Storytelling & Geography

One frequently underestimated aspect of storytelling is the impact that environment and geography has on the landscape of the characters.  In film, there is a tendency to think of ourselves as tricksters or magicians, capable of fooling the audience into thinking a part of south georgia, for example, is actually Vietnam.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this aspect of filmmaking, it is certainlynecessary aspect of a highly technical and difficult craft.  What concerns me however is how this skill set can tend to cause storytellers and filmmakers to suddenly undervalue the impact that choice of environment or geography has in defining the story.

At the heart of every character is the environment they were raised in.  The people who lived there for centuries, who passed down stories, the way the pollen of the particular native flowers carries a perfume on the air, these are all vitally important and invisible aspects of place.  Place, and the communities that emerge from it, has a way of defining characters more then almost any other aspect of life.

I recently read a book that did a terrific job at emphasizing this aspect of storytelling.  “Lone Star Noir” sets out to explore different regions of Texas with a variety of characters placed in those landscapes with noir genre conventions thrown into the mix.  It was fascinating to see how the particulars of towns translated to the particulars of characters.  Often times the richness of place is a necessary precept to the richness of character because of the insight it provides into the subtext of the character’s psychology.  What would Forrest Gump be without Greenbo Alabama?

Artist Alfredo Jarr is known for his deep emphasis in relating the particulars of place into his community oriented work.  Jarr will often live in an environment for years before finally designing a work that he feels reflects the nature of the place he has lived and also that potentially enlightens the community to aspects of their environment they may not have been aware or considered.  In this way, Jarr acts as both a mirror – for the community to see themselves in – and as a outside opinion and influence.  How incredible would it be if we could bring to our filmmaking a similar emphasis on place and community that we put our characters in?  I believe the result of this would be far richer stories – stories who act as ambassadors for the communities and geography from which they emerge.

There are already excellent examples of this, particularly in foreign film industries.  The swedish island of Faros was home to some of the most memorable Ingmar Bergman films, includingThrough a Glass Darkly, Persona, and The Seventh Seal.  The gorgeous swedish island has enormous influence over each of the films, almost acting as a character in itself.

As technical achievements allow us greater and greater flexibility in our choices in shooting locations, it is my hope that we will see more and more filmmakers put an emphasis on place as a vital element of their storytelling process.