Seattle filmmaker and performer Wes Hurley scored a hit at the SXSW Film Festival with a movie memoir of growing up gay in Russia, “Little Potato.”
When they called his name, when they said that he had won, Wes Hurley couldn’t move. He just stared.
In that moment, he was once again the small boy — the “little potato,” as his mother called him — watching a movie on the TV. Transfixed. Frozen. Disbelieving.
And now, there he was, winning the Grand Jury Award for Documentary Short for his film, “Little Potato,” last week at the South By Southwest Film Festival.
“I was completely shocked,” Hurley said the other day, talking from a car traveling home to Seattle through Texas. (He’s afraid of flying.)
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“I was looking at my partner like, ‘What’s going on?’ and I got on stage and I don’t remember what I said anymore,” he continued. “And I called my mom and I started crying.”
Of course he did. They had come so far.
“Little Potato” tells the story of Hurley’s early life in Russia. How he realized he was gay at a young age. How he escaped the turbulence of Perestroika — and his own feelings of isolation and confusion — by watching pirated American films. And how his mother, Elena Bridges, became a mail-order bride to get to America and save them both.
Once here, their lives took more curious twists (I won’t tell you the ending), until they both found happiness, together and on their own.
“We made a movie about how movies change our lives,” Hurley said, “It’s a weird circle.”
Hurley, 35, came to America in 1997, when he was 16. He studied arts and drama at the University of Washington and went on to write and direct the gay-themed web series, “Capitol Hill.”
The series, which features drag stars Waxie Moon and Jinkx Monsoon, ran for two seasons and was inspired by ‘80s shows like “Dynasty.” It’s been picked up by a small network in Europe and another in Canada.
Hurley has also produced commercials for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center that helped recruit volunteers for an HIV antibody trial.
“Little Potato” started as an essay Hurley wrote for the Huffington Post called “Growing Up Gay in Russia.” The story went viral, and Hurley heard from people in Russia who said that life there, especially for gay people, “is very much a mystery to the rest of the world,” he said.
Being gay, or a “pedik” — a derivation of pedophile — “was absolutely the worst thing in the world,” Hurley wrote. “I heard both my peers and adults say that pediks are viler than serial killers and that anyone admitting to be one deserves to die a terrible death.”
He felt like he had a secret, terminal disease. He worried about the way he walked.
Bridges, too, felt out of place in Russia. She is tolerant and open-minded, qualities that she stifled, afraid of what people would think — or do.
Here, it’s another story.
“People love her,” Hurley said of his mother, who is 58 and lives in the Central District. “We had three screenings and people really respond to her. They come up to me and say, ‘I want her to be my mom, she is the most amazing person ever.’
“She hasn’t experienced the movie in public yet,” he said. “She doesn’t realized how much people adore her.”
The documentary got going last summer, when Hurley won a grant from 4Culture, King County’s cultural services agency, to make a short fiilm about his childhood and coming to America.
He partnered with cinematographer and co-director Nathan M. Miller, who has worked on “Tough Love,” a documentary that was broadcast on PBS’s non-fiction series “POV”; and the Duplass Brothers’ film “Rainbow Time,” directed by Linas Phillips.
Hurley did as much directing as he could.
“But with this project, because I’m on camera, it’s hard to gauge sometimes,” he said. “It’s hard to take yourself out of it. So I really trusted Nate. I couldn’t look at myself and he was amazing.”
The film was produced by Mel Eslyn (“The One I Love,” “Lamb,” “Your Sister’s Sister”); Mischa Jakupcak (“The Off Hours”), founder of the virtual-reality production company Mechanical Dreams; and Lacey Leavitt (“The Off Hours,” “Lucky Them”), Jakupcak’s partner in Mechanical Dreams and a longtime collaborator of director Lynn Shelton.
The whole thing cost $2,000, filming was completed in one day, and then it took a few months to edit the film and put the music together.
Hurley and his team are using “Little Potato” — and the resulting fanfare — to get expand it into a feature film.
For now, though, he is hoping to win a spot at the Seattle International Film Festival in May, and plans to enter “Little Potato” in “a couple dozen” other film festivals.
Their win at SXSW qualifies them to compete in the Academy Awards.
“But don’t say it out loud,” Hurley said. “We’ll try, because why not?”