By Noma Faingold
Intimacy: It can make people uncomfortable, but for local filmmaker and actor Andrew Zox, 35, intimate stories are the only ones he wants to tell … and show.
His latest short, “I Am My Own Mother,” getting its Bay Area premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival, Oct. 4-14, is a bare, quiet 23-minute drama about a sophisticated African-America woman who takes a trip to meet her birth mother (who had given her up for adoption when she was a baby). She also encounters her adult half-sister and half-brother for the first time.
The setting is rural. The main character, Esther, played by Dionne Audain, is a single soon-to-be-mother, who seems like a fish out of water from the opening scene. Perhaps she is bringing unrealistic expectations to the family reunion.
Zox, who started out in experimental and physical theater in New York and Washington, D.C., lets his storytelling breathe. In “I Am My Own Mother,” silence and ambient sounds reveal more than the already spare dialogue about his complex characters.
“I like letting moments linger,” says Zox. “It allows you to fall in love with them and their flaws.
“I’m interested in stories about families,” Zox adds, whose film was one of only four American student shorts accepted into this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
“Reproduction is a core piece for me. I can’t think of anything more human than birth and life, in terms of telling a story. We need more sympathetic men telling female-centric stories.”
The film was his thesis on his way to getting his master of fine arts degree at San Francisco State University last December. The Cannes experience was overwhelming and affirming for the Sunset District resident.
“I Am My Own Mother” was among the 17 chosen (from 2,400 entries from around the world) by Cinefondation, an organization whose mission is discovering new talent for the festival.
“Cannes is really selective,” says Zox, who needs prompting to act as his own publicist.
“Amidst all the hoopla,” he says, “I allowed myself to be pleased.”
Zox grew up outside of Albany, New York, in what he refers to as the exhorts. Raised near the Helderburg Mountains, in a town called Bethlehem, he remembers a big apple orchard, going on hikes near the Catskills and swimming next to waterfalls. He has two brothers, including Daniel, who works as a cinematographer in Los Angeles. While Daniel showed a strong interest in photography, film and was a fine art painter, Andrew got involved in theater in high school.
At Middlebury College in Vermont, Zox studied theater and sociology but was drawn to experimental theater. After graduating, he first worked with the Potomac Theatre Project in Washington, D.C. and became a company member at the Synetic Theatre. He lived in the D.C. area from 2005 to 2008.
“It was a good time for me. I honed my eye and aesthetic for how I like to tell stories and that eventually translated into film,” he says. “The company’s forte is silent and physical theater movement. The style is based in pantomime. They are like films in a way.”
One of his works, an installation piece Zox conceived, directed and choreographed, called “My Way Little Girl,” won the Most Experimental Award at the Capital Fringe Festival at the Kennedy Center. The Washington Post glowingly described the provocative piece as an “erotic phantasmagoria” with the “potency of a nightmare and the dignity of a Renaissance masque.”
“That felt like a big deal,” Zox said. “It was scary to put that play out there. But it generated conversation. It had a subversive quality.”
One edgy, yet non-exploitive scene, depicts different women going through gynecological exams.
Before moving to San Francisco, Zox spent six years in New York acting in theater and film, teaching and directing physical theater. It felt natural for him to cross over to directing film.
“My theater work, they are like films in a way,” he says.
“I Am My Own Mother,” was filmed in four days in Alameda and Pescadero and has a very deliberate style, tone and pace. No eruptions, no melodrama, just naturalistic human behavior, absent of Hollywood clichés.
“I Am My Own Mother” will be screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival on Oct. 9, at 9:15 p.m., at the Rafael Film Center; and on Oct. 10, at 6:15 p.m., at the Larkspur Theatre. For more information, go to the website at http://www.mvff.com.