Thursday, May 30, 2024

‘An Offer Refused’ Weaves an Eerie Tale

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Lilton Stewart III’s An Offer Refused is essentially a folk tale. Folk tales, like poems, are a type of story where the moral and truth are blatant, as there’s not much room between the lines. Stewart III takes this and blends and attempts to ground the folk tale into a recognizable reality without sacrificing the magic or the surreal.

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Poster for An Offer Refused

The realism is in the characters of Camila (Victoria Dunn), Tiffany (Alisa A. Davis), and Derrick (David. A. Champ) in how they speak and relate to each other. Mtoza Roho (Mphatso Mgangira) represents the folk tale aspect; who he is, is never fully explained, thankfully. Seemingly drawn from voodoo, Mtoza Roho, like a door-to-door salesperson, has a deal that you can either accept or reject.

An Offer Refused is a simple allegory about remaining true to yourself regardless of the naysayers in your life, but it’s how Stewart III goes about it that’s interesting. The short has notes of horror, such as the scenes where Derrick and Tiffany look for their friend in her house. But there’s more than a bit of dreamlike esotericism as Mtoza Roho speaks in rhymes and not always plainly.

All of this is helped by the Stewart III’s camerawork. An Offer Refused doesn’t look flat and muddy, unlike so many modern films. Instead, he plays with light and shadow while outside during the daytime. One moment has Camile stepping away from the mysterious man in her front yard. The lines of the shadows are clear and distinct, showing an understanding of lighting that, frankly, big studios seem to have trouble learning.

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Camilla (Victoria Dunn)

But the photography is more than just lovely to look at; the images also have a depth and an ability to switch from surreal to static and mundane in a single cut. An Offer Refused moves so effortlessly between moods without ever seemingly jumbled or mishmashed. Stewart III, who also did the editing, is cutting to an internal rhythm and not by any arbitrary need to cut. As a result, there’s a confidence in An Offer Refused that permeates the short and makes it stand out.

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Tiffany (Alisa A. Davis) and Derrick (Dave Champ Moore)

Faysal’s Ahmed’s visual effects feel like something out of J-Horror with their lush colors that nonetheless have a way of making you feel uncomfortable. The effects are all the more impressive when you consider the budget. Of course, they look like effects, but that’s because, again, this is a folk tale; there’s supposed to be an air of heightened aesthetic to it. 

All of this is tied together by Francesco Tresca’s score. It goes from playful to creepy in the blink of an eye. The soundtrack perfectly underscores the mood and never attempts to draw attention. Tresca wisely tries to help build the mood without calling attention to the mechanics of the tale.

Stewart III’s script helps his actors build their characters into flesh and blood. Dunn’s Camila can portray a gentle nervous vulnerability without ever overplaying it. Moore and Davis, as Derrick and Tiffany, feel like a real couple we all know while also feeling like they are straight out of a slasher flick. 

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Mtoza Roho (Mphatso Mgangira)

But the stand-out is Mgangira’s Mtoza Roho, a seemingly foreboding man who merely has a deal to offer. Mgangira’s voice nonetheless straddles the line of sinister and serene. But his unsettling appearance is precisely what Stewart III is attempting to comment on. 

It’s impossible to watch An Offer Refused and not see Stewart III’s simple message of being who you are despite what other people think you should be. But underneath it is also the added pressure of being Black enough. Early on, Tiffany and Camille kid each other about acting white for their careers. Code-switching is not uncommon for PoC, and Stewart III seems to be asking why it’s even necessary.

Yes, Mgangira’s Mtoza Roho is presented as sinister. But is that because he actually is or because voodoo has historically been presented as something to fear other than it was, a religion practiced by slaves? A symbol of rebellion and life has been turned into a symbol of evil and menace. 

An Offer Refused asks us to question our perceptions while also playing on them. It’s a risky move that, if done clumsily, could have made the short film seem interminable. But, instead, Stewart III pulls it off deftly and effectively.

Short films, much like short stories, are an art form all their own. They allow for more freedom because filmmakers are less bound by narrative constraints and arcs. Instead, they can choose to play with the form and focus on the story. But, as An Offer Refused shows us, they can also allow a filmmaker to delve into a purer form of personal storytelling.

Images courtesy of November 11th Pictures and Lady of the Light Productions

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