how did we get here? • Michelle Miles’ Short Screened at Sundance
A few months ago, Michelle Miles (College ‘19) was on a stage at the Sundance Film Festival, surrounded by her own artistic influences, some of whom she had studied and profiled in her thesis less than a year before, and talked about her film. The experience was, she says, “a long, surreal dream.” The title of the four-and-a-half-minute experimental short film that landed her there seems only too appropriate for her own story. It is called how did we get here? The short answer to how Miles went from her first year at UVA interested in studying physics or computer science, an academic path that she envisioned would land her a job in tech, to displaying her work at Sundance begins with her first week of taking a film class in Studio Art.
She was an avid painter in her adolescence before deciding to focus her energies on photography as a teen, then making the rather natural transition to filmmaking in her young adulthood. That part of her journey began with Charlottesville’s Light House Studio, where she made a documentary about Charlottesville artist and fashion icon Beatrix Ost. One day she received an email from the Los Angeles Film Festival informing her that the film had been selected to screen in the Los Angeles Future Filmmakers Festival in California, where she and co-director Grace Hoffman went on to earn ‘Best Documentary’. The experience also earned her an important nudge toward artistic dreams she wasn’t even sure she had yet.
Maggie McKay, then the director of the LA Film Festival, strongly urged her to pursue a filmmaking career and suggested that she check out a filmmaker who taught at a school somewhere on the East Coast. “Somewhere” turned out to be UVA, where Miles was heading in the fall, and the filmmaker was none other than the internationally acclaimed Kevin Everson. “When I first met Kevin, I still wasn’t thinking of this as a serious career path for me,” Miles said. “But after about a week of taking his class, I knew he was never going to get rid of me.”
Due to a neuromuscular condition, Miles shared that she’s often found her ability to match the physical efforts of non-disabled filmmakers to be limited, but a continued interest in pursuing time-based media led her to macro filmmaking. “This allows me to work with organic movement in a more abstract way, and in a setting that poses far fewer limitations than I am met within the full-scale natural world or a traditional film set.” The style allowed her to create what she called a “downsized, more accessible universe that I could manipulate, but that was still organic.” It was the kind of abstraction that carried her back to her earlier love of painting. ‘how did we get here?’ is a film she made during her days in Everson’s class. With a macro lens over a large LED light panel purchased with a grant from the UVA Miller Art Scholars, she began mixing various materials such as pigments, inks, oils, and soaps in a petri dish. “ I accidentally left my camera on after layering red ink and dish soap in a glass dish. When I reviewed the footage, I ended up cutting out these four-and-a-half-minutes of time when the ink and the soap were drying together and made this beautiful pattern.”
What began as an interest in experimenting with materials that she could access, evolved into a fascination with how such drastic visual changes in the reaction between the materials happened almost imperceptibly over those few minutes. Almost unwittingly, Miles said, she was making a piece that addressed her own life. “I realized that this film was a sort of self-portrait, and in particular a portrait of my motor neurons, which control my muscles, and which, given the disease I have, weaken slowly over time. It became about trying to understand how my disability informed what interested me about this piece.”
The surreal Sundance experience, Miles said, was both validating and lasting. “Getting to be a part of this community of artists is really amazing. My film screened in the New Frontiers Shorts, along with the shorts of several other experimental filmmakers whose work I had studied (and obsessed over) just a year prior while I was in college, including Terence Nance, Narcissister, Wong Ping, and Simon Liu. Now my film was being screened in the same lineup. On the last day there, I participated in a panel called ‘The New Aesthetics of Disability,’ where I shared a stage with fellow disabled artists who I’ve admired greatly, like Alice Sheppard and the directors of the documentary Crip Camp. It was incredibly humbling, and I was so grateful to be welcomed into this community of people making such great work.”