By Andy Stark, special to Tacoma Film Festival 

Patrons of the 2021 Tacoma Film Festival have a unique opportunity to see two works by Washington/California filmmaker Kersti Jan Werdal: Cedar Rose, a short film essay about the lost language and land of the Native Duwamish people; and Lake Forest Park, a coming-of-age tale about a group of friends in the Pacific Northwest dealing with the secret of a classmate’s death.

Each exemplifies Werdal’s talent at creating new forms of storytelling capable of excavating hidden truths and buried memories. Currently shooting in Zanzibar, she generously took the time to discuss her thoughtful working methods, and the influence the Northwest has on her art and life. Cedar Rose screens as a part of PNW Doc Shorts 2 on Sunday, October 10 at 12 PM; Lake Forest Park on Sunday, Oct. 10, at 2:30 PM.

Cedar Rose and Lake Forest Park convey a deep feeling for and knowledge of Western Washington. What’s your history with the region, and what interests you about it with respect to your filmmaking? 

Until I was 18, I grew up in a suburb of Seattle called Lake Forest Park, with most summers spent in Spokane. I’ve always spent time there since moving out of state; however, more recently I’ve been there about three to four months out of the year, typically making work or editing. I’m fortunate that my family has a home in the Olympic Peninsula, and that’s primarily where I spend my time.

Western Washington is unlike any place I’ve visited. I have only felt remnants of it in Switzerland, certain areas of Japan, and Sweden. Growing up in a place that rains most of the year (which has since changed drastically due to global warming), I think it’s pretty hard not to develop a strong relationship to the environment. It guides behavior, and accompanies memories. Seattle is situated between the Olympics and Cascade mountain ranges, has the only National rainforest and fjord in the United States, an immense volcano, the Pacific Ocean to the West and lake Washington and the Columbia River to the East. Even after living there for so long, I still can’t totally comprehend the magnitude of nature that persists in and surrounding the cities. I took this for granted in my youth, but looking back can see how that, despite this, it is embedded in the way I seek out landscapes in my work, and guides what I’m drawn to documenting.

I find people who live in Washington to be a bit more reserved and to keep to themselves (more) than other places I’ve lived. This makes relationship building slower paced, and in the end, for me, more genuine. The lack of any entertainment industry renders a culture that tends to avoid doing things for show, and I find this down to earth quality more comfortable for my own personal disposition.

The sequencing of scenes, sections, and images in your films is unconventional yet intuitive and compelling. How do you devise the structures of your films?

Each film is different; but generally, I have an idea about the edit fairly early on in the pre-production phase. There are certain things I gravitate towards in the edit, such as inconclusive endings, steering away from any fabricated drama, and leaning into restraint rather than spelling out what is happening or why to the audience. I’d prefer the viewer have more agency rather than dictate how they should feel. I’d like the viewer to participate, rather than sit passively.

It’s a nuanced balance to weigh the intuitive choices with more strategy, and I try to keep them in dialog with each other. Generally, I drift back and forth between the two until there seems to be a meeting place that feels right.

I take inspiration from other art-forms to think about structure, as well. With Lake Forest Park, I thought of Western music, the first five minutes before the title being the epigraph and the final scene as the coda: ‘a reverberation of something already heard’. 

Both films use archival media—such as video of Upper Skagit Tribe elder Vi Hilbert in Cedar Rose, KOMO news radio reports in Lake Forest Park, along with material created by yourself and your collaborators. I’m curious about your method of finding and selecting that archival media, and your thoughts on how the old and the new influence each other when put together.

