Every first Saturday of the month the Arizona Filmmaker Showcase takes place at FilmBar in downtown Phoenix. Hosted by Matt Robinson of The Dark of the Matinee, the showcase presents Arizona-made indie films without charging a submission fee. The old format of the showcase was to screen two short films followed by a feature. This early format was both good and bad; especially bad if the feature was awful and the audience was held hostage for 90 minutes or more. But when the feature film was good, the reward was a rare and privileged look at some of the most outstanding, locally made feature filmmaking in Arizona. That was certainly the case when Blood Ink: The Tavalou Tales screened on January 4th 2014 in the 75-seat theater.
Directed by recording artist and music producer Irin ‘Iroc’ Daniels, ‘Ink’ tells the twisted, tender, terrifying and sometimes tawdry tales of Tavalou, a dark and sinister place familiar to everyone in some way. Augustine (Izzy Escobedo) is a Phoenix tattoo artist recently released from prison. As he struggles to regain custody of his 11-year-old daughter Christine (Jenelle Lee Vela), he makes the best of his situation by relying on his tattoo shop for income. A brief and mostly unremarkable encounter with a benevolent stranger; a young and successful record promoter named John Corbin (Tony Kure), signifies the beginning of several tragic events that leaves Augustine caught up in a swirling struggle between good and evil. Augustine teams up with his cousin Tab (Rudy Torres) and the two sling ink and rake in the dough. Their success is short lived when Augustine is gunned down by a ruthless, bloodthirsty gang led by Louise (Greg Tap).
Vengeance is now the order of the day, as relentless and violent retribution sweeps over Phoenix. The police are after the drug gangs that recently took out one of their own, Tab is after the gang that killed Augustine, and the gang is out for blood and money. Oblivious to the meltdown happening all around, John Corbin haplessly cruises around town, celebrating his recent promotion. While he texts on his phone, a little girl steps in front of his car and John accidentally causes her death. In a city already reeling from the abductions of several young girls by a mysterious, voiceless killer called James (Bill Connor), John is relentlessly haunted by the spirits of the departed children and the ghost of Augustine, who’s moment of charity has now spiritually bonded them. Augustine’s daughter has been abducted as well, and John must find her and the other children in order to atone for his own transgressions and release Augustine’s earthbound spirit.
Blood Ink: The Tavalou Tales is a superb AZ indie film jam packed with everything good about indie filmmaking: a fresh, original soundtrack by local rap and hip-hop artists including director Daniels himself (Roca Dolla), as well as excellent, stylized cinematography provided by the combined talents of Daniels, Christopher Sheffield and Daniel Zapeda. The often frenetic pacing of the editing captures the intensity and paranoia of the hood, at times exploring a scene from high above, a wide shot intercut with a flash back, a flash forward and finally settling on a medium close-up. All within the span of about two seconds. Forgive me for not being specific in my description of certain scenes, but I truly liked everything I saw; the party scenes were realistic and filled with color and energy. The suspenseful, wordless attempted abduction/homicide scenes played out perfectly in their solely visual storytelling, and the action scenes were intense and violent. My favorite parts were (of course) the extended dream sequences experienced by John; deliriously and deliciously disappearing into a surreal, languid and numinous journey. Despite the massive cast experiencing the multitude of twists and turns that take place in ‘Ink,’ the cohesion the talented actors bring to this film bonds this complex story with an incredible synergy. ‘Ink’ is rife with superstitions, supernatural symbolism and steeped in quasi-religious allegories. There’s lots of bad people getting their demonic, karmic comeuppance, and even a somewhat satirical scene of evil doers sharing an elevator as it descends into Hell.
The superb cast consists of several AZ indie regulars as well as a host of indie newcomers, many making the transition from the AZ indie music scene. Every performance in ‘Ink’ complements each other as director Daniels brings out the actor’s own personal association and experience to their role. The culmination of talented writers (Daniels, Christopher Sheffield and Miguel Gonzalez) provides dialog that is simple, sincere and very street. This is not a stay in one room and talk for two hours indie; this film is all over the place in the best way. The city of Phoenix is a playground, a muse and an inspiration as Daniels and crew give life to the blood that flows and surges in the alleyways and office buildings, from the haunted hills of the Estrella Mountains and in the shadows of the wrought iron, cinderblock syncretism of South Phoenix. Blood Ink: The Tavalou Tales is Irin Daniels love letter to the city that seemed to keep him down while simultaneously giving him his strength and inspiration. This is not a film about race but about oppression; a voiceless angry force bent not just on intimidation but extinguishing innocence and the suppression of expression. ‘Ink’ is stark and unapologetic in its portrayal of the gritty urban characters, and presents the obvious ironies solely for observation without the need for evaluation: fathers who will protect their children from harm at all costs, who eagerly wring their hands at the prospect of being involved in lucrative drug smuggling, and the opportunity to provide for their family. Ruthless, murdering gang members that extol the importance of being a positive role model for their children. The dichotomous duality of the characters that eagerly seek out a life of crime in order to make things right in their troubled lives.
It was easy to share my enthusiasm for this film but impossible to steer anyone else in the direction of how they could experience ‘Ink’ for themselves. With only one other Arizona screening after FilmBar (Jerome Indie Film and Music Festival where it won ‘Best Arizona Film’) it was extremely difficult to recommend a film that was unavailable for purchase and with no future screenings scheduled. This week director Irin Daniels has made Blood Ink – The Tavalou Tales available on DVD through his own Marmera Films website. The DVD is packed with features and is available with four optional covers. Hopefully an original soundtrack will be available for purchase in the near future as well.
How fortunate we are that director Irin ‘Iroc’ Daniels overcame the obstacles in front of him and triumphed over the adversity around him, deciding to stay here in Arizona where he continues to be a positive, creative force in Arizona independent film and music. I recommend Blood Ink: The Tavalou Tales to anyone just starting out in AZ indie, or anyone who has been doing it for a while. See what the talented actors and crew of AZ indie film and music can bring to a film with a tiny budget, when provided with a project that inspires and empowers them.