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BOOKS & THE CULTURE I BY JOSH ROSENBLATT He Cannes Do It At 25, Ya’Ke Smith, a native of San Antonio and graduate film student at the University of Texas at Austin, is already an award-win ning director. His films have been honored by the Los Angeles Short Film Festival, the WESTfest Short Film and Video Competition, and Austin’s Cinematexas International Short Film Festival. Last year his film Hope’s War won the prestigious Director’s Guild of America West Coast Student Film Award. In February it was one of five filmsout of a field of hundredsselected for Showtime’s Black Filmmaker Showcase, a televised festival that brings to the public the best short films from up-and-coming AfricanAmerican directors. Next month it will be screened at the Cannes Film Festival as part of Kodak’s Emerging Filmmaker Showcase. Hope’s War is a sobering 10minute look inside the mind of a recently returned Iraq War veteran beset on all sides by flashbacks and hallucinations, and impulses both murderous and suicidal. The movie, which was filmed in Austin, is a rush of emotionsdisorienting jump shots, drunken soliloquies, and re-enactments of torture in Iraqi prison cells. Thoughtful and opinionated, with long dreadlocks and a set of headphones permanently draped around his neck, Ya’Ke the Observer to discuss his experiences making Hope’s War and to share his thoughts on the creative process. The following is an excerpt of that conversation: Texas Observer: Why do you make films? Ya’Ke Smith: I always tell people that John Singleton’s Boyz ‘N the Hood made me want to be a filmmaker. Because that was the first time I saw people that I could identify with on screen. I lived in those neighborhoods, in San Antonio; I’m from the projects there. And to see that on screen was groundbreaking to me. It made me say, “I wanna make films like that so people can get a different perspective of where I come from and who I am.” Because I think Hollywood has a tendency to stereotype black people; they think we’re only onedimensional, but we’re not. TO: Hope’s War is a pretty passionate indictment of the Iraq War and the effect it’s having on the soldiers sent to fight it. How do you strike a balance between getting across a message in your films and making a beautiful picture, making the story move, allowing your characters to breathe? YS: Some people would say Hope’s War is too heavy-handed, but I don’t think it is. I mean, it’s real. When I first wrote the script, it was about how I was terrified about the war and [critical of] George Bush. But I don’t think you need to have that. That fear and criticism comes across in what you’re seeing. It’s a matter of stripping your script all the way down to the bare bones and finding out what it’s really about. You know what you want to say, but your story needs to drive it because people identify with people; they don’t identify with a message. They want to see people on screen like them, people who could be them or could be in that situation. TO: So which came first for you when you were writing this script: your thoughts about the Iraq War or the idea for the character? YS: It was the war. One day I watched the tape of Nick Berg getting beheaded on the Internet, and I said to myself, “Man, what the hell is going on?” It hit me that we were really at war. And then I started seeing all these stories about soldiers who had come back and who had committed suicide or had killed their wives and their kids, and I thought, “Why are we not hearing about this stuff?” And you realize those stories are being suppressed. After I saw that, the story came to me. I was like, “I have to write this story because you don’t see this. Nobody wants to deal with this right now, but it’s necessary.” TO: Why is there so much use of handheld camera in the film? YS: I love the way a handheld camera moves. It breathes so much life into your frame. That’s all I shoot with; it’s all handheld. Because you’re not stuck in one position. You’re able to let your actors move, and you can move with them. It seems more like documentaries in a way to me. It’s never about just being a beautiful landscape. It’s all about these characters, it’s all about their story. And that camera’s getting me right in the middle. That’s the kind of film I like to make. TO: How do you get honest performances out of your actors, particularly [Hope’s War protagonist] Mark Banks, who’s playing such a volatile, self-destructive character? YS: For me and Mark, most of our rehearsals were just sitting around talking. As a director you have to tell your secrets. If you expect somebody to tell you their secrets, you have to be willing to tell your secrets. We told each other things about ourselves that probably nobody else knows. And I could whisper those things in his ear when I needed him to go somewhere. Maybe there’s a certain noise that he remembers as a child that he hated or a certain person that just makes him cringe. I have to keep recall of those memories. I brought in a lot of photos for him of the wounded children in Iraq and of wounded soldiers and a lot of news articles. I had him watch the Nick Berg tape. And I just had him do a whole lot of personal research about himself and about the soldiers over there to figure out how to get it. Because he doesn’t 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER APRIL 21, 2006