Kenadi DelaCerna in Haroula Rose's Once Upon a River (2019) | featured image
Kenadi DelaCerna in Haroula Rose's Once Upon a River (2019) (Courtesy of Film Movement)

Singer-songwriter Haroula Rose Discusses Her Debut Film ‘Once Upon a River’

Haroula Rose, singer, songwriter, and debut filmmaker emulates cinema from countries outside of the US in her understated adaptation of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River.

Once Upon a River
Haroula Rose
First Run
September 2020 Reeling Chicago Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (US) / October 2020 Chicago International Film Festival / May 2021 Virtual Cinemas and On Demand (UK)

Set in the 1970s, Once Upon a River (2019) is the story of Native American teenager Margo Crane’s (Kenadi DelaCerna) odyssey along the Stark River (a fictional version of Kalamazoo River). After experiencing a series of traumas, she leaves her home in rural Michigan and sets off in search of her estranged mother. Along the way, she tries to heal past wounds as she meets friends and foes and experiences wonder and danger.

Adapted from Bonnie Jo Campbell’s 2011 novel of the same name, it’s the feature debut of singer, songwriter, and filmmaker Haroula Rose. Her previous films include the shorts, Baby Crazy (2013), a comedy about a man waking to find a baby in his house, Wedding Dress (2015), which centres on a man returning home having been estranged from his family, and the documentary short Be the Movement (2015), a public service announcement film for Blackout for Human Rights. Her upcoming LP, Summer Storm, will be released in the Fall of this year.

In conversation with PopMatters, Rose reflects on how creativity leads you into the unknown, her desire to invite the audience into the mind of her young protagonist, and learning that the body — not only the mind — can be a useful guide.

Why music and film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?

It wasn’t a major breakthrough, it was an accumulation of smaller moments, and one I remember very well relates to and brings us back to this film. 

Rodney Crowell, the singer-songwriter contributed a song to the film’s soundtrack. I remember seeing him play in 2003, at my favourite folk club here in Chicago where I grew up. When he played the song, “I Know Love Is All I Need”, which was on his record The Houston Kid (2001), I had this experience where I just felt something resonated with me. I thought, ‘What an amazing life, and that you can make people feel if you do that in this honest way.’

I remember this feeling that if I didn’t pursue music or film, or something creative, then I’d feel I somehow wasn’t fulfilling my life. But I didn’t know how to do it. I was still very young, and I wasn’t confident, and no one in my family had done that, so it just felt far away and impossible. 

It was one moment that felt cyclical in nature because here we are, Rodney and I got to collaborate, and it has been an emotional experience. You don’t know your path at the time, but that was definitely a moment that inspired me. 

I then lived in Madrid for a while, and I was able to get a Fulbright scholarship, which was life-changing. I was teaching 14-year-olds English, drama and literature, which was more about living in a whole different culture and building a life experience. I ended up in a relationship with someone who played Flamenco, and I would see all these shows where people were doing things just for their own sake, making it part of their lives, and that was another deep moment.

I decided to be more focused and I applied to film school. When I got back from Spain I went to USC [Southern University, Califonia] and that was another building block to learning and meeting more of a community of people. 

It’s an interesting question, was there one transcendent moment? It was all of those things and it took time. Maybe if you’re born into a situation where your dad and your mum are singer-songwriters or filmmakers, then it’s easier to figure that out sooner, but I didn’t have that. To even give yourself permission is a major thing. 

For any writer, the importance of confidence, self-esteem and self-belief cannot be overstated.

Writing is the hardest medium because you’re alone. Even if you’re songwriting, you have your guitar or your piano, or a co-writer. I’m supposed to be writing a script right now and I’m finding every way under the sun to avoid it. 

I just saw this amazing series, I May Destroy You [Michaela Coel 2020-]. In the first couple of episodes before the big moment, the character is avoiding writing. There’s a deadline and she’s still avoiding it. I find that fascinating because especially when you’re writing creatively and you’re doing it solo, it’s terrifying. The blank page is a different kind of torture, and you need a different type of confidence to face the unknown. 

When I’m making a film I have a lot of collaborators, so you’re entering the unknown with a team of people, but writing on your own is deeply intimidating and difficult. People I know, who tend to be novelists more than screenwriters, can just write and write, and I find it so admirable. I don’t know how they do it. 

Picking up on your previous point about the Flamenco dancers, I always think you cannot only create for others, you must do it for the sake of expressing yourself. That gives you a simple pleasure. Before others can connect to whatever it is you’re creating, you must connect with it first.

People use the word storyteller a lot, it’s like empathy, everyone uses that word lately too. It’s like you’re telling the story to yourself to make sense of it first, and especially in regards to writing when I think about it in that way. It eases up the pressure, and it’s not like I’m trying to do something for this external source, it’s that I want to make sense of what I’m drawn to, and what’s resonating with me. I suppose it sometimes helps to not feel as tormented by it. 

Should an adaptation be an extension of the source material, less about being faithful to the narrative, and more about honouring the spirit of the story and its characters?

I love adaptations whether they succeed or fail. It’s always interesting to look at what worked and what didn’t. The blessing and the curse of this story are that it’s an odyssey, so you are required to have your protagonist encounter people along the way. You have these short chapters, so how do you keep it from feeling too episodic, or too vague? It’s the struggle. How do you have a deep experience that you translate visually?

