Joe Talbot’s “American Paradise” tells an absurd and amusing story and has been drawing laughs at film festivals including Sundance and SXSW, but it’d be a mistake to call the 18-minute short a light comedy.
That’s because the film, which is one of the 12 finalists in TheWrap’s ShortList Film Festival, which is presented with support from IMAX, is a wild and weird yarn designed to tell a story about race in America.
“I found this strange story in a deep corner of the internet, about a white guy who had robbed multiple banks wearing a hyper-realistic black-man mask,” said Talbot, who ran across the true story while doing research for an upcoming feature titled “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.”
“Police were looking for a black suspect, and they actually arrested an innocent guy who they thought looked vaguely like the mask. They had to issue an apology. And the news anchors were complicit as well – they put out all this misinformation, and the tone was, ‘This black man is robbing banks!’”
Somehow, he said, nobody noticed that the bank robber was wearing a silicon mask.
“Race obviously played a huge part in this and gave it a much deeper meaning,” he said. “When at first when we found the story, I felt, ‘This is absurd, I can’t believe this happened.’ And then you go, ‘Of course this happened, and only in America could it have happened.’”
Talbot took liberties with the real story, having his robber get stuck inside the mask on a blistering hot day. He shot the film on abandoned military bases and in and around the Northern California town of Vallejo, which isn’t as transformed by new construction as much of the Bay Area, because it had gone bankrupt in 2008. “It has a haunted quality that makes it a filmmaker’s paradise,” he said.
He sees “American Paradise” as “sort of a dark, twisted precursor” to “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” which he hopes to start shooting late this year. That film is inspired by Talbot’s friend Jimmie Fails, a young African-American man who is trying to get back the Victorian house in San Francisco that his grandfather built but his parents lost.
Fails appears in “American Paradise,” in a framing story that finds an elderly man telling his two grandsons the cautionary story of the bankrobber. As he preps that film, Talbot is somewhat surprised to see how timely his comic short has become.
“It spoke to something terrible that is happening in the country.” he said. “We started it before Trump’s election, but I do think the story is wrapped up in a lot of the things that he’s brought to the surface – it’s the story of a white guy who’s down and out and trying to change his fate, but in a way that is really problematic.”
And even though “American Paradise” predates the Trump election, Talbot said he did manage to add a nod to the new president. “We snuck in a Trump mask in the store where the bankrobber goes to buy his mask,” he said. “Most people don’t catch that.”
Watch the film above. Viewers can also screen the films at any time during the festival at Shortlistfilmfestival.com and vote from Aug. 8-22. Presented with support from IMAX.