MEMPHIS, Tennessee – A woman coping with an ugly breakup consents to going out to party with friends but doesn’t consent to what happens there in A Night Out, the immersive 12 ½-minute short film that won the 2019 Memphis Film Prize and its oversized $10,000 grand prize check.
“What a beautiful place to make art,” said Memphis native Abby Meyers, the film’s co-writer and director, of the fourth annual festival.
SHORT FILM SHOWCASE
The Memphis Film Prize is a short film festival with two rules: Moviemakers must shoot their projects in Shelby County, Tennessee, and the resulting film must run between five and 15 minutes. A committee of filmmakers and creatives outside of Memphis narrowed this year’s field of submissions to the Top 10 films, which screened as a block multiple times during the Aug. 2-4 festival weekend.
A 50/50 combination of audience and juror votes determined the winner of the $10,000 Memphis Film Prize – one of the largest cash prizes awarded at any film festival. This year’s panel of six expert judges included Alliance of Women Film Journalists members Sarah Knight Adamson, Lynn Venhaus and myself, along with film producers Kevin Arbouet, Milan Chakraborty and Melodie Sisk.
Kevin Brooks, who co-wrote and directed A Night Out with Meyers, became the fledgling fest’s first repeat winner this year, after taking the prize in 2018 for his short Last Day.
“Which is wild,” he said with a laugh. “I know we’re talking about some projects; we want to start some things. But I think right now, I really want to do a feature.”
The Memphis Film Prize has incentivized the creation of more than 230 short films in Shelby County in the past four years, according to organizers.
A Night Out was primarily shot in the twisty hallways and narrow staircases of the Mollie Fontaine Lounge, an old Victorian mansion that has been converted into a trendy Memphis night spot. The short literally follows Jessica (Rosalyn Ross) as she wanders through the corridors and encounters an admiring stranger (Bertram Williams) who takes flirtation too far.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘This feels very autobiographical,’ and it is, of course,” Meyers said in an interview just after their big win. “But that’s not my story in any of the situations that have happened to me. So, I wanted it to be broad enough that I see myself in that story, but so can most other people in that circumstance.”
Cinematographer Andrew Trent Fleming, who shot four of the fest’s Top 10 films, and his camera shadowed Ross through an impressive single take that accounts for most of the short’s runtime. It also accounts for much of its impact, pulling the viewer along as Ross’ Jessica, already worn down by her dealings with a pushy ex-boyfriend, struggles to navigate the disorienting, crowded and noisy hot spot.
Although a sense of dread begins to build as Jessica repeatedly encounters the handsome stranger she just met, Meyers said Williams did a good job playing a charismatic guy who doesn’t set off any immediate red flags for Jessica “because that’s not the truth of this situation at all.”
“I wanted him to be charming. I wanted him to be nice and not overtly pushing boundaries until it actually happens. He was likeable; he’s handsome,” Meyers said.
“I’ve had plenty of people say, ‘Why don’t you stay away from X-Y-Z type of person so you don’t get raped?’ and it’s like, ‘Well, if they were a rapist when I walked up to ‘em, I probably wouldn’t have been alone in a room with them.’”
After meeting through a mutual friend, Meyers said Brooks brought the half-finished script for A Night Out to her following a gallery exhibition she participated in that covered similar subject matter.
“Being friends with her, being friends with other women who have encountered this, and the climate that we were living in, I was like, ‘Yo, we have to tell a story like this.’ But I didn’t feel like I had the right to just tell it on my own. So, I knew that Abby could definitely lend a hand and bring her perspective to it,” Brooks said.
“I have plenty of real-life experience that inspired this story,” Meyers added. “I never shut the (expletive) up about that stuff anyway. It’s something I feel passionately about. And it’s happened to me three times in the last five years, so (it’s) hard to talk about other things.”
Brooks said he felt compelled to make a short about sexual assault because he felt that men were unwilling to talk about the topic, which has been so much a part of the cultural conversation the past two years with the #MeToo movement.
“Every guy wanted to keep it hush-hush, and I’m like that’s not the way that it should go. You shouldn’t be like, ‘Oh, it’s happening, but I’m not gonna talk about it with other guys; I’m not gonna express it.’ So, I felt like it was my responsibility to put this story out there,” he said.
“I also find it to be essential to have people that haven’t survived sexual violence talk about it, specifically men. … I think there is that capital-T, capital-A Turning Away that happens when you talk about this or when it happens in front of you,” Meyers added.
“I think the best ally is somebody … who makes the other people who are turning away stop and talk about this.”
The filmmakers said they wanted A Night Out to show that experiencing sexual violence is traumatizing, even if it doesn’t lead to rape or brutality.
“That’s something that I felt self-conscious about watching this coming together in editing is like, ‘Was that bad enough? Did she get hurt enough?’ And the truth of the matter is it’s so clearly traumatic. When I talk about my survivorship, I’m thinking of rape and abusive relationships specifically. But I can definitely name you specific moments where a man has grabbed me at the gas station or a friend has made out with me at a party and I didn’t want him to, things like that, where that is traumatic. There should be space to feel that,” Meyers said.
“We just really want people to consider their role in this issue. That’s not necessarily like you have to make a film about it or start a charity or take in women who have been made homeless by their partners. But it is hold your friends accountable, don’t support rapists. When your friends are hurting, don’t tell them that that guy was too nice to have done that. … And you don’t have permission to do that – unless you literally have permission.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Alliance of Women Film Journalists members Brandy McDonnell, Lynn Venhaus and Sarah Knight Adamson represented AWFJ on this year’s Memphis Film Prize jury. You may be interested in reading Sarah Knight Adamson’s Memphis Film Prize Wrap.