When you’re collapsing time and you’re compositing characters and experiences, distilling them to their essence so you don’t make it feel too superficial, what is the person learning about herself? It was a lot of figuring out what’s redundant — or how you collapse certain themes or qualities into a character or create something new and revelatory from a character that’s in the book — that you need for the onscreen story. 

I was lucky that Bonnie was understanding about how the film was a different medium. She used the analogy, “I raised the child, now you’re taking it to college and marrying it, good luck.” She’s very funny, and we became good friends. 

… I’ve heard horror stories about writers being very propriety over their work, which I get because you put all this time into something, and you don’t want to see it massacred for the masses. When I finally did show Bonnie the script, she had a couple of questions about why this one character didn’t show up, or something that happened, but she understood why.

She says now when she thinks of her book she sees images from the movie, which is very moving. She felt it captured certain things she had written on the page from her imagination, and seeing them come to life in a way that not only enhances that but deepens it was such a trick for her. I think she really liked it. 

It’s about distilling and compositing what is its essence, and making sure it doesn’t feel too much like a passage that you don’t get what the real deep story is. It’s funny because some people get it and some don’t. A lot of the time I find that it’s gender-based too. Women understand that she’s solo on this journey — where would she encounter other women in her space that she’s inhabiting in that period of time, and how she’s living her life? It’s interesting because guys sometimes don’t get it.

Would you agree that there’s a musical dimension to the filmmaking process? I’m not necessarily thinking about the sound design or soundtrack, but how a musical rhythm and melody is present in a less literal way.

Another joke that Bonnie would make was, “I didn’t do you any favours with Margo. She’s the stoic, silent type.” There’s not much dialogue to exposit and it felt weird to put that in. Much of this was about finding a way for people to connect with her and the emotional place she’s in. The map of being a young person, where you’re deep in an experience, but you don’t understand how to process it, a lot of that was about the silences, of what’s happening between the dialogue, and how you navigate her space and nature. 

It was the sound of the wind and the leaves, and the lonesomeness of it, but also the connection to nature if you allow yourself to be present with the story. In this movie so much happens without dialogue, which is partly what I found challenging, but also inspiring. 

I like movies that don’t spell things out for you, and you get to project onto them. It’s about finding something out, an investigation of what the filmmaker is trying to tell me, or what the character or the actor is emoting, or not getting at, but what they should be. 

This relationship is always interesting and, I feel, controversial, but when I watch a lot of American movies, I feel things tend to be spelled out. Whereas when I watch a lot of cinema from other countries, it’s a bit more complicated, mysterious or edgy. It’s refreshing and I like that more, because it’s not telling you what to feel or to think, and it’s not simplifying things. 

Could we say that a lot of American cinema tries to create a safe space, simplifying life by taking away its uncertainty, whereas some, not all foreign cinema, embraces it?

Other countries seem to be comfortable with the fact that there is an unknown and the unanswerable place is where we are. A lot of times it’s easier to swallow if it feels you have an answer, or you’ll be distracted from that sense of existential dread. 

I remember one of the first movies I saw that impacted me, and I didn’t know films could do that, was [Jim] Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984). The same year I saw Nic Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), and my first [Terrence] Malick film, which I think was Days of Heaven (1978). I didn’t know movies could allow the viewer to have an experience. It’s not all about the filmmaker telling the story, but the audience can enter this space and have an experience. It completely floored me and I tend to prefer that.

Escapism has its place in cinema, but when the filmmaker allows you to enter the film and to feel along with the character, it transcends the immediacy of the experience. These films can haunt us like ghosts that have worked their way into our memories, competing with the impact of experiences from our everyday reality. 

Film is an incredible opportunity to create a dream space. It’s a place where you can change people’s perspectives. One of my friends at film school was Ryan Coogler, and I was lucky to work on Fruitvale Station (2013) right out of school. He had this ability from his earliest short films to let people in the heads of the protagonists, in such a way that it had a quality that made it almost feel like you were documenting someone’s life. 

There are so many filmmakers that have the ability to do that. It’s what I was hoping Once Upon A River could do too, and it’s weird that it came out in October during the pandemic, and the [US Presidential] election – it was nuts here in October [2020]. There were a lot of things to distract, but the people that did see it chimed in and shared their feelings, saying it was a nice respite to be on this journey outdoors. It was fulfilling to hear that, for people to take the time to not look at their phone, but go on this trip for 90 minutes.

Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, where it changes you as a person?

This film took so long to make, to do it the right way and the way that I wanted, with the right cast and the right colleagues. I feel there’s this mystical aspect to filmmaking that’s like a parallel ride. Sometimes you don’t know why you’re doing something in the moment, or why it harkens to your soul, but it’s intense.

I didn’t know what about filmmaking that made me gravitate toward it. On a technical level, okay, I’d get to learn a lot and see that I can do it. But on an inner spiritual level, what is this journey teaching us? What is it teaching me personally? It’s that sense of confidence and the ability to know that I can do it that made me feel I can do it again and hopefully improve. 

What’s interesting is you never quite know what’s going to happen in a moment, and those moments are exciting. If you’re with the right people then it transcends what’s happening. You can have this amazing detailed plan, but it gets elevated with the right people, and so it’s cool to know you can trust your instincts. 

I sometimes think your gut knows more than your head does. I tend to think myself out of things if I’m in my head too much. This was the most valuable lesson from filmmaking, to try to remember your body is also a wealth of knowledge.

Once Upon a River is available in virtual cinemas and On Demand in the UK, from 7 May 2021.

This interview has been edited for clarity.