Erica Watson Premieres Short Drama Of Stolen Innocence, “Roubado”

February 10, 2015  |  

While attending the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, Erica Watson had a chance encounter with a young man who wanted to capture her on film. The 16-year-old Afro-Portuguese photographer spoke no English, but as he shot the aspiring filmmaker, they developed a kinship.

At the time, Watson, now 26, says she had no idea how much their meeting would affect her. But when she was given an assignment for a short screenplay, she wrote the story of Alain Castelo.

“I was interested in telling the story of a Black kid that you never really see,” says Watson of the character inspired by her young friend.

Roubado (pronounced “ro ‘badu”) is an 18-minute short that tells the captivating tale of Castelo, an Afro-Portuguese teen living in the south of France. To avoid the turmoil of his parents’ separation and the unsettling presence of his mother’s boyfriend, Castelo lets himself be absorbed by his vintage Minolta. At least until he is robbed of his creative solace.

Although the Detroit native wrote the film early in her Master’s program at USC*, Watson had no immediate plans to shoot the short until she decided to present Roubado as her thesis.

Watson says she initially planned to direct a different piece for her final graduate assignment. However when it came time to announce her thesis, friends familiar with the script urged her that Roubado would be “a much stronger project,” says Watson. Ultimately she agreed, feeling that the film was a better representation of herself as a filmmaker.

In order to make Roubado a reality, Watson says she had to reach out to hundreds of people.

“We were really blessed,” says Watson, who received the 2014 Panavision New Filmmaker Grant to complete the film. Roubado received further production support from Panavision Marseille, Kodak and The Sundance Institute Film Music Program. The grants came in the form of camera packages and access to an orchestra for the score. Additional support came from the city of Cannes and an 111 percent funded Kickstarter campaign that went toward set design, wardrobe and incidentals during the shoot.

Although Watson caught some wonderful breaks in completing the film, she says it wasn’t all sunshine.

“We had a lot of major incidents that could have gone either way,” Watson recalls.

But of them all, casting was the most harrowing. “We switched cast members like members of Destiny’s Child,” she jokes as she recounts the struggles of securing actors. Ultimately, she found the ideal cast and was able to create an equally visual and visceral experience.

The foreign language drama was filmed in less than a week — four days in Los Angeles and one on location in Cannes. In order to assure the project would be a success, Watson and cinematographer Tommy Maddox Upshaw spent hours together piecing together every aspect of the shoot.

“We spent a lot of time coming up with the visual plan and vocabulary for the film,” says Watson. That meant creating rules for everything from the palette of Alain’s wardrobe to whether he’d be captured in flat or deep space. “We were very specific about what we wanted to do.”

That included the equipment.

Roubado was filmed exclusively on analog. The decision was more than an aesthetic choice. Watson and Upshaw wanted to present the work in the manner her lead saw the world, on 35mm tape.

Although that decision came with its own set of challenges — there was an incident with improperly sized reels and a crash course for the inexperienced crew — Watson felt it was an artistic necessity.

“There’s no comparison to 35mm film to me,” Watson says. “It’s beautiful.”

As a result of the film, Watson was not only awarded an MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, but was also selected as a 2015 Sundance Knight Fellow. Roubado premiered Sunday at the Pan African Film Festival in the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles, and will continue to screen February 13 – 15. Watson plans to continue showing the short film at festivals across the US while balancing her responsibilities as a Film Independent Project Involve directing fellow.

Watson attributes her successes to what she calls a persistence of vision. “I always trust myself,” she says. That means believing in herself when no one else will and pushing herself to accomplish every goal she sets. “I believe I can do anything.”

Roubado Trailer from Erica Watson on Vimeo.

*The article previously said it was while Ms. Watson was at Wayne State. We apologize for the error.

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