IOWA CITY– She reigns silently over a set of graves in the midst of an Iowa City cemetery. She is both alluring and formidable, dreaded and loved, world-renowned and yet forever shrouded in dark mystery.
The Black Angel of Iowa City’s Oakland Cemetery is now the subject of an artistic collaboration between past Solon High School graduates Travis Drahozal and Jordan Kessler.
Like Iowa City’s notable urban legend, the pair’s “Black Angel Movie” is also a study in contrasts. Part documentary and part horror movie, Drahozal said the Black Angel was a perfect subject for this latest venture.
“I wanted to do a documentary, and I’m a big fan of horror films. The idea of doing a straight documentary on the Black Angel was really interesting, because it has such a rich history and a lot of myths surrounding it, but being a fan of fictional narrative, I thought it would be neat to do a documentary with our own stuff added to it,” explained Drahozal.
The result is a film about a couple of filmmakers making a documentary about the Black Angel. Things happen to these filmmakers along the way that could be considered supernatural.
“Or, at least things you could kind of blame on her,” Drahozal said.
The five cast members play characters relatable to just about anyone, Kessler said, and two of the three main characters are versions of themselves.
“We wanted to keep it simple. We actually are filming ourselves, making a film,” he said.
If it sounds a bit familiar, Drahozal likens it to the popular 1999 psychology terror trip “Blair Witch Project,” a low-budget independent film that ended up at the Sundance Film Festival and grossed over $284 million worldwide.
“This is our own attempt at a film similar in style to ‘Blair Witch Project’ or ‘Paranormal Activity,’” Drahozal said. “It’s basically a found-footage type of film.”
The first part of the movie is footage of the documentary; the characters aren’t introduced until later.
“Showing an unbiased documentary for the first third of the film is kind of scary,” said Drahozal, as it goes against tried-and-true industry formula. “It’s definitely not a safe move, but at the same time, showing footage that filmmakers caught has been done before.”
Comfortable in taking a risk, the two are not new to the filmmaking scene; they have worked on other short films together, including “Field of Screams,” a 2008 Cedar Rapids Film Festival selection. After graduating from Solon in 2006, Drahozal attended the Kansas City Art Institute, where he studied animation. The skills used in drawing for films– creating storyboards, setting up shots and linking characters together from scene to scene– are similar to skills used in directing.
Kessler earned a degree in cinema at the University of Iowa, an aspiring voice actor who found a career path in the technical aspects of filmmaking and sound design. He brings the tech support to the team.
This film is less tied down by production processes than some of their other films, however.
“Basically, we are going out with a handheld camera and a narrative. The films we have done before were shot with specific scripts, lighting, sets and props. This is definitely a film that is more on the fly. We wanted it to feel real,” said Kessler.
Their inspiration comes from other filmmakers who taught the world one doesn’t need a big producer to make it work. “As long as you have the passion and creative talent to put something together that people will enjoy watching,” said Drahozal, like “Blair Witch Project “ or films by Robert Rodriguez. “He makes you feel confident in yourself, even if you don’t feel confident in the equipment or budget you have. If we can inspire others to do the same thing themselves, that would make me happy.”
As for the Black Angel’s own backstory, the two dug up reliable records to unbury the sculpture’s true history, and have used it accurately in the film. She was commissioned by Iowa City physician Teresa Dolezal Feldevert as a memorial to her son from her first marriage, Edward Dolezal, who died in 1891 at the age of 18 from meningitis. Feldevert remarried a man who died tragically just a few years later, in 1911.
In the wake of her losses, Feldevert hired Czech-born sculptor Mario Korbel of Chicago to design and sculpt the monument. It arrived on a railroad flatcar in Iowa City on Nov. 21, 1912. Teresa Feldevert’s remains are buried under the angel, along with her son’s and second husband’s, Nicholas, but there is no date of death after Teresa’s name.
“There is a very straight history of the statue, but that doesn’t mean it’s not interesting,” said Drahozal. For example, originally bronze, the statue was supposed to get brighter and shine with age. Instead, time has given her a permanent black patina, probably a result of exposure to the chimney smoke from the coal-heated houses surrounding her in the 1900s.
“It was built as a monument for a woman’s son. It can’t be simpler than that, but the nature of its being, the fact that it turned black and it’s an angel looking downward makes it a very unusual statue. It has a life of its own now,” said Drahozal.
It’s an other-worldly life that Drahozal’s and Kessler’s Black Angel Movie also explores. The film prods deep in the dark shadows her figure has cast over the years, and peeks into the murky spaces of our own psyches as well, when the filmmakers interview locals about her legends, and then let the film take an unexpected turn into something else.
“We wanted to explore the folklore in culture, and how people respond to it,” said Drahozal. “There are people who honestly believe in it, and people who don’t, but there are also those people who don’t really believe in it, but they like the idea of it, so they push the idea forward themselves.
“A lot of us like to do that,” he added. “Because we see the way things work, we know there is nothing behind the angel, but we kind of like to fool ourselves into thinking there is something there. So when something happens, it could be coincidence, it could be the curse, or it could be someone who understands the power that she has and respects it enough to believe it.”
During shooting, the filmmakers encountered many people who believe enough to visit the Black Angel; some were interviewed, and the two hope to use the footage in the final edit.
“It has been interesting to get people’s thoughts on it,” said Kessler. “Whether you are 80 and have been here your whole life, or if you are just going to school here, most everyone has heard of the Black Angel.”
Contemporary urban legends abound: when you visit her, her eyes will follow you no matter where you are. If you are pregnant and walk under her outstretched wing, you will miscarry. If you look her in the eyes, you will perish. One story tells of a man who cut off her fingers, and his fate ranges from losing his own fingers to his arm turning black.
Each legend carries different degrees and variations of consequence for churning up the Black Angel’s presence. If you touch the Black Angel, you will either get inexplicably sick or even die.
“Most of the basic stories are if you do anything with the angel, you’ll die,” said Kessler.
While there are a lot of bad luck stories associated with her, there are many who see her as good luck as well, Kessler noted.
“If a virgin of pure heart would kiss the angel, it would absolve the angel of her curse,” Kessler said. “Writers from the University supposedly go to the Black Angel for inspiration when they have writing assignments. One couple who visited while we were there left a rose at her feet, for good luck.”
“We were definitely trying to explore all sides of it,” said Drahozal. “People will always decide for themselves what’s real or true,”
Viewers of the Black Angel Movie will also have to decide for themselves.
“We are leaving the ending open for people,” said Drahozal.
That ending should come sometime in November, Kessler anticipates. He is still in the editing process, but when it is complete, the two plan to sell it on DVD and submit it to film festivals everywhere. Promotional materials are available as well– T-shirts, posters, etc.– and donors are still able to avail themselves of many film-related perks, possibly even getting named in the credits. Find out more by visiting the regularly-updated website at blackangelmovie.com.
Just don’t look her directly in the eyes.