“This is the absolute worst graffiti in the world,” LA Alfonso laughs, as he sprays the letters ‘LA’ in black paint under the graffiti bridge leading to Jackson Park. Although he is historically known in the film community by his given name ‘Lester,’ LA hasn’t been going by that name anymore. After the debut of his highly acclaimed 2018 documentary, Birthmark, which looked at the cultural myths, as well as his own negative relationship, with birthmarks, LA shed the name ‘Lester,’ taking on the name LA as he forges into the next cycle of his personal life, and his career as a filmmaker.
I first met LA in 2016 when he was in the development stages of Birthmark. At the time LA had already made his mark on the film scene with his highly personal documentaries Trying to be Some Kind of Hero (2006) and Twelve (2009). Intensely intelligent and highly creative, I found LA to have a kind and gentle energy, filled with enthusiasm and encouragement when it comes to others finding their own artistic voice. Although I met him on an assignment, I knew immediately he was someone that I wanted to always know and to learn from. What has continued to inspire and impress me about LA is his dedication to his art, as well as his openness to revealing himself so fully to the audience. But as LA reveals, that isn’t as easy for him as the people who watch his films might expect.
“I’m the shyest person and most private person in the world, so I reveal myself on film because I dare myself to do it,” LA says. “I dare myself to be vulnerable and authentic so I can tell you where I’m coming from today.”
“I’ve always had to do my art because I’m driven to do it,” he continues. “It’s not a career. It’s more of a spiritual thing. I feel like I’m the kind of person that can’t just have a job unless it means something in the long run. Unless it means something that will help the world. So that’s why I’ve tried to make the kinds of film that opens mind and basically encourage kindness. You are showing another person’s true authenticity. Something where an audience can relate to another’s experience because they just saw what it was like in the documentary.”
For LA, his life as a filmmaker isn’t just a hobby. It’s something that comes from deep within him and has been a part of his life since he was a little child playing with his toys. “I grew up in a time where there wasn’t any equipment readily available for people, but I wanted to make films in my head,” LA reveals. “As a kid I literally played ‘movie’ with my toys. I would have my little Action Jacks and they would enact an adventure, and then it’d be over, and I’d go and make a movie poster for it. And then I’d make the next one and the next one, and after I made five adventures I’d make an awards show for myself. You know how toys would come in packaging with styrofoam? I’d keep the styrofoam and make trophies and Oscars. I’d look in the mirror and I’d thank the actors and the producers and directors. This is the way I played.”
The act of ‘playing’ movie continued in an even larger way on the playground when LA entered school. “I remembered recently through talking with my Mom about how, when I was in grade four or five, that my teacher told my Mom ‘Lester’s doing this play, and he’s getting all the kids together.’ In the playground we wouldn’t play ‘war.’ We’d play ‘war movie.’ I had all the tropes of the war movie down in my head and I’d cast the other kids in their roles, write the story and direct the action. I was a full on film person as a kid.”
It wasn’t until he was in the eleventh grade that LA made his first documentary with barely any equipment other than his own imagination and ingenuity. “I grew up in the 80’s in Windsor, Ontario,” says Lester. “I made films by MacGuyvering two VCRs together and adding music somehow. There was no such thing as a Adobe Premiere or editing software. I was lucky to be able to find two VCRs. So this is how I made my first film.”
“I was part of a group called Man, Science and Technology where they picked a certain group of kids and put them in this sort of X-Men type class room where the students were there because they had slightly above grade average,” LA continues. “In order to get into that class I had to do an independent study, so I decided to do a sci-fi pulp novel. Of course I’m in grade ten at the time, so that was a big ambition to write a novel. I ended up writing about 120 pages so I did really well. I handed in and the professor liked it and said ‘Your project for the rest of the year is to expand and proofread this and improve it.’”
But when a classmate decided to make a horror film, LA made a decision that would affect the direction of his life. “Midway through I decided I wanted to make a documentary called The Making of Mommy Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight,” LA remembers. “Mommy, Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight was my friend’s slasher movie he was going to make, but never finished. But I told my teacher I was going to make this film instead and he told me ‘No. Absolutely not. You can’t do that. It’s absolutely wrong. You have no gear. How are you going to do this?’ I said I’d borrow gear. He was very discouraging but I insisted and he let me. But I finished the film and we had a screening and he was in tears. He said to me ‘You’re a filmmaker. I can’t even believe I discouraged you.’ I have a VHS copy of it, and I’m going to release it on my web-site soon.”
Continuing to make films, both for educational and personal projects, through high school, LA eventually went to study film at York University. Surrounded by other industrious budding filmmakers, Lester quickly became part of the schools alternative cinema community. “I ended up going to film school, where I met my friend Josh Rifkin,” LA tells. “Josh was a genius. He was bumped to second year after high school. So he saw one of my art films and said ‘I want to work with you.’ I thought this was great, and I had written this prose poem called Flight, and I went up to Josh’s room and performed it to music by Khachaturian. He said it was great and thought we should film it like Wings of Desire, by Wim Wenders, who was a filmmaker we connected to.”
