“Before I Let Go,” the new short film from artist Cameron Granger, opens with Columbus artist and designer Marshall Shorts surveying what looks like a construction site – a dusty, debris-littered landscape surrounded by newly built three-flat apartments and towering construction cranes.
It’s quickly revealed, however, that the area is one of several in the city that has been leveled during an earlier attack by gigantic alien creatures dubbed “Titans,” the scope of the disaster becoming clear in a series of interviews with Columbus musicians and artists, each portraying themselves and including Shorts, Reg Zehner and Aloe Vera, among others. Describing the arrival of the Titans in the city, the artist Hakim Callwood says, “It felt like the whole earth split in two.”
Narrated by Granger, the film is constructed as a documentary looking back at the attack, but more importantly on what has been lost in the aftermath, its meaning coalescing when the filmmaker shares that the recovery of a city and the recovery of its people are two different things, often occupying two completely different timelines.
So, while the construction is clearly underway – note the prevalence of cranes and heavy machinery – the survivors are still working to pick up the pieces, still reckoning with the things that might never be recovered.
Granger captured this sense of personal devastation by conducting unscripted interviews with all of the community members who appear in the film, during which he asked each person about a space that once held special meaning in their lives but no longer exists. He then filmed Aloe Vera talking about a DIY house where they once frequented concerts, Reg Zehner romanticizing their childhood home, and musician and restaurateur Carnell Bey Willoughby paying tribute to beloved poetry lounge Snaps & Taps. Collectively, these true-life stories give genuine ache to the fictionalized destruction wrought by the Titans.
Going into the creation of the film, Granger knew he wanted to center this human element, describing it as a counter to how the destruction of neighborhoods is often framed in the media.
“When we’re talking about natural disasters, or man-made disasters that affect our neighborhoods, the people really quickly become statistics or numbers on the board,” said Granger, who will screen “Before I Let Go” at 934 Gallery at 8:30 p.m. today (Friday, June 30), with an encore showing at 2 p.m. on Saturday, July 1. (Attendees are required to wear masks.) “I’m always making work for the people at my arm’s reach, for my communities. … Our home is only a home because of the people inside it, right? And the cities I call home – Columbus being the one I feel most connected to – it’s only because of the people there. So, for me, it feels natural. This is who I have in mind when I make the work, and this is who I want to feel held by it.”
Despite its sci-fi roots, it’s no secret “Before I Let Go” exists as a commentary on the redlining and gentrification that hollowed out historically Black neighborhoods in cities across America, including Columbus – a concept Granger explored more explicitly in “The Line,” a short screened at No Place Gallery as part of the artist’s 2022 exhibit “Heavy As Heaven.” “The piece talks about that [Near East Side] community, that neighborhood, and how they built a highway through it and really severed it, and put a dagger through it,” Granger said at the time.
As he progresses in his career, Granger has become increasingly comfortable with the idea that his work remains in constant conversation with itself, emerging concepts potentially expanding on past ideas, or presenting them in revelatory new ways. The artist said this has been a noticeable evolution in his process, which early on led him to approach every opening as though it were his last.
“So it was always like, ‘I have to put everything possible into this one show,’” Granger said. “Now it’s much more like, no, I’m going to be making art my whole life, God willing, and I can flesh things out over time, and come back and rework and reiterate things.”
Indeed, the concepts that coalesce in “Before I Let Go” are ideas on which the Cleveland-born artist has long ruminated, particularly in the years he lived in Columbus, which underwent a staggering transformation even in the decade in which he made his home here.
“Being someone who makes work in and about Columbus, I can look back through my older films and see buildings, places, areas that just don’t exist anymore, and it’s scary,” Granger said. “I’ve always been really interested in the unseen forces that shape the places we live, the places we love, the neighborhoods we come from. And when we think of concepts like urban renewal, gentrification, environmental racism, segregated design, these concepts can be so massive that it’s hard to see the ways they are linked together.
“That’s why I’ve started to gravitate toward abstracting these things through that fantasy, sci-fi lens, because what fiction can allow you to do really elegantly is to take all these disparate parts and weave them into this larger tapestry where it’s easier to come out and view things on this higher level. So it’s like, yeah, these are giant monsters, but these are also the city planners. These are also the people in power.”