Note: I recommend skipping this post if you haven’t yet seen “In the Hollow” and are planning to. Though I’ve intentionally tried to leave out specific details about elements of the film, I’ve also left the comments from someone who was with me unedited.
“In the Hollow” is a short documentary-narrative hybrid directed by Austin Bunn which is currently making its way around the festival circuit. The film, which combines traditional interviews with images of events past and events present, follows Claudia Brenner as she returns to Michaux State Forest for the first time since the shooting which wounded her and claimed the life of her then-girlfriend, Rebecca Wight. It additionally tells the story of how the crime and Brenner’s activism in the years that followed helped lead to the creation of the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990, the first piece of federal legislation to require the collection of data on acts of anti-gay violence.
Alice and I were both present at the premiere screening of “In the Hollow” in Toronto this past spring, and I recently took a group of people to see the film when it screened at the Dayton LGBT Film Festival. We never posted our thoughts about the film, though we highly recommended it and talked about it extensively among our inner circles. When I learned “In the Hollow” won the Audience Award for Best Short Film in Dayton, I wanted to share a bit not only about what I and my group thought of the film, but about what it was like to be in the audience in Dayton. The impact “In the Hollow” had on that audience was immediately seen and felt and absolutely clear from the opening scene, through its fifteen-minute run, until well after the film had ended and the next had started.
First of all, I’d like to take a moment to talk up the Dayton LGBT Film Festival and The NEON theater. It was my first time attending this festival and visiting this theater, but I’d love to go back to both. We came for the great films, but stayed for the beautiful, cozy venue and the dedicated people putting the whole thing together – in addition to the great films! “In the Hollow” shared the win for Best Short Film with a documentary called “Zay,” produced by Meg Vogel and named for the 12-year-old subject of the film, which explores one family’s journey to acceptance of their transgender daughter. Zay and her family – some of whom traveled all the way from Oklahoma to be present at what I can only assume was the premiere of her film – were present and she participated in a Q&A after the screening. Zay is a natural at speaking to a group and I enjoyed having the chance to hear from her and her family. I’m not going to focus on her film here, but I have no doubt she’ll go on to do great things and her win was equally well-deserved.
Sitting in the audience in Dayton was a vastly different experience than sitting in the audience at the premiere in Toronto, for a number of reasons. I was grateful to have the chance to see the film a second time through in a different setting, because I not only picked up on some things I had missed the first time, I had the chance to really watch and really listen in a way my nerves hindered in Toronto. At the first screening, the director of the film sat right beside me as we both watched it for the first time on the big screen, moments after he had mentioned the Stories Project onstage while speaking about the film, which stunned me in such a way I couldn’t process what was happening as quickly as it was happening. Additionally, I’d traveled so far to see the film and the moment was rapidly approaching when I would know whether or not the trip had been worth it. In Dayton, I was able to breathe easier, stay in the moment, and really absorb and reflect upon all that I was seeing and hearing.
My thoughts about the film have remained relatively unchanged since the premiere: there is so much heart and story packed into fifteen minutes of run time. It’s a simple and grounded yet intense, powerful, and poignant piece everyone who worked on should be proud of. Brenner, who narrates “In the Hollow,” is down-to-earth in her retelling of what happened to her, and I don’t think the amount of courage and inner strength it takes to go back to that trail after an experience like hers needs to be stated – though I will anyway. All in all, it’s a well-made documentary I’m glad I had the opportunity to see once, let alone twice.
I personally loved watching the on-screen interactions between Julia Christgau, who played Claudia Brenner, and Miasarah Lai, who played Rebecca Wight – their relationship and conversations came across as genuine and natural to me; there was very little about them that seemed stilted or forced. One thing I took note of at both screenings I attended was just how much they conveyed through glances, expressions, and tender touches in place of words. And they certainly have their share of sweet moments in the film, but far from the relationship being idealized to perfect, they react realistically to the sometimes frustrating actions and choices of the other. With the caveat that I never met either of the real women “In the Hollow” tells the story of and don’t have a point of comparison, I think Christgau and Lai were great choices for their roles.
I think it would ruin some of what makes “In the Hollow” so powerful to view if I were to go into too many specifics regarding the format of the film, so I won’t here, but I could further rave for paragraphs about the way the film was edited. Without giving too much away, it definitely kept me on my toes throughout. Scenes were paired in an interesting way in relationship to each other; a few in particular have stayed with me for this reason since I first saw “In the Hollow” in Toronto earlier this year. Neither the opening scene nor the scene which depicts the act of violence committed against the two women, among others, played out exactly as I expected them to – in no small part due to what they were juxtaposed with. The seamless weaving together of the past and the present, and the seamless intercutting between frightening, unsettling scenes and serene sweet ones, is I would argue one of the greater strengths of the film.
After we left the festival, I remarked that I would be surprised if “In the Hollow” didn’t at least tie for the win for Best Short Film – not because I was biased in its favor, though I was, but because I had felt, while sitting in that audience, a sense of collective emotion which seemed to reverberate around the small theater. Collectively, we went silent and held our breath when the film opened in media res and we were dropped into the center of this intense story. Collectively, our hearts raced at one particular point in the film – and collectively, we cried when the inevitable happened. “In the Hollow” was, as I recall, the only film the audience didn’t clap politely at the end of. They loved it, if the comments they made after the screening were anything to go by. But the moments that passed in between the credits rolling for “In the Hollow” and the next film beginning passed in dead silence – save for the quiet sobs some of us tried to muffle – as we collectively paused to let the weight of the story we had just seen sink in.
Tricia, one person I invited to see the film with me in Dayton, had this to say: “It gave me goosebumps from the very beginning of the film, that first pan across the woods. For the entire fifteen minutes, no one moved, no one made a sound, no one did anything. And at the end, no one made one little peep, no one clapped. Everyone was just so enveloped in the story being told.
I thought closing the film with her walking out of the woods with her younger self was an extremely powerful way to end it. Because she’d never been back. She came in one person and she came out changed. She’s a different person than she was in 1988. That’s how I interpreted it.
Austin Bunn is very, very good at what he does. It was very powerful – and he’s a first time director, right? He had a good balance of what he showed and what he didn’t show. It was very classy. I can only see bigger and better things for him.
That movie really pushed through the point that all the violence needs to stop.”
On a final note, Alice and I don’t often post pictures of ourselves on the site, but I thought our regular readers might enjoy this one from the Dayton LGBT Film Festival. In trying to get a picture next to the “In the Hollow” poster and two others from the shorts collection I saw, I didn’t consider the larger poster to my right – or the “interesting” position it would put me in, now immortalized with this photograph. 😉