Movie Review - Short and sweet

Oscar-winning short is first film by former Atlantan

When filmmaker Tracy Seretean first contacted Viola Dees and her grandson Walter, she had no inkling that they'd become friends, let alone that their friendship would lead to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

"I was friendly with her for a long time before it occurred to me to make a film about her," says Seretean. Seretean first learned of Dees' struggles in raising Walter on her own by reading a story in the L.A. Times in 1996. "At the time, I just thought, 'This is an incredible story and these are incredible people.' I called directory assistance from a pay phone, asked Viola for her address and sent her a note and a check, just wanting to help out."

That Christmas Dees sent Seretean a Christmas card, and as their acquaintance grew, Seretean asked if she could film Dees for a one-month film production class at the University of Southern California. "'Nothing will come of this,' I assured her, and Viola said she'd be honored." But Seretean's class project would evolve into her first film, "Big Mama," which last month won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. "Big Mama" will be screened as part of the Peachtree Film Society's eighth annual program of Oscar-winning and nominated short films on April 21-22.

Filmed from April 1998 to November 1999, "Big Mama" follows octogenarian Dees' efforts to raise young Walter despite his absent mother and deceased father, as well as Dees' own health problems and an inflexible child welfare system in South Central Los Angeles. Seretean's film captures, with disquieting intimacy, such episodes as Dees' hospitalization following a heart attack and Walter revealing emotional problems that lead to a destructive house fire.

Seretean credits her prior relationship to the Dees family with their willingness to be filmed. "I didn't go in with some kind of ulterior motive about filming certain aspects of their lives," she explains. "Some of the things that transpired were hard on the family, but they never denied me access, and I think they got used to ignoring me. Viola was once asked about our relationship, and she said, 'Tracy came into my heart and took a seat.'"

After making her student film, Seretean's proposal for a longer work received a grant from Kodak and Aperture, and an early cut of "Big Mama" was later licensed to HBO, which helped Seretean secure the rights to Bobby McFerrin's music, which is effectively used. "I had 60 hours of footage and thought, of course, that it would be engaging for hours on end," she says. "The network said that since it's a small story about two central characters who are 80 years apart, that it might be more gripping at a shorter length." ("Big Mama" debuts on HBO-owned Cinemax at 7:30 p.m. May 30.)

"Big Mama" casts the California child welfare system in a poor light, as Dees fights for legal guardianship of Walter throughout the film. Seretean explains that the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services tried to enjoin distribution of the finished film, arguing that it violated Walter's privacy rights. Fortunately a litigator friend of Seretean's, David Schindler, took her case pro bono and successfully defended the film in court.

Seretean was shocked when "Big Mama" received the Oscar nomination. "None of it, either being nominated or winning, has really sunk in yet. I'm just incredibly busy, answering letters and e-mails about the film." She's currently working on a film about adoption reform to be titled "Til Birth Do Us Part."

She credits "Big Mama's" achievements to the personality of Viola Dees herself, who died in December 2000. "This woman touched and moved people, and she didn't let me film her for any kind of glory. I remember when she attended a screening and afterwards, when the applause died down, she said, 'I'm glad you liked the film, but I hope it'll help us put our heads together and answer the cries of our nation's children."

"Big Mama" will be screened April 21, along with the nominated shorts "Dolphins" "One Day Crossing" and "Curtain Call." Seretean will attend the screening and participate in a Q&A session with viewers. Screening April 22 will be "Father and Daughter" (Best Animated Short Film), "Quiero Ser" (Best Live Action Short Film), "By Courier," "Seraglio" and "One Day in September" (Best Feature Length Documentary, 1999).

Peachtree Film Society's eighth annual Oscar Shorts presentation will be held April 21 at 7 p.m. at Cinevision, 3300 Northeast Expressway, Building 2, and April 22 at 6 p.m. at General Cinemas Parkway Pointe, 3101 Cobb Parkway. $6.50 PFS members, $7.50 for non-members (for both shows, $10 for members and $12 for non-members). 770-729-8487. www.peachtreefilm.org.??