Originally, there wasn't even going to be a movie. The mechanics of Georges Rousse's trip to Durham were keeping Frank Konhaus and Ellen Cassilly busy enough: bringing the artist over, managing the sites, organizing the small army of volunteers who came out to help, trying to raise enough money to pay for it all. Even now, no one seems quite sure how the film got started.
The filmmakers, Kenny Dalsheimer and Penelope Maunsell, say it was Frank's idea, while Cassilly and Konhaus say it was the other way around. Cassilly explains how she remembers it: "They said, 'Look, it's happening, we have to start filming. So we're just going to start filming, knowing that this is the only moment to film, with the good faith that things will work out and we'll raise the money to put the film together.'"
Hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars later, things have worked out: Bending Space: Georges Rousse and the Durham Project premieres this Monday, Sept. 10, at the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham. In addition to video footage of the Durham Project and interviews with Rousse—conducted by Maunsell herself, with the help of Rousse's bilingual wife Anne-Marie—as well as interviews with Konhaus, Cassilly and others, the film also contains, at last count, 45 high-resolution images of Rousse's paintings and sculptures, from Durham and elsewhere.
Following the world premiere, they hope that the film will be widely screened at film and documentary festivals, and they already have plans for the European premiere, May 2008, during a Rousse retrospective in Paris. "Maybe we should charter a plane," Dalsheimer says, quoting another dedicated Rousse Project volunteer.
He isn't joking—at least not entirely. "It's the project that never ends, you know?" says Dalsheimer. "The volunteers are still really invested in it, and want to follow it. The idea of bringing the community together on a charter plane would be really cool."
"I'd been dying to do something different, and that's when this happened," Maunsell says. "It's the most extraordinary project. We're both very lucky to able to work on it, and we knew that from the start."
Not that it's been easy. Aside from the two calling in a lot of favors from friends in the industry, and an "absolutely terrifying," unexpected hard-drive crash that seemed, at least for one tense weekend, to have wiped out everything, the original Rousse Project has taken on a kind of second life in Bending Space.
Luckily, as with the construction of the original Rousse installations last September, the film attracted volunteer help from all quarters, as well as generous financial support from Alliance Architecture and the Greenfire group, among others. "The film kind of parallels the project in the way people were volunteering and giving up their time because they're grabbed by Georges' work and what happened in Durham," Dalsheimer says.
One such volunteer was Raleigh's Mark Copeland, the steady-cam operator who created what many who have seen the film consider its signature shot. As anyone who saw the original installations last September saw firsthand, Rousse and the project's many volunteers built huge trompe l'oeil installations in transitional buildings and old tobacco warehouses around town. Normally the painted surfaces simply look undifferentiated and chaotic—but, from a single vantage point, they suddenly and unexpectedly crystallize into an eerie floating shape, such as the giant blue square that was painted in the spiral stairwell of the Chesterfield building.
Copeland began the shot with his camera at the sweet spot, and then slowly moved the camera away and up the stairs, shattering the illusion. When the film is run backward, as it is in Bending Space, we see jagged blue figures fly across the screen as we move slowly down the stairs, each coming to rest in a shape that becomes, entirely without warning, a square. The effect is beyond arresting: It is sublime.
"We had a little money, so we could pay people to come in and help us with some tricky shots," Maunsell recounts. "[Copeland] said, 'I can come and do maybe two or three takes' ... but when he came and saw what we were doing he did five shots and said he didn't want to charge us."
"What happened was such a story," she adds. "People came and gave up their lives."
Their lives, and sometimes also their wallets—when all is said and done the film will wind up costing more than the original Rousse project, with about $16,000 going toward production costs and another $24,000 for postproduction—with at least a few thousand more still to be spent on the costs of distribution like film festival fees and DVD pressing.
"Our hope is that this project can be a model for other communities, to show an example of a new kind of public art that is grassroots-based, citizen-based, not through some governmental organization," Konhaus says. "With not a lot of money and not a lot of people, just a core group of dedicated people, extraordinary things can happen.... Our hope is that the film will appear in film festivals all over the U.S. and across the world, and that Durham will tell that story."
Dalsheimer shares Konhaus' big hopes for the film's potential influence. "Filmmakers make films because they want audiences to watch them, they want them to have an impact in some way," he says. "Some people have said this is a nice, 'hometowny' story, that this is a nice Durham piece but it may not go that far. I actually think it could have a really broad appeal for art lovers and arts organizations.... One of the really powerful things about our film is how it documents a hugely successful public art project that has a lot of lessons about the power of the arts in communities."
That lesson? "Pay attention to the arts, invest in the arts, see how they can be a catalyst to create community," Dalsheimer says. "I think that's a very powerful part of what this film is about."
Bending Space: Georges Rousse and the Durham Project, by local filmmakers Kenny Dalsheimer and Penelope Maunsell, premieres at the Carolina Theatre in Durham Monday, Sept. 10 at 7:30 p.m., followed by a Q&A. Tickets are $20, with half the proceeds supporting distribution costs for the film. Visit www.carolinatheatre.org and www.rousseprojectdurham.com for more information.