By Phil Hall | May 3, 2000

In March 1998, the marriage of cinema and cyberspace was consummated when “Walls of Sand,” a two-hour film produced in 1994, became the first contemporary feature film webcast on the Internet. Prior to the debut of “Walls of Sand” on The Sync webcasting site, cyber-based cinema was limited to the presentation of hoary old public domain features and an assortment of amateur short subjects. “Walls of Sand,” however, offered an opportunity for contemporary indie films to bypass the traditional routes of reaching global audiences via an exciting new medium. Over two years later, cyber-cinema has become a glut which is attracting nearly everyone with even the vaguest connection to the film world. Lost in this flood of Net-streamed movies, film-related web sites, online criticism and gossip was the sublime film which opened the door for the digital presentation of films and the talented director who created this unique work of art.
San Francisco-based Erica Jordan graced “Walls of Sand” with a deep sense of emotional power which is rare in contemporary films, either from the indie orbit or the Hollywood studios. This small human drama focused on the unique friendship between an Iranian student struggling to snare a green card (played by Shirin Etessam, who co-wrote and produced the film) and an agoraphobic mother locked in a bitter custody battle. Ms. Jordan shot the film in a moody black-and-white, brilliant reflecting the monochromatic worlds of its leading characters, and carefully charted the growing common bond which eventually liberated the women from their respective emotional prisons.
“Walls of Sand” played the festival circuit, picking up an award at Slamdance, and it saw limited theatrical engagements in a few cities. But the film did not snag a theatrical release and ran the risk of becoming forgotten until its Internet debut. While the film did not gain a theatrical distributor, it did land a home video agreement (it will be released later in the year via Sub Rosa Studios) and the film is still being shown (its next presentation will be at New York’s Light+Screen Film Festival on May 30).
Ms. Jordan, however, did not pause to rest on her digital laurels–she followed “Walls of Sand” with an intriguing on-going series of short films under the umbrella title of “Tales of the Heart” and she is currently finishing post-production on “In the Wake,” a new feature shot on digital video which celebrates the spiritual renewal of a sculptor who finds the abrupt need to take personal inventory following evictions from her home and her long-standing love affair.
Film Threat recently caught up with Erica Jordan, who offered a vibrant reflection on today’s indie film orbit and her dual-accomplishments as someone who helped open a new world of techno-cinema for her peers while continuing to create new and challenging works of art.
[ When you were first invited to share “Walls of Sand” with Internet audiences in March 1998, what had been your relation with cyberspace at that time? And how did the concept of showing films on the Internet strike you when this offer was made? ] ^ When “Walls of Sand” was invited to be the first contemporary feature film to be shown in its entirety on the Internet, I was very excited. It took Shirin Etessam and I several years to make “Walls of Sand” and we were interested in having as many people as possible see the film. At the time I knew very little about cyberspace, but I’ve always been very enthusiastic about its possibilities for organizing political ideas and sharing new creative work.
When “Walls of Sand” was first broadcast on the Internet, we received good press and positive reviews. It definitely introduced a new audience to our work and careers as filmmakers and I hope it will continue reach an even wider audience. (Editor’s note: “Walls of Sand” can still be seen online at [ ] )
[ Where do you see the future of films on the Internet? Can cyberspace offer a viable venue for the presentation of all kinds of films? ] ^ I’m more curious than knowledgeable about this question. All kinds of questions come to mind. Besides a good venue to expose new talent and share ideas, is this really the way we want to watch movies? Computers are typically set up in offices and people spend their time behind them alone. How are the filmmakers protected financially and artistically? On the other hand, will having films on the Internet add to the general public’s appreciation for independent films? Will the “digital divide” get smaller or larger, opening films to a greater or less diverse population? In the end, I believe the Internet will be a valuable resource for discovering new work, but I wouldn’t like to see it substitute the theatrical experience.
[ “Walls of Sand” has extensive exhibitions on the festival circuit, but only very limited theatrical release. What were your experiences like when you presented the film to various distributors for their consideration? And how did you deal with the eventual reality that no distributor would release it theatrically? ] ^ When making an independent film, one needs to hold both possibilities to get through the process. I believed that “Walls of Sand” would get distributed because it’s a unique vision and I also needed to brace myself for the fact distributors are not always open to truly independent films–ones with unknown actors or producers, with a character-driven story, made on a very low budget. In our case, distributors personally liked our film, but couldn’t take the risk without names attached to the project. After a successful run in the festival circuit, I decided to make another film. I believe, with perseverance, I will get theatrical distribution and “Walls of Sand” will surface in retrospective theaters.
