Seattle filmmaker Wes Hurley recently debuted his newest project, Little Potato, to cheering audiences at SXSW. Metaphorically, the movie (co-directed by Nathan Miller) is a story about suffering repression and experiencing relief. Literally, though, the story is about Hurley and his mother leaving a dangerous and corrupt Russia to find freedom in America. Little Potato, showing May 29 at Uptown Cinema for SIFF, is just 13 minutes long but most of that time is taken up by Hurley or his mother, Elena Bridges, speaking candidly into the camera. Something neither of them particularly wanted to do.
“My mom was on board right away,” says Hurley of the project, which he hopes one day will become a full-length feature, “she was super on board. But she was also just kind of scared. Not because of the subject matter but because she’s never been on camera.” To assuage feelings of insecurity, Hurley, who laughingly loathes seeing his own face on screen, procured a device that makes it seem like his mother is looking into the camera, but actually she was able to see his own face in conversation. “She said, ‘I want to talk to you,’” he says. “So she was talking directly to me.”
And it worked. Hurley’s mother is warm and comfortable on screen. She smiles cutely and is powerful in moments of deep silence. After all, Hurley and his mother, as we learn, are best friends. It was to her that Hurley first admitted, scared and worried, that he’d masturbated. It was to her that he came out first as a gay man. And it was she that left her abusive husband to move with her son to America to live with a new partner in Seattle. It is she that Hurley cherishes above anyone else.
“It was very emotional after shooting,” Hurley says. “My mom said she felt like she had this horrible sickness and now she’s all better. It was a really draining process for her, but also really inspiring. She was happy afterwards; reminded of all the reasons she was happy to move to America – that initial excitement upon coming to the States.”
And while the movie documents instances of repression and relief, it’s also one that celebrates film, itself. Hurley portrays vividly a moment in his childhood when a new television station popped up showing dubbed American movies like Robocop and Ghost. “I can’t even describe the feeling,” he says. “We had no idea what they would show on a given night. It was very mysterious.”
In a time when American-Russian relations are as odd and, perhaps, strained as ever, watching Little Potato, which has already won three Jury Prizes, including best documentary short at SXSW, one gets a window into a part of the country that isn’t Russian spy-themed or tanks flanked by soldiers. Instead, one sees a small, vulnerable family trying to escape a cold, bitter nation because their own hearts are curious, formidable and warm. “There aren’t many stories from people who actually grow up there or live there,” says Hurley. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to make this, so people can have an idea of what it’s like.”
Hurley, who has made other films and serial television shows (like Capitol Hill starring Waxie Moon), has put hours and hours and hours into his work, noting that with most projects it often takes a lot of pushing to get any real traction. But this time, with Little Potato, the response has been quick and encouraging. And for a man who began his life in such a difficult place, he’s now found himself in a much better one. “This time, we were successful in the beginning,” he says. “There isn’t that feeling of frustration. It feels more like, okay, we’ve started in a good place already.”