Speaking the language of film:

by Keith Barber


Christopher Holmes forthcoming film The Lost Colony has no connection to the outdoor drama performed each year at the Outer Banks. (courtesy photo)

RiverRun’s Holmes the recipient of 10,000 NC Arts Council grant

Having a conversation with Christopher Holmes can sometimes feel like being in the middle of a David Mamet stage play. Holmes, a filmmaker and programmer for the RiverRun International Film Festival, will start a sentence before interrupting himself halfway through. Mamet’s genius for capturing the natural rhythms of human conversation can best be seen in the 1992 film, Glengarry Glen Ross.


On a gray December day, Holmes sat down to discuss his latest project, The Lost Colony. At various moments during the conversation, Holmes would look off into space and ponder his response before giving an intelligent, thoughtful answer. A 2005 graduate of UNCG’s master of fine arts program in film and video production, Holmes said he prefers the medium of film to express his innermost thoughts and feelings.

When asked about his next project, The Lost Colony, Holmes explains where the germ of the idea came from — a shark’s tooth necklace his father gave him when he was young.

“I try to think of artifacts, or emblems or imagery that I feel like can be, what am I trying to say?” Holmes said as his voiced trailed off.

Then, he made it clear that his film has no connection to the outdoor drama performed each year at the Outer Banks that launched the career of Andy Griffith.

“It’s not a period piece,” Holmes said. “It’s a modern kind of Southern art drama that uses that mythology as the emotional underpinning of the film.”

The Lost Colony tells the story of a young man who’s been told by his mother since the age of 5 that his father had been killed by a shark “as a way to sort of cow him and keep him complacent and controlled,” Holmes said.

“Generally, it’s about him trying to separate and grow past that, literally from his mother and figuratively from this fear-based culture,” Holmes continued. “He’s struggling with the — what’s the word? — with his extreme passivity I guess.”

The Lost Colony received a boost last summer when Holmes won a $10,000 fellowship from the NC Arts Council. He hopes the award will spur additional private investment of up to $50,000 so he can do a proper job in producing the film.

“If all goes well, I’m hoping to be shooting September of 2011, after the tourist season has ended to make it cost effective to shoot around the Outer Banks,” Holmes said. “If I can get it together, I’m looking at other grants and talking to producers. I definitely don’t want to try to do it with $10,000. That’s just enough money to do a really awful job with a feature film.”

Clearly, Holmes impressed the NC Arts Council with his short films, “Sapsucker,” “Fence Dogs,” and “Arrowhead.” If there is a common thread in Holmes’s films, it’s his deep interest in iconography, industrial landscapes and the “disconnect between Americans and their physical environment,” he said.

“Sapsucker” and “Fence Dogs” have played at dozens of film festivals around the country and received a number of accolades. “Fence Dogs” won the jury prize at James River Film Festival in Richmond, Va., and played statewide on UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Visions” program. However, Holmes is most proud of his achievement writing, shooting, producing, directing and editing “Sapsucker.”

On “Sapsucker,” which Holmes describes as “an existential comedy/thriller about a guy who’s chasing down a rare woodpecker through the forest,” Holmes executed nearly every single production element all by himself.

“I call it an exercise in self-reliance more than a film,” Holmes said. Holmes praised the MFA program at UNCG for teaching him how to maximize his limited resources.

“It also gave me great opportunities to teach,” Holmes said. “I don’t know if you would have those kinds of opportunities at a school in a bigger city like a [University of Southern California] or [New York University].”

UNCG’s master’s program also gave Holmes the opportunity to work with professor Matt Barr on the films, “With These Hands” and “Wild Caught.” Both films played at RiverRun, and “Wild Caught” was broadcast on 30 PBS affiliates around the country.

When asked about his inspiration, Holmes studies a bit before answering and it becomes evident the talented filmmaker has found the perfect medium of expression and his life’s calling.

“Speaking to me now, you’re probably sensing how I struggle with trying to find words that are precise or the right words for the situation and I just have, I’ve gone through poetry writing, comedy writing, satire and fiction,” Holmes said. “I kind of auditioned these different languages. I feel like the more I tried language and the more I tried conversation, the less I was interested in dialogue, so I felt like film was a really interesting venue for having this visual language that wasn’t dependent on words.”