“We were literally the first group to get a million dollars insurance from York University because we had aerial shots that we wanted to do. This was before drones. We had to hire a pilot in a single engine plane. Josh leaned out the window in the middle of winter to shoot the aerial shots, and he’d come back and half of his face would be frozen like Mr. Freeze from Batman. But by the time it got time to screen the film we were out of money and we couldn’t afford credits. We couldn’t get the soundtrack optically printed with the film, so we had a silent film. I said ‘Screw it. I don’t have the time or the money to read the narration to go with it.”’ So on the final screening I just pressed play on the tape deck and played the Khachaturian track.”
“Soon after the premiere, we found out that Wim Wenders was going to be in Montreal,” LA continues. “Josh and I decided that we were going to make a pilgrimage and go to Montreal, find Wim Wenders and give him our film. He was there for the premiere of Until the End of the World and we stalked him out to the outside of the theater. It was raining a little bit, and we were nervous. Finally he comes out and he has a cigarette in his mouth and he was wearing a trench coat and a fedora. He looked at us, and Josh said ‘Mr. Wenders,’ in a soft voice, ‘We made this for you’ and gave him our only print of our film. Wim Wenders looks at it and says ’16 millimeter? How do you expect me to see this? I have no projector around me? I’m in Canada!’ But he took it, and I guess he owns the only print copy of the film.”
But despite the unknown fate of the original print of Flight, decades later the saga of LA and Josh’s film continues. “Last year, when I was doing SoundProof, my pod cast at Trent Radio, I found the script for Flight,” LA laughs. “It fell into my hands. So my guest didn’t arrive and I decided that maybe I’d read this old script for Flight over the Khachaturian soundtrack for the film that Wim Wenders has. Then, a month ago, I found a copy of Flight on an old VHS which compiled all of the films from that year’s class. Three hours later I found the recording I did a year ago. These years it’s so easy to put it together and make films, so twenty nine years later I’ve made a film that nobody has ever seen properly. During the COVID pandemic I screened it at a back porch get together, and Flight was seen by an audience the way it was meant to be for the very first time.”
Although an active part of the film community at York, it was discovering a film that changed everything that led to the end of LA’s studies as s film student. “When I was in film school I saw a film that changed my life,” he reveals. “It was called Sans Soleil by French filmmaker Chris Marker. I never saw anything like that before. As a kid I only saw Hollywood movies and TV shows. Seeing Sans Soleil opened my mind to knowing I could make movies without a crew. So I basically quit school after that, after I got an F in alternative cinema. I’ve been trying to change that mistake the rest of my life by making alternative cinema because I got an F in it. I got the F because I didn’t write my final essay on Sans Soleil. Why didn’t I write my essay? Because I’m STILL writing it thirty years later in every film I make.”
Although no longer a film student, LA eventually found himself in Peterborough where he has made a successful career making short films for profit, as well as become a respected member of the city’s artistic community for his long form documentaries. However, despite this level of success, LA continues to evolve, and sees himself at the beginning of a new cycle of his life.
“Ultimately I’m getting older and I’m feeling that these small video jobs aren’t really working and it’s really tiring to rely on this for a possible paycheck,” LA reflects. “I’m concentrating more on writing right now, and I’m writing a screenplay. I’m really a writer. I just feel that it’s gotten to this stage where I want to level up on a world stage. I feel the only way to do that is for going for that. I have to find a job to do somehow to do that.”
“In 2016 I saw this posting at Trent University saying ‘Looking for practicing filmmaker to teach cultural studies,’” he continues. “I thought that’s really the only thing in Peterborough I’d be happy with. I ended up talking to someone in Trent, and basically to get the job I’d have to get my undergrad and my Masters. Once you have your Masters you can have the job. Last week I started my Masters at Trent, and I’m also TAing this year and I’m planning on writing a book. It’s going to be a personal and cultural history of cinematic self-inscription. It’s basically taking all my work and comparing it to historical works like that. This thirty year cycle of making films and starting school is happening again. It was image, but now it’s with word. It’s a bizarre cycle.”
It’s easy to do an interview with LA Alfonso. I really only have to ask one or two questions and he shares a lifetime of stories. As a storyteller he is fascinating. As a human being he is giving. As an artist he is inspiring. As I continue my own journey to redefine myself as a writer, to find my own voice and dare myself to share my stories, I find LA’s approach to storytelling and his own journey of being transparent and honest with his audience to be a mark to live up to. This is why LA is more than just a community artist or a dynamic individual to me. To me he is a source of inspiration and encouragement, and a man that I am truly proud to call my friend.
LA Alfonso has been slowly putting his entire body of work on line. To see his work make sure to visit his web-site at https://www.lesteralfonso.com/.
PHOTO GALLERY BY SAMANTHA MOSS