Found In Transition

Letting it linger: Steven Foley on the set of 'Strange as Angels'
Almost Reel Productions

As a young man, filmmaker Steven Foley used to sell tickets to screenings at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Every weekend he would watch classics--or occasionally something new--by directors hailing from all over the world. The mass communications major from Morehouse College, who had already begun to experiment with his own filmmaking, soon discovered that he was drawn to a certain directorial approach. Intrigued by the poetic sense of real time--life experiences considered at their own pace by the likes of Eric Rohmer--Foley began to develop a personal aesthetic that allowed for a particular kind of uninhibited storytelling.

"As an African American filmmaker, you're put in a box and expected to have a certain set of influences and experiences to draw from, but I've always been drawn to European directors," explains the 33-year-old Chicago native, adding that American auteurs such as Woody Allen and fellow Morehouse alum Spike Lee loom large for him as well.

Foley's characters linger in the moment, and as a result the moments attain a greater gravitas, allowing choices, conflicts, and desires to gather, develop, and eventually resonate. In his first feature, Strange as Angels (screening Tuesday in the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival), Foley presents a slowly unfolding meditation on the interrelationship between love and fear from an African American woman's perspective.

"I make films that deal with the decisions that need to be made in life," he says. "This particular story is about timing and circumstance." Originally conceived in 1993 as an exercise in Lynchian theatrics, Angels was pared down by Foley in order for him to explore the more nuanced emotional territory of a character haunted by inner conflict. A decade later--after fundraising in Atlanta, Chicago, and the Twin Cities, and shooting during the summer of 2003--the story is now onscreen. Foley is currently seeking distribution and preparing for screenings at the Nineteenth Black International Cinema Film Festival in Berlin, the Hollywood Black Film Festival and the Black Harvest Film Festival, at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.

The film's protagonist--visual artist Marilyn (Marie-Françoise Theodore)--is a restless soul, still bitter from a failed relationship. Foley was intrigued by the challenge of "creating a character going through an emotional transition," and Marilyn presents some unique dilemmas because of her varied motivations. She wants to run away from her depressing life in the basement of her mother's house, but at the same time is also drawn to the possibility of a new and better love with Rodney (Christian Payton). As the couple attempts to find common ground (and deal with their respective pasts), Marilyn's turmoil continues. She is never quite settled in her decisions--which can try the viewer's patience at times, but it also bolster's the story's credibility.

"I want to identify clearly with the main character," says Foley. "If she wavers, then your allegiance wavers, too. She's not wishy-washy, just fearful. I think that's something everyone goes through." Women may recognize Marilyn as that girlfriend with whom you spend hours going over all the angles--who then up and does something entirely different, but not so unexpected. This sort of person may be frustrating, but at the same time you admire her independence. Indeed, all the characters in Strange as Angels struggle with exterior and interior motivations that define their destinies and increase their realism. Lena (Jamila Anderson), Marilyn's best friend, cultivates a carefree demeanor, but she is actually very rooted to her life--perhaps too much. Earl (Inny Clemons), Rodney's friend, willingly sacrifices his image for a committed relationship.

Strange as Angels takes place in Chicago (although some scenes were shot on location in St. Paul). Foley, who earned his MFA from Columbia College and lived in the Windy City until 2001, retains an affinity for his hometown, but also appreciates the opportunities for independent filmmakers in the Twin Cities, where he worked at the Independent Feature Project. "I didn't have a lot of expectations, but people here are pretty close-knit," he observes. "I look at St. Paul and Minneapolis as one place, but it's small enough to really get stuff done. Still, if you're not going to live in New York or Los Angeles, you have to travel to meet other people and find out what's going on outside your community. Being from a larger city helps me maintain that attitude."

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