Interview with Tess Martin, director of One Night in Florida

One Night in Florida is an animation that addresses the Trayvon Martin case and uses a speech by Barack Obama as its starting point. The sampled speech is accompanied by simple line drawings that provide a visual reference to the “context” Obama refers to: slide after slide, we see a compendium of African American history, from slave auctions to the first black president. Through the short, Martin delivers an insightful comment on the issue of racial profiling in the USA, one that resonates eerily in the wake the Ferguson events. 

The visuals and words in One Night in Florida are really pared down (line drawings, emphasis on and repetition of a few key words). This really contrasts with the complexity of the topic. What are the reasons behind this style? Was this how you envisaged your film from the start?

You're right that there is a contrast between the complexity of the topic and the style of animation. Partly this came from the fact that I was challenged to make a film in one minute, and if you only have one minute, it's important that the visuals be easily recognizable. The repetition of key words also comes from this limitation of time. I didn't have time for full sentences so instead I 'sampled' President Obama's speech and had him repeat what I thought were the key words and phrases.

Still, how to distill such a complex topic into simple images/sounds? In the end I settled on the image of the bullet (potentially the same bullet that killed Trayvon Martin) traveling through time, illustrating the discrimination that President Obama is referring to in his speech, until the bullet explodes into pieces of the American flag. The pieces of the flag were meant to symbolize the 'American dream', and refer to the fact that this 'American dream' is, in fact, unattainable for a lot of people.

I also settled on the visual reference of a viewmaster to flip through the various historical examples of discrimination. I thought this reference to a children's toy added a nice cynical edge to the piece. Can you imagine if a real viewmaster was created to show kids the discrimination African Americans have experienced throughout history, instead of funny scenes of Mickey Mouse or Snow White? Sounds like something the artist Kara Walker would create to point out how this history has so often been whitewashed.

The music (by Nick Smeenk) sounds like it's from a funfair or a merry-go-round. Could you tell us more about this choice?

Along the same lines I wanted the music to be manic, like a circus with scary clowns. After all the Trayvon Martin shooting was just (at the time) the latest event on the merry-go-round of gun violence and discrimination in the United States. It sometimes feels like you're on a scary roller coaster and you can't get off. I think Nick captured the feeling exactly!

Why did you choose to cover this topic? How do you feel about your film after the Ferguson shooting?

I chose to tackle this topic because I wanted to challenge myself to address political issues. I noticed that, though I follow politics closely in my day-to-day life, I hardly ever addressed politics in my work. I wanted to make a film where I expressed a political opinion, and President Obama's July 2013 speech, which he made in reaction to the riots after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the shooting, was still stuck in my mind months later. I figured if his speech had stuck with me for so long, perhaps it was a good topic for a film. It is, in fact, a fascinating speech and I recommend people to watch it in full here.

And yes, the film is sadly more relevant than ever after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the riots in response. But the Ferguson shooting is not even the latest, and there are so many shootings that we will never hear about because they don't make national news. Racial profiling is something deep-rooted in the psyche of the United States. I hope my film expresses how it is important to be aware of the discrimination that happens around you, and the context in which it takes place.

What other projects are you working on at the moment? What's next for you?

Since One Night in Florida I have finished another animated short film called Mario, that also deals with violence - this one looks at violence against women through a traditional Italian folk song. It wasn't planned this way! My latest short is called The Lost Mariner and is about a patient with a memory condition. Right now I am living in Rotterdam and working on a music video and I hope to make more short films after that.

17 September 2014, by Chiara Puntil