Brent Lestage’s twenty-minute short film Race takes a deceptively simple and small-scale approach to a huge and complex subject. Inspired by Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List, Lestage has traded that film’s epic sweep for a more personal study of one survivor’s flight from the Holocaust. Of course, such a survivor can never escape the horrors of the past; he carries them with him as he runs towards the future, perhaps never fully inhabiting the here and now.
Race begins with warm and colorful images of children running. For them, the race is just a game — child’s play. For other children, such as Josef Liebowitz, it’s a race against darkness. Lestage crosscuts between the young Josef (Jay Catelli) fleeing from Nazis and the elderly Josef (David Jenney) running slowly but implacably in a present-day marathon. We hear the latter-day Josef’s thoughts as he runs, narrated by Lestage, who fuses Josef’s external and internal odysseys.
Lestage films the flashbacks in hand-held, journalistic black-and-white, a tribute to Spielberg’s style in Schindler’s List. Linking these fleeting memories of horror to Josef’s marathon running (shot in color), Lestage pulls off a few transitions that Spielberg might have been proud to think of. A Nazi’s rifle shot becomes the report of a starter’s pistol (Lestage’s professional background in sound is impressively evident here and elsewhere in Race); when Josef accepts a cup of water during the marathon and douses himself to cool off, Lestage cuts to the boy Josef washing himself in a forest puddle.
As narrator, Lestage provides the older Josef’s voice, and his two actors in the lead role must do without dialogue. Their silent, primarily physical performances have their own eloquence. Jay Catelli conveys desperation but also intelligence (the boy, thinking on his feet, knows how to throw a dog off his scent), and David Jenney lets us see Josef’s younger self still running endlessly in his mind, chased this time by history. During Race (a double-edged title), Lestage brings out the meaning of Josef’s inner drive towards peace. Running, it turns out, is not only an escape from death but an embrace of life. The race has a dual context of bitterness and freedom for Josef; the movie itself is split every which way — two lead actors, two styles, two parallel realities enlarging each other.
Lestage takes his central metaphor and runs with it for twenty minutes, never putting a foot wrong. He works magic with a New Bedford location that doubles neatly for the 1943 Sobibór Ghetto; he makes effective use of exquisite Bach selections, beautifully performed by Michelle Djokic; best of all for aspiring filmmakers always looking for inspiration, Lestage has managed to go out with a funky 16mm camera and $12,000 and come back with a film that looks way more expensive. Great careers have been built on far less promising debuts than Race, another example of how talent, resourcefulness, and many people tanked up on coffee can triumph. If Race gets public screenings in the area, don’t see it because the guy is a local. See it because the guy is a director to watch.