Monday, April 21, 2014

Re-Learning Humility: The Danilo Parra Interview

Don’t let filmmaker/photographer Danilo Parra’s easy-going demeanor fool you. Though he captures quiet and intimate images, volatility is either just about to surface or a working condition behind the scenes. Here he talks weaponized Quaaludes in South Africa and wet cats.

Photo by Danilo Parra from

BURGESS: In Jamaica you recently shot a music video for controversial Jamaican dancehall artist Vybz Kartel called “My Crew.” Kartel was convicted for murder and sentenced to life in prison earlier this month. Can you talk about your experiences on that project?

PARRA: I was in Jamaica doing a story on the current Dance Hall music scene in Jamaica. As part of the doc, we were putting out all our efforts to get an interview with Vybz in jail, but since he was within the trial process, we were denied the interview from his lawyers. After hours of waiting outside the court to get a shot of his car pulling away, we met some of the people who were raised, musically, by him. They took us to his old neighborhood in Portmoore where many murals of his face were painted on the walls. Since we were shooting for Vice, and Vice was putting out a vinyl of his last album, we asked the members of his neighborhood if we could shoot the last Vybz Video with them. And they were very amped.

BURGESS: Can you talk about your ongoing documentary work with Vice and your latest piece in South Africa?

Photo by Danilo Parra from
PARRA: My work with Vice has spanned over 8 years now, 5 years of it as a freelance doc shooter/producer. I used to be a full time editor for 3 years but now as a freelancer, I produce/shoot the show “Hamilton's Pharmacopeia”. Hamilton and I get along really well so it's like traveling with a friend more than a job but some of the situations we get into can get pretty hectic. Our last documentary we did was shot in South Africa and was about the recreational use of HIV medicine and it's psychedelic side effects. It was the most complicated story I have worked on yet with Hamilton but I loved how it turned out. Hamilton has a very special charm about him that usually gets our documentary subjects to go way out of their way to show us something for our films.

BURGESS: Soft piano music plays over images of loving hands bathing a miserable, mewing cat in your film “Torture Room” and “Laundry” is a love story brutally neutralized by apathy in a really hilarious way. You often combine opposing elements in order to create striking images in your work. Why is it important for you to mix elements in this way?

Still from "Torture Room" exhibited by The Druid Underground Film Festival

PARRA: I think the narrative can be brought out if you have these types of opposing elements. For Torture Room, I tried to create music that would let the viewer feel the tortured cats emotions. I knew it would be funny to see this cat in particular getting a bath in slow motion so I wanted to guide the emotion into how the cat feels rather than how the viewer feels laughing at it.

BURGESS: You made a music video for the band ‘Fantasmes’ in which two lover’s faces melt super nasty after a passionate kiss at the end of the world. Any ambitions to direct a horror film?

PARRA: Yes the Horror film genre would be great to work with. More psychological thriller than horror though. My favorite films are films like The Shining and The Brood, which include gore, but in a more elegant and thought provoking way.

Photo by Danilo Parra from

BURGESS: As your directing reel continues to expand talk to me about your crew. Who are your core people?

PARRA: My crew varies on project to project. The bigger projects usually include Anchor Light, my friends lighting company, and all the people who run it. Kevin Hayden (head of Anchor Light) is a DP I work with a lot and Sydney Buchan, is the producer of the company. They both keep me organized and make sure that I'm doing the right pre production to have a smooth production. I put together visual shot lists set to music that help me out a lot in terms of finding pacing and overall flow of a piece.

BURGESS: From the titular Theremin player in Mr. Grillo: The Thereminist (2013) to 74-year-old jazz saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, your documentary subjects reveal intimate details as if the audience were a close friend leaning in for details over a living room coffee table. What are some strategies to creating personal portraits?

PARRA: The saxophonist has a well known album called "Humility in the Light of the Creator," I'm not a religious person, but I understand the humility he speaks of and how it benefits personal relationships. I usually re-learn humility every time I work with these types of documentary subjects but the comfort is there from the start since I usually find people that I know I would get along with.

BURGESS: What can we expect next?

PARRA: For the (Vice) Pharmacopeia series, our next doc is on weaponized Quaaludes in South Africa. I won't go into too much, but it will be a very conspiracy driven documentary with lots of mystery. For my own work, I'm doing a few hip hop videos at the moment that I finishing up, and I'd like to do a short film soon. I'm also shooting a dysfunctional remix of the story of Aladdin that Adam Green is directing. It will be my first feature narrative that I work on.

Danilo Parra’s short films have been exhibited by the Druid Underground Film Festival during the 6th and 7th annual seasons.

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