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You Say Potato

Filmmaker Wes Hurley uses animation and archival photos from his childhood in Russia to lend visual oomph to his short autobiographical documentary Little Potato. In one scene-setting moment (“People here think that all of Russia is Moscow,” Hurley cracks in the film) a cityscape is projected onto Ben Jakupcak, who plays a young version of Hurley. Layered over the surreal image is a voiceover from Hurley’s mother describing his hometown of Vladivostok, the biggest city in the far east of Russia, as being “kind of forgotten,” one of that country’s most notoriously corrupt cities both before and after the fall of the USSR.

 

From Russia to America in Wes Hurley’s new short documentary film.

“As uncomfortable as I was actually doing it, when you’re telling a story like that you have to be completely honest and go places that are not pleasant. If you’re not, then there’s no point in making the movie in the first place.”

Wes Hurley and I are talking minutes after I watched his short documentary Little Potato for the second time, and for the second time the story he and his mother tell on screen has gotten to me. “She was on the same page,” Hurley assures me. “There’s no point in doing it if we’re not gonna go to dark places, but it really helped both of us to remember what we’ve been through, and rejuvenate our appreciation for where we are now.” 

Little Potato is certainly dark—and intensely personal. But it’s also buoyant, hopeful and wryly funny, and its vast story, told in only 14-minutes, occasionally beggars belief.

Hurley grew up in Vladivostok, a corrupt city in the corrupt Soviet Union, so dangerous that he carried a butcher knife to school with him. His earliest memory is watching his father hit his mother, who promptly took him away to live with her mother—an old Russian woman who thought divorce was far, far worse than abuse. Mother and son escaped Russia, when Elena Bridges married an older man from Seattle whom she met through a mail-order bride catalog. They got out, but teenage Hurley’s new stepdad was a Christian fundamentalist—which meant it still wasn’t safe for him to admit he was gay. (The plot only thickens from there.)

Back in Russia, discovering illicitly broadcast American movies with happy endings gave Hurley and his mom hope: Ghost, Curly Sue, Beetlejuice, Frankie and Johnny. “Michelle Pfeiffer’s little apartment [in Frankie and Johnny] was so cozy, I thought if Potato and I could live in such a little place I would be so happy and not need anything else, certainly not Al Pacino,” Bridges says in the film, her lips curling up in a slight smile.

Shot by cinematographer Nate Miller and directed by Hurley, the mellifluous and moving film weaves together seated interviews with projections and animations, aided by an actor playing young Wes and a wealth of fantastic childhood photos (no film footage exists).

Hurley created Little Potato and a virtual reality counterpart, Potato Dreams, with a grant from 4Culture and the help of accomplished local producers Mel Eslyn, Lacey Leavitt and Mischa Jakupcak. The powerhouse team first came on board to help Hurley produce a feature film version of Potato Dreams, which he conceived of years ago and has been fighting to get funded since. They hope these shorts will help generate interest in the feature from potential funders and they’re currently submitting both the short doc and the VR piece to all the major film festivals. Hurley also hopes to have them publicly available as soon as possible.

As a filmmaker, Hurley has an eye for the magical side of realism. His first major film project was Fallen Jewel—a fantastical movie, filmed documentary-style, about beloved local dance/drag star Waxie Moon—and he most recently authored the candy-colored, surreal comedy web series Capitol Hill. The full-length version of Potato Dreams will feature two braided storylines: one naturalistic story of life in America; the other, in Russia, very stylized and theatrical, to reflect that it’s a memory, even though it’s entirely true.

“I want it to feel magical in a dark way,” Hurley says, “Like a lot of Pedro Almodovar movies that are coming-of-age stories, that use the magic of being a child and the frightening parts of being a child at the same time.”

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