With a focus on the county’s more misunderstood communities, an ever-curious couple makes poignant films that encourage understanding and appreciation
Palm Beach County represents more than its glittering reputation may suggest—just ask filmmakers Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas. Over the course of five years, they explored and worked with one of the lesser-known towns that make the county (the largest in Florida) such a rich, diverse place. During this time, they discovered lives filled with hope and joy in a community that is often misunderstood and misrepresented.
“Palm Beach County is a fascinating place,” says Bresnan, who began working in the area in 2003. (Bresnan’s father lives locally, and the couple is represented by Creative Artists Agency’s Amanda Lebow, who grew up in Palm Beach.) “It touches the Everglades. It touches the ocean. It’s also a rather profound example of American segregation.”
Bresnan and Lucas met 12 years ago and have been making films together ever since. Now husband and wife, they have reached extraordinary heights in the field of documentary films, both shorts and features, collecting some of the most sought-after awards from prestigious national and international festivals. In their work, they aim to share the personal stories of individuals and their communities, their cultures and rituals, their aspirations and ambitions, and the hurdles they must overcome to achieve them.
This philosophy is apparent in the films they made in Pahokee, an agricultural town on the rural edges of Lake Okeechobee where more than 50 percent of the population is African American or Latino. “The films we make are not about us at all,” explains Bresnan. “We really sought to partner with the community and make documents that they could have ownership of. Documents that told their story and tried to build a bridge between the life they were living in Pahokee, which is incredibly isolated and rural, and places on the coast. People in the film world are not used to seeing people in rural communities that are in some ways joyous and about preserving the culture of their community.”
As part of their process, Bresnan and Lucas strive to get to know people and form real friendships, dedicating a lot of time to translating those feelings of familiarity to audiences. Bresnan laments the idea that those who live in coastal areas often think of towns in the Glades as tragic places of poverty and crime. “We wanted to present a more holistic picture of life there,” he notes.
Lucas adds that they like to meet and live around people. They are interested in learning about their culture, evoking a sense of place, and spotlighting important moments, as witnessed in their first film in Pahokee about the school prom when the community celebrates its youth. “We wanted to capture these types of cultural expressions and add to the conversation of who we are as a country,” she says. “We have always been very conscious about making films that speak to people regardless of where they live. It’s about a human feeling and a journey. They might not know who the kids in Pahokee are, or where Pahokee really is, except for seeing alligators and thinking that must be Florida. People can relate to fleeing youth and wanting to achieve a better life. Those are the things we explore in our films. That’s what makes our films very accessible all over the world.”
In 2014, while exploring and photographing areas around Okeechobee, Bresnan arrived in Pahokee during prom season. He was moved by what he saw, eventually compiling photo books to give to the students and their families. He met a photographer from the community whom he later recruited to be associate producer of The Send-Off, a documentary short they shot the following year. Two more, Skip Day and The Rabbit Hunt, followed.
The Send-Off chronicles the excitement and stresses leading up to the high school prom, with all its detailed preparations. Luxury rental cars whisk the couples off to the event, while behind-the-scenes financially insecure parents, eager to make this milestone special for their children, ride out their own anxieties. The whole community, in fact, shows up to honor the youth and give them a grand send-off.
Skip Day centers on the Monday after prom, when students skip school and drive 60 miles east to the beach. As they arrive and stroll to where they will settle, they pass a white man in a deck chair. His gaze follows them, giving the audience a hint of a prejudiced reaction. Scenes of joyous abandon in the ocean ensue, while others sit in groups and muse about their futures. Some will go to college, others may not.
Pahokee straddles the sugarcane fields and the wild Everglades. The camera alludes to the ever-contentious issue of colliding interests, with lingering shots of the industrial terrain, tractors rolling up and down burning fields, smoke billowing into the air. Warbling birds perch on reeds. The occasional alligator lounges on the bank of a canal. Watery sunsets hang over a conflicted landscape. This sets the scene for The Rabbit Hunt, which has garnered more than 20 prestigious awards and recognitions, including the Cinema Eye Honors for Short Documentary and the Champs-Élysées Film Festival Best American Short.
