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Terence Nance’s New Film Is a Surreal Trip Through the Swamps, Pools, and Black Churches of Florida

We talked to director Terence Nance about 'Swimming in Your Skin Again,' a mesmerizing, non-narrative tour of images and sound.

by Ashley Clark
Dec 9 2015, 5:00am

All stills courtesy of Borscht Corp

The Texas-born, Brooklyn-based artist Terence Nance burst onto the scene in 2012 with his feature debut An Oversimplification of Her Beauty. The film, executive-produced by Jay-Z, Wyatt Cenac, and dream hampton, is a kaleidoscopic, Afrofuturistic blend of romantic drama and confessional documentary, in which Nance, who plays himself, ruminates candidly over past, present, and future loves. In addition to starring, Nance wrote, directed, partially scored, and animated the film, which marked the arrival of a singular talent. Its joyful formal experimentation (films-within-films, Afrofuturistic animation, documentary inserts) and avoidance of conventional narrative signaled the arrival of a filmmaker refreshingly uninterested in cleaving to predetermined categories.

Although Nance has yet to follow up with another feature, he's kept busy working in short format, making films as diverse as the beguiling, beautifully choreographed "You and I and You" video for indie rockers the Dig, and the starkly monochromatic "blackout," which evokes contemporary police brutality via abstract dance, unsettling sound design, and narration by American civil rights attorney John Burris.

Watch an exclusive trailer from 'Swimming in Your Skin Again,' starring Norvis Jr.:

His latest short, Swimming in Your Skin Again, is produced by Miami-based multimedia company Borscht Corp, and is a collaboration with his younger brother Norvis Jr., a talented and accomplished filmmaker and musician in his own right. Visually ravishing and provocatively ambiguous, the film stars Norvis Jr. as an unnamed figure embarking on an elliptical, spiritual tour of life in and around Miami, including the Catholic Church, the swamp, the backyard, and the water. Clocking in just north of 20 minutes, this arresting swirl of color, sound, and mystical imagery is designed to simultaneously seduce the eyes and stoke the synapses. I recently spoke to Nance to discuss his inspiration for the film, the racism of certain development types, and the pitfalls of Stonewall.

VICE: Other than your film being commissioned by Borscht, how did it come about?
Terence Nance: I was in Miami, and I wrote it on the beach, based on the first line of a song by Norvis Jr.: "Swimming in your skin again / Blinded by your elegance." While writing, I was hearing about how Miami was sinking under rising sea levels, and thinking about the cultural mix of the place. That all fed into the script. I sent it to Norvis, and he approached working on it like, "We can't do this, we can do this, we can't do this," and certain details he just changed. He added in that everyone should be wearing yellow, and he added the disclaimer at the beginning. Basically the next draft of the script is the one we went with.

The film has a dreamlike, free-associative quality. Is that reflected in your process?
I was trying to obey impulses and not force myself to formulate a rationale for any given creative decision. I've been thinking about creating art as more like a bodily function, just pushing it out, manipulating it less. You take in information and stimulus on a daily basis, and the artwork is exhaling. The process of making Swimming was like respiration, or like eating and taking a shit. Or like seeing and dreaming. Things you have to do. The result is something that may seem non-narrative, but every time I watch it I see something that ties it together that I did not intend.

The film has been shown on big screens at festivals, but it's premiering online, and that's where it'll have most eyes on it. Was that how you envisioned it?
If we'd had more time and money, we'd have done a feature, but we did what we could with the resources we had. I think that it's definitely a better experience in a theater, even though it's always been a hard-sell to argue that your short film should to be watched in a theater! For something like this, short and bizarre, the idea of being fully engaged by it rests, to an extent, on seeing it in a space where you're required to only engage with it.

What are the benefits of putting your work online?
It helps to stay engaged with the industry and your audience in general. If you're only making features, they take a long time to make, and you risk having nothingbearing your name in between. So I stay active, and my name remains in certain conversations, which has a positive effect on my ability to find financing.