[ You’ve created both feature length films running nearly two hours and short films running as briefly as 11 minutes. As a filmmaker, which format offers the greater artistic and emotional challenges? ] ^ There seems to be no way to avoid the artistic and emotional challenges of making films, which I believe makes the process so beautifully rich and painful at the same time. Since “Walls of Sand,” I’ve been drawn to making longer films because it gives me more room to dive into the story, the depths of my characters, and the social and historical environment in which they live. In my current film “In the Wake” the star Julia D’Orazio was able to take the character of Tommy on a very compelling journey of personal obsessions and alienation in the wake of San Francisco changing values. Inspired by the diary of a woman from the past, a new romance and through her art, she transcends these problems and creates a different reality. It’s a story of a woman not only struggling as an artist, but with her identity and history.
[ Tell us about “Tales from the Heart”…what are these films about? And is this an on-going series? ] ^ “Tales from the Heart” is a series of four short monologue films. I began this series after completing “Walls of Sand” with the intention of further exploring the relationship between the actor, camera and director. In three of these pieces, the actors wrote their monologues, we developed the pieces in collaborative workshops and I directed and edited the them. The common thread that ties these monologues together is the struggles and triumphs of romantic love. These disparate stories range from: a fight between two lovers concerning a life commitment, the parallel confessions of a middle-aged woman and young gay man revealing the pain of betrayal, an elderly woman’s spirited reminisce returning her to an anguished moment of youthful love, and an exotic alien prisoner, stranded on a space ship retracing events that led her to “linking” with her captor. Right now I’m devoted to completing and promoting “In the Wake,” but I am also interest in presenting my monologues and creating new ones.
[ “Walls of Sand” was shot in 16mm and “In the Wake” was shot on digital video. What were the advantages and disadvantages in working in both film and DV? ] ^ I love film and always will. I can’t argue that nothing quite matches the richness and latitude of film, but as an independent filmmaker I’m now hooked on the digital format. Throughout history artists have made their work by any means possible. Digital cameras and home computer editing systems has made it possible for a whole new generation of filmmakers to tell their stories. With the digital format, I was able to own a camera and editing system, which gave me the freedom to shoot and edit simultaneously. It also allowed the DP, Francis Assadi, and I to be very spontaneous in our style of shooting and directing. With a small cast and crew, we were able to travel lightly (with minimal sound and lighting equipment and a lightweight camera), shooting throughout San Francisco from the Pacific Ocean to inside buses to the downtown financial district. There is also a way in which the process of making the film becomes more creative and less precious with the digital format. When a filmmaker, on a limited budget is always worrying about shooting ratios, it’s hard to breathe life into the project–that only stifles its naturalism.
[ Although “In the Wake” was shot on DV, there are still relatively few commercial venues which regularly exhibit features on video. Films shot on video such as “The Cruise” and “The Blair Witch Project” had to be transferred to film to get commercial release. Are you planning to transfer “In the Wake” on to film? And do you feel the exhibition-side of the film industry is not keeping up with the creation-side by not incorporating digital projection into commercial theatrical venues? ] ^ Yes, it is true that exhibition-side of the film industry is not keeping up with the creation-side. I do believe that theaters will have to offer digital projection to keep in touch with the new generations of filmmakers. The youth usually has a way of dictating the direction of commercial venues. I think people want to see work which is fresh and even gritty in it’s portrayal of the human condition. Work within the digital domain often has this edge that is perhaps more commercial than theaters realize. In the meantime, since theaters are not there yet, those of us who shoot on digital do need to transfer to film in order to compete in the market.
[ Tell us about the independent film scene in the San Francisco area–and are there pros and cons in working outside of the LA-NY film scenes? ] ^ As far as the distribution side of things LA or NY currently have far more going on. However, I’ve only worked in the San Francisco area so I really don’t have any personal experience to compare. My work and collaboration with talent in the Bay Area has been very positive. I believe with exposure many of these talented people will be recognized, such as my current lead actress Julia D’Orazio. She expresses a combination of vulnerability and strength interlaced with disarming humor which makes her extremely compelling to watch. I could not have made my films without the strong support and contributions I’ve received from the film community here. San Francisco as well is a strong character in this film, revealing the changing complexities of these times.
[ What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers who are either just entering the business or who are considering taking up the camera as a career? ] ^ Stay true to your vision. Work within the support of your community — you’ll need it to keep you sane. Being practical and secure isn’t all it’s cracked up to be… so don’t give-up too soon for that house in the suburbs!
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