The rabbit hunt is one of Pahokee’s historic rites of passage. Young boys, and now girls too, set out into the fields in the early mornings during the burning season, as tractors barrel down, scooping up the plantings where rabbits and other small mammals live. The youngsters, cane branch in hand, chase the rabbits as they rush out of the undergrowth and hit them unconscious and again to make sure they are dead. They pick them up by the ears, collecting them like trophies. Back home, the unfazed hunters perform the necessary butchery and prepare the meat for neighbors, charging them a modest fee and stashing away the cash for college.
In all three films, the amateur protagonists ignore the camera with the ease of professional actors, even in the most vulnerable moments. This is the result of the time Bresnan and Lucas spent with the students when they weren’t filming, forming bonds of friendship off-screen that led to a real sense of intimacy on. “They feel safe with us,” says Bresnan.
“We are not objective observers,” adds Lucas. “We are part of life there and can make sure that the camera can capture those important moments and little things that otherwise people would never know had happened.”
When each of the films premiered, Bresnan and Lucas raised the funds necessary to ensure kids and people from the community could attend, “so that they could speak for themselves, so that we were not speaking for them,” explains Lucas. “That was a really important part of the process before we made a feature film. Making a feature film is a longer [process] and more involved work. By the time we were thinking of embarking on a feature film, people already knew us and trusted us. They knew what we were about, had seen our previous work, and wanted to participate.”
Given this experience, they felt ready to make Pahokee, a full-length feature film that follows seniors at Pahokee High School. “It is such a crucial year that dictates the structure of the kids’ life until that point and then they’re off into the world,” Lucas says. “It’s a very uncertain future when you’re from an underprivileged community.”
It stars two boys, BJ and Junior, and two girls, Na’Kerria and Jocabed, who are all facing personal challenges. Despite tempting opportunities to broaden the scope, Bresnan and Lucas kept the focus on the students and their journey. “We needed to make a choice, and our choice was to be with the youth because it’s not very often these stories are told in that perspective and it is important for us to provide a work where kids of color can see themselves represented on screen,” notes Lucas.
Over the course of the year, the students navigate their studies, annual rituals, sporting events, celebrations, and after-school jobs. Dreams of college and leaving Pahokee are punctuated by emotional highs and lows, heart-to-hearts with family and friends, success and disappointment. Academically motivated Jocabed has a crisis of confidence when she reveals her fears that her chances of competing with other college applicants may be jeopardized because their school doesn’t offer the same subjects that others do. She tearfully resolves to bring pride and assistance to her Mexican immigrant parents, who toil in their taco shack for her benefit.
For BJ, Na’Kerria, and Jocabed, ambition and determination triumph. The camera captures the moments when the good news comes in the form of college acceptance, and tears of relief and elation flow. College, however, is not in the cards for Junior. He struggles to balance school and parenting his baby girl, and takes a job in Pahokee instead. Jocabed’s moving graduation speech brings a year of hope to a jubilant close.
The nearly two-hour-long Pahokee film is the product of 300 hours of footage. When it was screened at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, it garnered a standing ovation. It also received $30,000 from the Knight Foundation’s Made in MIA Award, which recognizes films with stories and locations in South Florida, at the Miami Film Festival.
In 2019 a chance encounter brought Bresnan and Lucas to another example of Palm Beach County’s diversity and their next film. As a nudist resort in Loxahatchee prepares for a weeklong festival—the largest nudist gathering in the country—Bresnan and Lucas set out to explore why people participate in this lifestyle. “In many cases people were healing and looking for acceptance of their bodies that may have been rejected, hurt, or damaged,” explains Bresnan. “Being naked in a community allows them to work through these things and find peace.”
Bresnan and Lucas plan to premiere the film, which is tentatively titled Naked Gardens, in early 2022. And while this current project doesn’t hinge upon the same issues of race and visibility that run as a through line across their work in Pahokee, Bresnan acknowledges how important that type of dialogue has been and will continue to be. Reflecting back on the prom photos that prompted it all, he says, “The images were so moving and really spoke to the concept of how much the lives of these young people mean and how beautiful they are. This was just after the time when Trayvon Martin was shot. We felt that this work was creating a narrative to support how important these young people’s lives are.”
Exclusive: Watch Bresnan and Lucas’ Short Films
Skip Day: https://vimeo.com/299840222
The Rabbit Hunt: https://vimeo.com/240915171
The Send-Off: https://vimeo.com/147539636