her fridge.

There was no way of knowing if they could work. But there would be no way of knowing if they didn’t try.

“We did a roll, it was a camera test, and then we got both roles. I’m like, ‘You know what? If it works, it works. I think it’s going to work,’” Maxey said, adding that a moment filmed for the camera test ended up in the final film. “It’s like it just happened, and it sounds so poetic. Everything had to be just magically in that moment for it to work, and it did.

Elsewhere, the transparent blues of LA at dawn recall Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight”, while the fiery reds of club scenes evoke the sultry style of Wong Kar-Wai as bodies move and gazes of affection s exchange.

Maxey said the use of color was a priority for her and Melinda James, her cinematographer, whose way of visualizing intimacy stood out for the director.

“She and I worked a lot on, you know, what is light and color, what does that tell us emotionally about these spaces?” she said. “And then, with the world of dance… it’s like this world of escape, compared to this banal daily work that we film as static.”

The film seemingly ends in the same place it begins, with the sun about to rise over the California hills. But Maxey leaves the viewer with the widest shot of his film, showing both that Gabriela can now see the way forward even as the melancholy of her memories remains.

“His world is more open now,” Maxey said. “There is this beauty and this dawn that we find at the end.”

A bigger story to tell

“Work” is Maxey’s greatest film, as well as being his most personal. If a few things go his way, it could grow even bigger.

“I worked on a feature film script. I was worried about it as a short because there’s so much I try to cram into 13 minutes,” she said. “But there’s definitely enough for a feature film because every little scene hints at there’s a whole world where it’s coming from.”

Whatever feature film Maxey directs, it would be her first as she pursues a career that took its first steps during trips to the Alamo Drafthouse in Texas, acting classes in San Antonio and starring in film. MFA thesis.

This week, however, Maxey – whose shorts have appeared at dozens of festivals around the world, winning awards at some of them – is savoring the Sundance experience, even with omicron preventing him from making it to Park City, Utah in person.

“It’s a huge deal. I think they said there were 10,000 submissions (of shorts) and they picked 59, so I’m very grateful. It’s the most prestigious festival my work has ever played at,” she said. “While I love playing on the queer circuit, I think it will give me access to the industry on a different level.”

The festival, historically a launch pad for major new voices in cinema, is also one that champions the do-anything-need-to-make-it-work storytelling genre that “Work” embodies, since its late shoot at its story. modified.

Whatever that means for Maxey’s future opportunities, it makes his short film a natural choice for Sundance – and an example of all that movies can still do, show and disrupt.

“Historically, there have only been a very limited number of people invited to tell their stories, and that’s why I think independent cinema is so important,” she said. “I think the art is better when the communities the stories are about are also part of the teams of people creating the stories.”

“Work” is available online until January 30. To buy tickets here.

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