The Daily Heller: Primitive Artist is Just Plain Folk

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To document a very special “folk/self-taught” artist, filmmakers Petter Ringbom and Marquise Stillwell of Opendox were approached in 2016 to make a movie about Atlanta’s Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982) who, towards the end of her life, experienced unexpected, yet deserved popularity in the art world. The idea for a film came from the Judith Alexander Foundation (named for Nellie Mae’s eccentric art dealer and close friend). But who was Nellie Mae Rowe?

“I didn’t know of her art before then, but I was quickly enamored, and could early on see how her art could be used to tell her story,” says Ringbom about the final film, This World Is Not My Own. And as a first-time viewer, I too was smitten by the art and the woman who made it.

The Foundation asked a couple of producer/directors to come to Atlanta to pitch them film ideas. As Ringbom notes, “Marquise and I convinced them that Nellie Mae Rowe deserved an ambitious approach, an independently produced feature-length film that could screen at premiere film festivals and appeal to a general audience,” and the Foundation agreed to give them the seed funding for the project.

After seeing a screener, I spoke to Ringbom about the creative decisions that lead to such a compelling live action, stop motion animated art film experience.

This World is Not My Own, with animated Judith Alexander and Nellie Mae Rowe. ©Opendox, Photography by Petter Ringbom. Character Animation & VFX by Kaktus Film

What inspired the mix of complex and simple animation techniques? During the first few segments, I was totally aghast when I realized it was animated. I think it took the beer bottle scene (below) to unlock the secret.
The character animation approach grew out of a creative challenge. We wanted to make a film about someone who’s been dead for 40 years, and where there was not a lot of archival material to work with, basically because she was a black woman living in the South and did not become a known artist until she was in her 70s. This is a very different challenge than doing a film about Moholy-Nagy, where there’s a lot of images and some filmed material, but most importantly, there’s a ton of scholarship to work with.

So how can you make an audience connect emotionally with Nellie and really feel her presence? We decided to attempt to reimagine her and her home, and then write scenes as if we were actually filming her for a documentary. We partnered with a studio down in New Orleans to rebuild Nellie’s home as a film set. Pieces of these sets are now part of the High Museum’s permanent collection, and were exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum last year. We then brought on Uzo Aduba to voice Nellie and provide the movements for the animated character. We hired a 3D animation studio in Stockholm to create and animate the character, and then the footage of the analogue (cardboard) sets and the character were combined. So, it’s a combination of very analog lo-fi material and pretty cutting-edge digital techniques. Some images of the process here:

“This World is Not My Own” with animated Nellie Mae Rowe. ©Opendox, Photography by Petter Ringbom. Character Animation & VFX by Kaktus Film
Future screenings can be found here.

How long have you and your co-writer/director been doing films as Opendocs?
Marquise and I started collaborating on films together back in 2012, around the time I premiered my first non-fiction feature, The Russian Winter. We made a short about Marfa and then started on our first non-fiction feature together, Shield and Spear. We officially formed Opendox in 2016, right before we began work on This World is Not My Own. Thus far, we’ve made three features, and a number of short films and commissions together. Marquise was actually my client first. He hired my then graphic design firm, Flat, to design the identity for his own design and research studio, Openbox. So, Openbox and Opendox— one is a design + research studio and the other is a non-fiction film production company. When we named our film company, we thought it worked well as a naming system, but honestly it seems to confuse people! But now we’re stuck with it. What I do like about the name, however, is that it speaks towards our ideology of inclusiveness. We like, as much as the film industry allows us to, to remove the focus from the individual director and represent filmmaking as the collaborative art form it truly is. We write a bit about it here:

Nellie Mae was unknown to me, but she certainly found a receptive audience. If your goal is to raise her visibility, you’ve succeeded. But how will the film be distributed and where?
The film had its world premiere at SXSW this March and will screen at festivals and art museums both domestically and internationally for the rest of the year. Since Nellie Mae Rowe is not a household name, and neither are we, the film has to build an audience organically, in a word-of-mouth way. We have a good momentum going, and the reviews have been great, so our hope is to get limited theatrical distribution for a North America beginning of 2024, and a broadcast or streaming release following that. We do have theatrical distribution in Sweden. The film will be released in theaters there this fall. Folks can check out for upcoming screenings.

Self portrait by Nellie Mae Rowe.

A lot went into the production: the dimensional animation, the flat animation, the script, the research. What were the marching orders from the Foundation?
Yes, it did. Errol Morris calls it the “everything bagel” approach, which I like. We were inspired by Nellie Mae Rowe’s own world building. We wanted to create a rich and fantastical visual world for the film, and I think we achieved that. We used a lot of different techniques, as you mentioned, but I think there’s a visual cohesiveness. It’s all part of the same visual world.

I should clarify our relationship with the Judith Alexander Foundation. The project originated with them, and wouldn’t exist without them, but it’s not a work-for-hire. They have no creative control over the film, strictly advisory. That was a must for us. We (Opendox) own the film. They provided about a quarter of the budget. We also received funding from Cinema Conservancy, the Swedish Film Institute, Jewish Story Partners, New York State Council on the Arts, the David Schwartz Foundation, and multiple individual donors. I think it’s important to mention because it speaks towards the funding model, or lack thereof, for films about art and design in this country. There’s no singular funder for this kind of film, so you have to rely on a multiple sources of mainly grants and donations. Fundraising is a very time-consuming and highly competitive process. Wish it wasn’t so.

Given these circumstance, it’s actually a miracle that This World is Not My Own exists in the form that it does. It’s pretty idiosyncratic pulling out all the stops making a film about a not-very-famous artist. But that’s what we did.

Film poster, Opendox (Petter Ringbom & Marquise Stillwell) Photography by Jessica Antola.
Posted inThe Daily Heller