Filmmaker Files: Twin brothers’ journey leads from waiting tables to Bali to Columbia’s Indie Grits

Editor’s note: The eighth annual Indie Grits Film Festival will take place April 11-20 at the Nickelodeon Theatre on Columbia’s Main Street. The festival will feature almost 100 do-it-yourself short, experimental, animated and student films from South Carolina and the Southeast, along with music, food and outside-the-box artistic performances. Indie Grits has been named one of MovieMaker magazine’s Top 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World. This is the first in a series featuring the story behind this year’s films.

Brendan (on left) and Jeremy Smyth in a Bali rice field (photo provided)

Brendan (on left) and Jeremy Smyth in a Bali rice field (photo provided)

From the legendary apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head to the chocolate bar melting in the pocket of Percy Spencer (inventor of the microwave oven), big ideas often have unexpected origins. The film that won twin brothers Brendan and Jeremy Smyth a place at the Indie Grits Film Festival was born after a chance meeting in the kitchen of a Florida restaurant.

The brothers were working in the restaurant, paying the bills as they spent their spare time on their filmmaking dreams, when they met a group of immigrants from Bali, an island province in Indonesia most famous as a tourist destination and known as the “island of the gods.”

Their questions for the immigrants about why they would leave an island paradise for jobs in the United States service industry led the brothers on an 18-month journey that ended with the creation of “Rice for Sale,” their documentary that will be featured at Indie Grits 2014.

The film documents, as the brothers put it, the fall of the Balinese culture.

“Their ideology has shifted to a money culture,” Brendan said. “They were selling their lives, their community. We tried to see the balance.”

The twins raised money to make the documentary through Kickstarter and spent six months on research and learning the language before traveling to Bali in February 2013. They spent two months on the island, shooting “Rice for Sale” and enough footage for a second planned film to focus on the belief in sorcery that dominates the island’s culture.

Along the way, an unusual method of making the film took shape. The brothers prefer to shoot the old-fashioned way, with 16 mm film as opposed to a more modern digital camera.

“Film is so warm,” Jeremy said. “Also, to shoot on film you need skill. It’s not like video where anyone can just flip on a camera.”

In this case, though, they took an even more radical step.

“I said to Jeremy, ‘What if we made an entire movie with in-camera edits?’ ” Brendan said.

Though the notion seemed too difficult at first, they did just that. “Rice for Sale” is shown just as it was shot, with no post-shooting editing of the film at all.

Bali rice workers (photo by Brendan and Jeremy Smyth)

Bali rice workers (photo by Brendan and Jeremy Smyth)

The result is a documentary unlike most, which is just what the brothers wanted.

“In a lot of cases we hate documentaries,” Brendan said with a laugh. “How arrogant they are and how they just punish you, tell you what to think.”

“We wanted to completely reject the notion of a traditional documentary and do it the way we wanted to,” Jeremy said.

They did just that and submitted the result to Indie Grits.

“It was the best feeling ever,” Brendan said about being chosen to take part in the film festival. “This is a super cool festival and we’re extremely happy to be able to go.”

A video preview of Rice for Sale, can be found here. Indie Grits is announcing other selections for 2014 throughout February on its Twitter feed.

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