‘Five Years’: One day, in 13 minutes, at Aspen Shortsfest

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoThe short film "Five Years" shows Friday at Aspen Shortsfest. The film is part of the 5:30 p.m. program at the Wheeler Opera House.

ASPEN – As student films go, “Five Years” is dynamic. The background is constantly changing, as the main character, Will, a man on the first day of his probation, hustles from one rough Brooklyn neighborhood to the next. Characters – friends, enemies, strangers – appear and are gone, leaving Will with advice and threats. The action and visuals are all packed into 13 minutes, which makes the fast pace seem even more hectic.

“A huge production challenge,” filmmaker Durier Ryan, who will graduate from Columbia University’s graduate film program next month, called it.

But the movement is very much a part of the story Ryan was aiming to tell. Will (played by Miles Chandler), is 18 years old, an age when life’s filters aren’t working with maximum efficiency. Add in that Will is just out of prison, being accused of snitching, and adjusting to life back in bustling New York City, and his perception of life is overwhelming. The style of “Five Years” captures the way Will is experiencing the world.

“I knew I wanted to have a lot of characters and a lot of locations,” Ryan, who is 33, said. “Cumulatively, the feeling would be one of disorientation. It’s something I probably felt from the movie ‘Kids'” – Larry Clark’s 1995 film of a reckless youth on a sexual rampage through New York. “The number of faces you sees feels authentic to an urban teenage experience. And everything affects you; everything is high energy.”

Ryan felt comfortable telling the story, even if he is a product of a “nice, liberal, middle-class neighborhood” (and soon to have a masters from Columbia). Mount Airy, the area of Philadelphia where he was raised, is known for being racially integrated, a characteristic which Ryan recognized in his own upbringing.

“I went to school with kids from all over,” Ryan, who is white, said. “My influences were from all over the place. Hip-hop culture was in our world. It was about diversity. And having characters who were mean to each other – that anger, that tough shell that is really about protecting yourself – that was a world I knew. And it was tough to go back to.”

For anything Ryan didn’t know about that world, he relied on the filmmaker’s tools – in this case, casting. The actors featured in “Five Years” were chosen for their knowledge of the streets, a point of view Ryan might not have been able to supply.

“When you cast the right people, they’re bringing their own perspective into it,” said Ryan, who got hooked on movies at 6, when he saw “Back to the Future.” “The actors brought into it anything I didn’t know. And it’s a movie. So in the editing room I can cut out anything that feels inauthentic.”

“Five Years” is, in fact, based on a friend of Ryan’s who had been on probation. Ryan was interested in the concept of probation: “You’re free, but you’re not,” he said. And when the friend told Ryan about the first time he violated probation – for the noble purpose of reuniting a man in prison with his family – Ryan had the basic storyline for his movie.

“There was something mysterious and powerful in it,” Ryan said. “He wasn’t proud of it, but totally matter of fact. The story he told had that epic quality because it had both those thing – a redemption and a sacrifice.”

Adding to the scale of Ryan’s film is the title. “Five Years” refers to the term of Will’s probation; the film, for all its activity, captures merely day one.

“The first day is emblematic of all these decisions he’s going to make over five years,” said Ryan, who is working on a feature-length version of “Five Years,” which he would prefer to set in his native Philadelphia. “I agree he’s made the right decision, but I don’t think he’s even conscious of it. It came from a true, caring place, but it’s so reckless and naive. Even if he made the right decision today, he still could make the wrong decision tomorrow. That feels like real life to me, for this character – you’re in this constant stage of negotiation, stumbling into your decisions.”