Filmmaker Patrick Bresnan’s inside look at Pahokee High School’s prom got him his first invitation to the Sundance Film Festival in 2016. But it is his follow up, documenting a Pahokee family hunting rabbits as the critters flee burning cane fields, that has opened the door to competing for an Academy Award.
“The Rabbit Hunt,” which runs just over 11 minutes with no narration and spare dialogue, was shot in January 2016.
“We never thought the film would win any festivals. We have really been making the short film as an exercise in telling a story that takes place in one day. But more importantly (it was) a way to deepen our relationships in the community,” Bresnan said in an email.
A phone conversation with Bresnan was out of the question, as he and his producer/editor wife tour film festivals from Las Vegas to Vienna.
“We have won four major festivals that qualify us for the Academy Award for Short Documentary. The film has had a remarkable winning streak in the last two weeks winning Greenwich International Film Festival, Vienna Short Film Festival, Las Vegas Film Festival and (this month) we just won at Sheffield Doc Fest which is one of the most important festivals for documentary,” Bresnan said.
“It is a bit surreal, but … there are remarkable stories in Palm Beach County,” he said. (The film fared well at the Florida Film Festival, where “The Rabbit Hunt” earned the grand jury award for best documentary short.)
The next step on the path to an Oscar would be to make a formal application.
“Last year there were 60 short documentaries that qualified. The voters then narrow it down to a short list before a final vote which leads to the official nomination.“
The film features Chris Burgess, a Pahokee High football player who graduated this spring, and his family.
Bresnan met Burgess in 2015 when he decided to document the unique spectacle of the local high school prom, which entails pricey rented cars, sleek, blinged-out attire and a town gathering in the park. But those rabbits had caught Bresnan’s eye years earlier.
We’ll let Bresnan explain:
“My family moved to West Palm Beach close to 20 years ago and I would find myself driving out to Lake Okeechobee to take photos. On one of those trips I just stumbled into a burning sugar cane field where men were hunting rabbits. It was completely surreal.
“As I learned more through interacting with the workers I came to understand the mythology surrounding rabbit hunting in the Glades. Kids believe that if they become the best rabbit hunter, they will be the most likely to make it to the NFL. Janoris Jenkins, an NFL player with the NY Giants whose nickname is “Jack Rabbit,” embodies that aspiration.
“We had seen our protagonist, Chris, rabbit hunting to save money from prom and we wanted to explore some of the deeper meanings outside of the NFL connection.”
Glamour? Big budgets? A script? Nope. This is a documentary and a sparse one at that.
Bresnan worked with a small hand-held camera with an onboard mic and no crew. “The film is quite minimal.”
It begins with a phone call alerting the family to a field to be torched and then the viewers tag along on a ride to the fields and watch as Burgess, his mom Ta’Questa, and his siblings Dee, 16, Kevis, 13, Crystal, 15 and Tae, 11, hover at the edge of fields – sugar mill looming in the background, waiting for scurrying rabbits.
They finish their prey with a bop from a heavy stick - 16 in all on this day. By film’s end they are skinning rabbits on the backyard clothesline, hawking them via text messages to neighbors and deep frying the rest in their cramped kitchen to be eaten with a slathering of hot sauce.
How hard is it to catch a rabbit chase on film?
“There are between 10 and 50 people hunting rabbits any given day in Pahokee during the (sugar cane) harvest. After the football season there can be as many as 100 kids racing around town hunting on the banks of the canals for rabbits hiding after a nearby field has been burned.
“The difficult part was finding the perfect day that could encapsulate the full experience of a hunt.”
Indeed, Bresnan and his wife Ivete Lucas tagged along for close to 10 hunts with the Burgess family before they hit the right note on that January day.
“Some days there were not many rabbits in the fields or too many other people hunting to make a film just about Chris. Capturing the family dynamic was very important so it had to be a day where everyone was able to participate. “
Palm Beach County’s film commissioner, Chuck Elderd, boasted of film’s success recently to the Tourist Development Council.
County Mayor Paulette Burdick was cautious: “I wouldn’t want it to shine an unkindly light on the people who have lived in that community.”
“It is not a negative story. This is, I think in every way, a unique story from the standpoint of young people growing up,” Elderd replied. “Pahokee is known to have phenomenal athletes. It is not really a bad story. It is winning awards in a way that is positive.”
Bresnan has no interest in getting into the fray from an ocean away.
“It is observational,” Bresnan said. “The camera almost becomes like a silent family member. The film is a journey that seeks to preserve a community’s tradition by allowing the audience to find their own meaning.”