Nine Years After Its Premiere, Rodrigo Dorfman Reflects on One Night in Kernersville

To help welcome Duke University’s new Vice Provost for the Arts John Brown, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival will be virtually screening Rodrigo Dorfman’s 2011 documentary short One Night in Kernersville, which follows jazz bassist John Brown as he makes a big band recording in Kernersville, NC. Immediately following the 20-minute screening, John Brown will join Full Frame Director Deirdre Haj for a conversation.

Screening + Q&A: One Night in Kernersville

November 17, 2020 at 2–3:30 p.m. EST via Zoom. Register here.

Ahead of the screening, I asked Dorfman to reflect on One Night in Kernersville nine years after its premiere at Full Frame. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you meet John Brown, and how did One Night in Kernersville come about?

I met John Brown around 2007, when I was making a series of shorts for a North Carolina Arts Council program called Cartwheels, which brought performances to underserved, rural communities. We immediately struck a good friendship. I love jazz; I’ve had a large vinyl jazz collection since I can remember. John then hired me to start documenting all the things that he was doing all over North Carolina, as a jazz musician, as a band leader, and as somebody who was also a mentor to youth.

After a couple years of working and filming with him, he told me that he was finally getting ready to fulfill his lifelong dream of recording a big band jazz session at the famous Fidelitorium in Kernersville, NC. I told him, “That sounds amazing. I’d like to just be there. I’ll film it and then we’ll see what it is.”

What was the filming process like?

The sessions lasted a couple of days and I filmed as much as my data cards could hold. I was really close to the musicians—sometimes six inches away from people playing. I could see the spit on their fingers. Jazz players are some of the best subjects because when they’re in the zone, they don’t care about anything else. And if you know how to be in the zone with them, they accept you as one of the crew. So, I could just be there and there was no sense that the camera was affecting anything, which is unusual. The camera always affects, but in this case, it was truly a film where the camera had little effect.

I finally looked at the footage maybe a month after. It was all very beautiful. There was something raw and vibrant about the light and the colors, and it felt otherworldly and surreal. It almost felt like you were into this spaceship, that you were floating above the earth. But that’s all it was. It was just a bunch of footage of a big band jazz recording. The music was beautiful. There were some moments of tension typical of any recording session, but there was no drama, there wasn’t an arc. So, the question is, what do I do with this?

My school of thought, like my father says, is that reality is always up for grabs. There’s no such thing as “reality” in representation or in art. It’s always more of a refraction than a reflection and in the end—it’s an artifice. I was reminded of the quote by director and playwright Jean Cocteau, “I’m a liar who tells the truth.” How do I do that? How do I create a story from the fact that there wasn’t really a story in the footage itself to tell? I couldn’t figure it out.

A bit deflated, I let the footage sit there for about a year. And then I had an idea. There was a dimension to John Brown’s endeavor that was very much like Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo or Don Quixote—there was a mythic, heroic quality. Here’s a man who’s willing to make great sacrifices and put everything on the line to fulfill his dream.  I mean, who records a big band outside of New York! Nobody. I told John: that’s what the film was going to be about. “We’re going to film an interview as if the big band recording was going to start tomorrow. And then the film will be like a dream sequence.” He liked it. And so, we time travelled. Film can do that. Jazz can do that.

Do you think viewers will react to the film differently, knowing John’s interview was filmed a year after the big band recording?

There’s an intimacy in the film, but there’s also a complicity. If I had only made a movie of the recording, it would be missing this other element of my relationship with John, which was the complicity of creation. So, in a way, the film is co-created. We both agreed to recreate the story in a certain way. And that special energy that comes from the film also comes from the complicity of both of us being accomplices in this “art crime.” I was basically breaking one of the golden rules of traditional documentaries. One of the enchanting things about this film for me was this secret between us—now revealed.

Now we’re all complicit.

Yes. You and the audience are now complicit, in a way. And I think that takes the film to another dimension. Let’s just see what happens when people are given the keys to another layer of appreciation.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your view of documentary filmmaking?

COVID-19 has reaffirmed, in many ways, my commitment to a certain style of filmmaking. Call it the aesthetics of necessity.  I have always been a one-man band. I edit, I direct, I produce, and I shoot. That has given me the freedom to film what I want, when I want.  Sure, it would be beautiful to have a crew for specific projects, but when you don’t, you make the best of what you have, and you see the virtues in that. This way, the camera becomes an extension of my hand in a way, like a painter’s brush. It’s just me. This allows a degree of intimacy that I like very much—One Night in Kernersville is about John Brown and the big band, but it’s also about the space between me and John Brown, the relationship that we have. If the BBC had come in, I think it would have been a different movie. It would have been great, but it would have been a different film with a different feel.

The budget for One Night in Kernersville was pretty much the price of gas from Durham to Kernersville and back. But creativity and passion, well that’s priceless.

The pandemic is reminding everyone that sometimes you’re just going to have to be raw. That reality is raw, full of imperfections. It’s not always in perfect focus, it can’t always be fixed with the most expensive post-production. We are being reminded that sometimes you don’t need a big budget to make movies. That sometimes you have to live with little and make do with little. The budget for One Night in Kernersville was pretty much the price of gas from Durham to Kernersville and back. But creativity and passion, well that’s priceless.

Nina Wilder is a 2020 Duke English graduate from Raleigh, N.C. and this year’s arts administration fellow at Duke Arts. As a student, Nina was the editor of The Chronicle’s arts & culture section, Recess.