Two years ago Nicholas Pilarski, a Duke student studying for his M.A. in Experimental and Documentary Arts, was interested in making a film about what he calls “the spiritual connection to food.” One day he happened to pop into JC’s Kitchen, a Durham soul food restaurant, where he was given a flier about the case of Carlos Riley Jr., a young black man who was allegedly racially profiled by Durham police and wound up in jail for taking an officer’s gun away in a 2012 incident.
Turns out Phyllis Terry, owner of the joint, was a relative of Carlos. Intrigued, Pilarski went to a community meeting where he met the Riley family, and decided he wanted to shoot a film about how the incarceration affected them. And when members of the family suggested “you can start with Des” – Carlos’ 13-year old younger sister Destini – Pilarski discovered an “interesting girl, looking at things in an interesting way.”
The result is “I, Destini,” an 11-minute animated short in which Destini, now 15, describes the Riley family’s feelings from her point of view. “It was (Pilarski) noticing how I was more affected” by the jailing, says Destini, explaining how the film came to be, “and how I explained my emotions through art work. And one day he said maybe we should focus it more through your perspective.”
Every person in prison comes from a family.
“Destini’s mom showed me pictures she had drawn,” adds Pilarski. “She showed a number of realistic drawings, then a self-portrait which was bizarre. I thought, ‘Wow, this is great. This is where we can start.’”
The process involved in making the film was long and collaborative. It included everything from watching movies, to readings and mini-projects, like asking Destini to produce sketches of emotions she was feeling.
“What is this going to look like? What do you want this to be about?” Pilarski would ask Destini. “We didn’t necessarily talk it through. Destini would make a picture – like what would surveillance look like – and I’d ask questions about the choices she made. Destini felt really comfortable (with animation), and she had an imagination that could not be rendered in traditional film.”
Most of the short film – which consists of over 15,000 hand-rendered drawings – was rotoscoped, a process that involves photographing something, then tracing over it (Disney’s 1937 “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is probably the most famous use of this process). Nick and Destini used some CGI, plus their own photography and existing models and shapes, with Destini making the final decision about what images to use.
“The idea of what to do was Destini’s choice,” says Pilarski. “She was pretty set in telling her own experience.”
A haunting piece of work
The result is a totally professional, highly stylized, festival-quality piece of work, haunting in its naked honesty and power.
It opens with Destini talking about her love for nature documentaries, but how Africa always looks like a violent place in these films. “My brother’s not a lion, he’s a giraffe,” she says, “he’s peaceful. Not all black men are lions.” Then she discusses the cultural differences in her school, and how almost no one can understand what her weekends are like, visiting her brother in prison. “Every person in prison comes from a family,” she says, “but you never think of this when you see them arrested on TV.”
Carlos Riley Jr. is currently serving a 10-year term in federal prison, the sentence recently upheld by a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. His family is still dealing with the consequences of that ruling.
“I want people to realize there is more to someone being incarcerated,” says Destini of her film. “There are effects afterwards, and everyone in prison comes from a home. I just want them to understand.”
What: Screening of “I, Destin” with a panel discussion and a performance by Boots Riley.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Hayti Heritage Center, 804 Old Fayetteville St., Durham