I’ve worked as an archivist for two artists, and studied Sociocultural Anthropology at university, which both have informed the way I think about putting together materials. Spending hours and hours over large stretches of time with objects, ephemera, photographs, and artworks which encompass a person’s life, I began to consider the concept of an archive, and how the elusive slippery elements of memory can be imposed upon materials and live on once the person has passed. As the archive takes shape, what’s required is a person or institution making a choice of what is kept or discarded, reflecting and informing a history which can be accurate to that history or not. I feel this is similarly tied to field-work, and the role of the anthropologist, which is impossibly problematic. Things are left out, often one or just a handful of viewpoints are reflected, and what’s left is something which many present as objective, which is in truth, inherently subjective. I feel this is also why I tend to avoid the term documentary, I’m not sure it exists, or rather - if the term holds the same meaning that it used to. I’m always considering this when making and think it’s partially why archival materials wind up in my work. I think it’s interesting to appropriate and displace archival materials in moving-image, in order to create a new narrative, or comment on an existing one, all the while self-consciously holding the awareness of the responsibility, and problematic nature of making films which document or comment on something other than ones-self. Pulling in materials from the past is an approach I take to introduce a dialectic device in filmmaking.

The attentive viewer of Lake Forest Park will pick up subtle details that reveal the film’s time period. Talk about the decision to set the film in the past, and your process of choosing how to convey it to the audience.

I set the film between 2000 to 2002 to reflect the same years the events occurred in my adolescence. I think it was an interesting time for teenagers: social media didn’t exist, and it was unusual to have a cell phone. Escape and connection had to be accessed through other modes. Luckily for me, many of the locations are unchanged, and few contemporary cars interfered with the shots. Initially, I was unsure how to go about making a period-piece that is in the near distant past, with very little budget. But, I then recalled how Chantal Akerman made Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the 60s in Brussels. It’s autobiographical and based in the 1960s, however filmed in the 90s. The only strategy she used was simply ensuring the outfits were modeled after the looks of her youth. Other than that, everything was modern to the time. I felt it worked, and decided to just go for it. I think the only explicit more overt signals of the year is the “60-Minutes” episode discussing the onset of eBay, and the absence of cell-phones attached to the teenagers.

The performances of the young actors in Lake Forest Park are wonderful: very natural and authentic. How did you cast them, and how did you work with them on-set?

All of the cast are first time actors, and I was fortunate to have found them. I searched locally in Washington, and also in California where I live most of the time. The summer before production I focused on building the cast, however didn’t have the budget to do so in a more secure way: with chemistry tests between actors, spending more time with them, screen-tests, rehearsing, and so forth. I also had very little experience working with actors and, because of this, felt more inclined to do what felt natural to me rather than utilizing a (much more reliable) formalized method of street-casting. To be honest, I just connected with each individual, and was compelled by each one of them; how they carried themselves, their interests, their faces, their personal quirks, their energy. Each person in some way reminded me of the characters they would be playing as well. I knew it was risky to cast this way, especially because we were working with a very constrained amount of 16mm film. So, it really is a bit of magic that it all turned out the way it did. The week of production felt like camp. We all lived together in my parents’ house where I grew up. We beaded necklaces and ate food together, shared rooms, gave each other tattoos. The cast bonded rather quickly and had chemistry, and I believe it went as well as it could have.

Because the actors were inexperienced, I didn’t want to force them to do something that was unnatural, such as memorizing lines. So, I decided to scrap a script I had been working on and instead set up each scene with an intention, and explained loosely what was going on, inviting the actors to respond to the narrative with their own impulses and perspective. The instructions were pretty pragmatic and action-based, such as ‘run through the market,’ or ‘put eye-liner on Lily,’ or ‘have an argument about a boy.’ I find it interesting to see how the personhood comes out of the individual when they know very little about the overarching narrative. I’ve remained close with some of the cast and am in touch with all of them, and two of the actors have been in another film of mine since. I plan on continuing to work this way but am also open to collaborating with an actor that has professional experience, as well.

Care to share any details about projects in-progress?

I’m shooting in Zanzibar at the moment with a locally cast family for a new project that’s in the very early stages. I’ll also be shooting in Europe in November and the U.S. to follow. I’m excited about it, but don’t have too much that’s concrete to share, just yet.