Cinematographer Vicky Rattanavipapong Discusses the Inner Design of Avalanches
Approaching nearly two decades presenting honest portrayals of the diversity of the Asian and Pacific Islander American experience, the Disorient Film Festival is a respected and important event in the industry. The talent and creativity of the productions and filmmakers featured at this prestigious festival have increasingly captured the attention and respect of Hollywood. This was starkly evident this year with Cinematographer Vicky Rattanavipapong and director Liz Lian’s reception of the Courage award for their film Avalanches. Exploring the cycle of abuse in sports by those in power, Avalanches treads deeply into a world that mirrors actual events concealed for far too long. Rattanavipapong and Lian have not only dared to delve into disturbing subject matter with this film, they’ve also created a sensory experience that powerfully places the audience in a perspective which manifests both the oppressive fear of the situation and the courage needed to overpower it. This is without question, truly masterful filmmaking.
The aptly titled Avalanches is about the crumbling of institutional power. Early in the film, Auggie (portrayed by Ethan Chan) derails a moment in which the school’s Lacrosse coach (played by John Charles Martin) is improperly massaging his younger brother. As the coach’s hand slides inside the young man’s shorts, Auggie perceives the beginning of sexual abuse and interrupts. There is no dialogue needed to communicate the improper elements of this scene. The camera’s extreme close-up of an adult hand kneading a teenage knee and disappearing under the leg of the shorts is instantly uncomfortable. If Auggie had any reservations about the need to say something, he is convinced when their father (Alexandre Chen of Oscar nominated film Babylon and Primetime Emmy award winning series Hacks) praises Coach Ripley over a family dinner, unaware of this impropriety. When Auggie reveals the information to the school’s headmaster, the overly dark room implies a concealment that is institutionalized. As in real life, the decision to stand up to those in power requires Auggie to remain steadfast to what he knows is right, even when it makes him unpopular. The moment when he makes a final stand during an evening Lacrosse match is an incredibly powerful scene, once again driven by the visual language and tone rather than dialogue.
The use of geometry is a subtle concept in the visual language of Avalanches. Circles are a theme found throughout the film, though never overtly highlighted. This concept is felt rather than stated. DP Vicky Rattanavipapong remarks, “Liz and I talked about using circles as a visual motif. The team always huddles in a circle. We placed circles in the production design. We moved the camera with circular movements. It’s everywhere in the film. In the climax, when the players stand up to their coach and break the cycle of abuse, they form a straight line which emphasizes their bond and togetherness.”
Filmmakers can create to entertain or even to express but sometimes they want to empower the general public to purely feel the struggles of others. Avalanches is a film which takes up this mantle to present a topic that is considered highly taboo. The unfortunate truth is that the scenario featured in this film is a reality for far too many young people. The creators of this film have managed to depict both the dark and light of humanity in this production. Ms. Rattanavipapong considers her reception of the Courage award for Avalanches as reinforcement that the film community finds her talent well utilized. She imparts, “I was surprised and pleased to receive the award. Avalanches is a tribute to the power of collective action. The film touches on really difficult issues and to have that recognized was satisfying. The story has resonated with me and changed how I look at the world, so I hope the same can happen with viewers, especially kids. I think winning this award was validation for the tough creative decisions we had to make. The film motivated me to speak up about unfair circumstances and I hope the same can happen for any viewer facing unfairness. I want to shine light on other difficult subjects during my career.”
Avalanches will be screened at the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on April 21st as a part of the Beverly Hills Film Festival.