rma 2017 interview amman abbasi on dayveon

“Stupid tree. Stupid rock. Stupid concrete. Stupid people. Stupid sky. Everything stupid.”

With this mantra, the 13-year old Dayveon opens the film while biking through the forgotten gangster town of Wrightsville, Arkansas. After having lost his brother to a dubious gang fight, all that remains of Dayveon’s brother is his airbrushed portrait, his Facebook profile, and a loaded handgun. At times, Dayveon takes the weapon out of it’s shoebox and stares at it in admiration. All the rest is just stupid. He finds solace for his sadness by joining his brother’s gang but he is soon sucked into a world he wasn’t ready for.

Dayveon’s story might seem similar to that of other films but Abbassi’s aesthetic choices are rather rare in the contemporary American film industry. Dayveon is as much a poetic coming-of-age story as it is a social study of gangster rituals and power relations within a small and remote town. The enchanting soundtrack was composed by Abbasi himself, demonstrating that he is not only a talented filmmaker but also a gifted musician.

[RMA] What came first: music or cinema?

[Amman] Music is my first love, my passion. Right behind me you see the piano where I wrote the music for the film. While composing, I was thinking about certain characters and this motif came out. I like to make movies that feel like music.
My brother and I watched a lot of movies when we were younger. He is a painter and I am a musician and we also made movies together. He is very close to me. He wasn’t officially involved in the movie, but he was in terms of giving feedback.
I didn’t go to film school; I don’t like to play by the rules. I went to a school in Arkansas but I ended up leaving early because I started working for some documentarians, who took me to New York. I made my own narrative short films on the side . David Gordon Green saw one of my shorts and I started working for him. That was very helpful; I learned a tremendous amount. When I was ready to make my own film I went home.

[RMA] Who is Dayveon?

[Amman] Dayveon is a young boy who is at an interesting place in his life right now. He is 13 years old  and he is growing up in a small town called Wrightsville, Arkansas. From the movie you can see that Wrightsville feels like a forgotten town. There are not many places for work and the cops don’t really patrol it. This isolated town houses a gang that draws upon Dayveon.
Dayveon is vulnerable because he just lost his older brother. Because of that, he starts to see a sense of brotherhood in the gang. It’s a story of community, of coming-of-age and it offers  a unique perspective on gangs.

[RMA] Funny, I thought his friend Brayden was more like a brother to him than The Bloods. Dayveon lost his brother due to something the gang was involved in. I’m sorry for psycho-analysing your film but from what I understood, the only way for Dayveon to have some control over the death of his brother was to infiltrate the gang and become a part of it. If you can’t beat them, join them.

[Amman] When I was writing the story I often talked  to kids who were involved in gangs. You are right. A lot of times, a past tragedy impels them to join a gang. They feel it gives them the power to protect. I also believe the function of a gang is different in a forgotten place like Wrightsville. A gang has a strong sense of community.

[RMA] How did you end up in this community? You are clearly not part of it.

[Amman] Wrightsville is twenty minutes away from Little Rock, where I am now. Gangs have always been notorious here; everyone knows about them. There was a documentary made in the early 90’s about gangs in Little Rock. What I wanted to focus in on, was the social acceptance of gangs and the human element of it.

[RMA] The chemistry between Dayveon and Brayden seems very real.

[Amman] It was great. They met because of this project and we spent so much time together, they developed a real friendship. You could see that on screen. In fact, there was a third character in the script but the chemistry started to feel stiff, so I decided to lose that character and preserve that natural chemistry.

Interview by: Charlotte van Zanten