At the same time, by doing so, my attention is divided, so it becomes more difficult to work on the next bigger thing quickly and efficiently. I'm still negotiating how to make both things work. In the case of Swimming, there's an obligation to it: I was going to do something with my mother and my brother. It's not optional!

What is it like at the moment being an experimental, "art-first" filmmaker, and trying to attract funding? History is full of great black filmmakers who've struggled to raise funding to tell personal stories outside the mainstream, like Julie Dash and Haile Gerima, both highly influential stalwarts of the LA Rebellion who have struggled with recent crowdfunding campaigns.
I've encountered wildly racist development people and investors, where I'll tell them an idea, and there's black characters in it, and they'll say, "This is cool, but do you have something for a Brad Pitt-type, where he discovers something, and then that gets us into the story?" Those stories are ubiquitous and sad, but they are reality. White supremacy is a real thing, which can have a very real effect on our ability to be prolific, to find the money to make films. I think that's always existed. A lot of my woes have been related to the expectation I had that the wealthy black creative community—black actors, producers, directors, musicians, who have a lot of money, who have development deals at major studios or pools of cash, black film financiers—would be in contact with people from my community about funding "art-first" black films. I've found that the wealth class in black media and film seems disinterested in the vast majority of emerging black writer directors, or at least I have not found them to be vigilant about being in contact with the majority of my peers.

Do you think artists have a responsibility to be political?
I think artists do, but all people do. If I was a janitor, I'd feel that I had a responsibility to be informed. That's what being political means for me: acknowledging your role in a community and putting forth the effort to play that role to the best of your ability. The climate that we are in, unfortunately, requires a whole lot of vigilance from a community to ensure that a system of government is adequately serving them. If you are apolitical—as artists or anyone else—then the system will do with you what it will. We know that to mean that the system will treat you like a number.

You also do a line in film criticism, and your reviews are notable for how you connect the work to real-world issues of politics, representation and race—I'm thinking of your takedowns of Exodus: Gods and Kings, which features browned-up white actors in Middle Eastern roles, and Stonewall, which diminished the role of queer and trans people of color in favor of centering the narrative on a hunky, and totally invented white boy. You don't always see that approach to film criticism.
I think it's important to note that Hitler was nobody without [Nazi propaganda filmmaker] Leni Riefenstahl. Media matters. It's a tool. I don't understand where anybody got the idea that a piece of media is inert, or not influencing behavior, or public opinion, or people's understanding of social dynamics. I don't know who even trafficked in that idea that any information is benign; all information is active. The most active information in the world right now is the Bible, or the Qur'an. That information is thousands of years old—fact or fiction—but it's pushing people in all sorts of directions. And that's words on a page.

The idea that images flashing at you are not doing the same thing is false, so films have to be evaluated as such. If you look at Stonewall on Rotten Tomatoes, it's a nine percent critic rating, and 92 percent audience rating, which means that people who are going to see it and then reviewing it on RT are loving the shit out of this movie, even if they're aware going in that it's a "bad" movie. Its quality level does not cancel its ability, as a piece of conversation, to change people, to change their behavior, what they say to other people, or affect whose life they value and whose they don't. If you are a white male, you don't have to think about these things so much, because the conversation is mostly set up to sing your praises in the world. If you're living any other cultural experience, it becomes clear that the media is set up to devalue you and make sure you remain powerless. So for me, given that a lot of media is actively devaluing me and my culture, it is important for me to at least call it out.

What's next for you, film-wise?
I'm trying to cast [for my next feature, titled The Lobbyists]. Casting will help me find the financing easier. I want to shoot it next year, even if I need to shoot it on my iPhone. I'm going to shoot something else even cheaper next year—something's coming out very soon. Financial circumstances can't dictate whether I'm going to do it or not. I want to make four features in the next five years.

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Swimming in Your Skin Again premieres today on Nowness. Norvis Jr.'s EP Coming Down can be found here, and his new EP, Pyrrhic Victory Disc 03 is out March 4 on Tape Club Records.