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VIFF 2016 Interview: SIN ALAS director Ben Chace

by Jason Whyte

"SIN ALAS is a portrait of lost love in Cuba, and old man coming to terms with the failures of his youth and love letter to Havana shot on gorgeous 16mm with a great original score." Director Ben Chace on SIN ALAS which screens at the 2016 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

I am thrilled to welcome you to VIFF this year. Is this your first VIFF experience and will you be in Vancouver to attend your screenings?

I will be in Vancouver to present my film and participate in Q&A sessions after both screenings [during the festival] as well as a panel with other directors on Saturday during Indie Day. I came to Vancouver in 2009 to screen a film which I co-directed called WAH DO DEM. It was a great experience, we met a lot of interesting folks, and I look forward to another visit and another stroll through Stanley Park.

Tell me a little bit more and your background, if you please!

I am musician and filmmaker living in Brooklyn, NY. I have been making films since graduating from NYU in 2005, working a lot as an editor. Next month I will move to Nashville with my wife to keep playing music and making films in a new southern landscape.

How did this movie come together from your perspective?

The seed of this film was planted on my first trip to Cuba in 2007, accompanying my good friend whose father had fled Cuba in 1960 and never returned. We had an amazing time traveling around and visiting the places his father grew up and encountering a country so close geographically but so far outside the American mindset. We returned the next summer to make a documentary about his familys' experience. During the process I fell in love with the country, its culture, and the magical city of Havana in particular. Over the next few years I was always thinking about how I could get back there and shoot a feature. Eventually I had an epiphany while rereading one of my favorite authors Jorge Luis Borges, master of labyrinths, that I would try and interpret one of his short stories in Havana. After several visits and a lot of research the story of Sin Alas began to take shape.

While you are working on a movie, what keeps you going? What drives you, creatively?

A lot of coffee keeps me going. The desire to realize a dream is what drives me, as well as the magic of the collaboration with my team of talented actors and technicians.

What was your biggest challenge with SIN ALAS, and how did you over-come it?

There are a million challenges shooting in Cuba, in Spanish which is not my native language. Although there were innumerable technical difficulties, which were mostly the result of lack of resources or an economy that functions according to American logic, probably the biggest challenge was portraying Cuban characters from my perspective as an outsider. I worked through it, and hopefully overcame it on some level, by patiently learning as much as possible, and adapting as my blind spots were revealed, leaning heavily on my collaborators to let me know if I was missing some dynamic at play, or glossing over a part of the Cuban reality that I had overlooked.

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be? The moment where you thought you had something?

There were so many wonderful moments. I particularly enjoy shooting street scenes incognito. When we were shooting the period scenes from 1967 in downtown Havana at rush hour, with a blackmarket fire truck dousing the prop car with water as we drove through rush hour traffic, and the police, instead of getting in our way, decided to join the convoy of camera car and prop cars and help us around, just as the sun was setting over the city, it wasn't so much that I felt I had something, but that I realized I was experiencing something really special, and I think everyone on the crew kind of felt the same way, that the gods were on our side in that moment. And I think it does come across in that scene.

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side and more about shooting in 16mm film!

We shot on Super 16mm because it is my favorite format and I felt it was the only way to capture the patina of the grandiose and decaying buildings of Centro Habana where we shot. It was a huge pain to lug 135 cans of film through Mexico into Cuba, in our hand luggage, trying to avoid x-rays etc, and then we were unable to see any dailies until we got back to NY, because there were no functioning labs in Havana and we didn't have the budget to send people back and forth. But it was worth it. Our DP Sean Price Williams is a real magician with the camera, and he's willing to hang out the side of a moving car or train or off the side of a building that looks like it collapse just to get a great shot, so it was a real pleasure and intense challenge working with him. I will never forget it.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie to audiences at VIFF?

Well I hope they like it, and we have a good conversation afterwards. I'm not sure how they will be different from other audiences we have had, but it's always interesting to notice the differences in perspective from one city or country to another.

Where is this movie going to show next?

Kino Lorber will release it digitally in the coming months and our theatrical tour will continue with a Seattle run on December 16-18 at Northwest Film Forum

If you could show your movie in any theater in the world, which one would you choose and why?

I guess it would be fun to show the film in Paris at one of those old repertory cinemas. MOMA would be nice too. We have had a great time showing at a few great cinemas around the world so far though, so I can't complain.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being overall disruptive during a screening of your film?

I'm not worried about it. If someone is missing out on the cinematic experience because they are texting then its their loss. Hopefully they aren't bothering the folks around them, and if they are then those folks need to tell them to quit it.

There are many aspiring filmmakers reading us for our articles and reviews on If you could offer a nugget of advice to them on how to get their start, what would you say to them?

Spend more time than you think on your script. Watch a lot of old films and study them closely. Listen to a lot of great music. Read. Look at old photographs. Never stop looking for influences.

And finally, what is the best movie you have ever seen at a film festival, and why?

I remember seeing a movie called SAMSON AND DELILAH at London Film Festival years ago, which was so simple and poetic. I remember being so please to have had the opportunity to stumble upon it. Not the best film I have ever seen, but every new discovery is a true joy.

This is one of the many films screening at the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 29th to October 14th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 10/06/16 19:28:53
last updated: 10/06/16 19:32:30
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