For Jack Dunphy, making movies about his life is a way to sort things out. Film is an autobiographic medium that allows him, he says, to revisit tough memories and recreate them with a variety of visual styles.
One such memory can be seen in “Chekhov,” an entry at TheWrap’s ShortList Film Festival, presented with support from IMAX. It is comprised of two simple elements: footage of Dunphy’s ex-girlfriend Fiona, and a secretly-recorded phone call he made to his sister, Ruby.
Dunphy says he decided to make the film spontaneously after an encounter with Fiona after their break-up that left him feeling emotional. In the phone call, he asks an irritated Ruby to pull out a book of Chekhov poetry Fiona gave him as a gift and to read out the inscription she wrote in the front of the book for him. After reading it out for him — first sarcastically, then earnestly — Ruby stops Dunphy from hanging up and pleads with him to ask their father to reconcile with their mother. The film ends with a postscript noting that his father passed away in 2015. Dunphy told TheWrap he estimates it took about half-an-hour to make “Chekhov.”
“I knew I had this footage that I didn’t think I was going to do anything with,” Dunphy told TheWrap. “So I had this idea to call my sister… and I had an idea that the conversation would take some sort of turn, though I didn’t know it would exactly go the way it did.”
Dunphy says his honest, self-reflective approach to filmmaking was inspired by his film school professor, Caveh Zahedi, whose Personal Documentary he took at the New School in New York City. It was from an assignment for this class to make a movie about “something that you’re ashamed of” that Dunphy made “Serenity,” an animated short about how he lost his virginity to a woman who smoked outside his high school and had a penchant for post-coital heroin sessions. The short went on to become a festival circuit hit that screened at Sundance.
As it turns out, Dunphy had crossed paths with Zahedi’s work several years before, as he stole a copy of his 2005 autobiographical comedy, “I Am A Sex Addict,” from a Blockbuster when he was in eighth grade. At the time, Dunphy was just fascinated by the bizarre nature of Zahedi’s film, but when he first met Zahedi in the class, the film became a guide that inspired him to craft his own form of “hyper-personal” storytelling.
“Every week in his class, we just had to make one of those personal documentaries and just churn them out. I just took to it really quick and it came naturally to me,” Dunphy said. “It helped me get out of a rut I was in creatively.”
When Dunphy told his sister and ex about “Chekhov,” Ruby thought it was funny, but Fiona was less amused. Dunphy declined to go into details, but said that the two had a dispute over the short film’s release that was resolved, though the two don’t speak much anymore. But “Chekhov” seems to have struck a chord with festival-goers, as Dunphy says that some people have tearfully told him that they identified with the call he and Ruby had. Others remained silent, which Dunphy attributes to the awkwardness that might come with sharing something so deeply personal with an audience.
If that’s the reaction Dunphy can get from a single phone call, it will be interesting to see the reactions to his next project, “The Pervert.” Co-directed with Nathan Silver, the feature-length documentary/fiction hybrid follows, as Dunphy describes it, “how I self-sabotaged my life during my father’s death, which I filmed.” The film is currently in post-production, and if Dunphy’s short films are any indication, they will see him reflect on his past with the same sober honesty he managed to pull out of a single phone call.
Watch “Chekov” above. Viewers can also screen the films at any time during the festival at Shortlistfilmfestival.com and vote from Aug. 8-22.