This year's Rappaport Prize goes to... Liza Johnson.
Johnson, a filmmaker and professor at Williams College, will receive $25,000 from the DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum. And what's more, the Lincoln institution announced that the prize, which has been given out since 2000, has been fully endowed for the future. (In the past, the Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport Foundation contributed money for five awards at a time.)
If you haven't seen Johnson's short films, which have played at film festivals and in museums around the world, you've missed something special. Instead of sit-down interviews - a staple of traditional documentaries - Johnson has her subjects act out moments from their daily lives. The results, a series of moody vignettes devoid of chatter, can be mesmerizing. Two shorts of note: "In the Air," following kids at a circus school in a run-down section of her native Ohio, and "South of Ten," set in post-Katrina Louisiana.
I spoke with Johnson, 39, briefly yesterday from the Hudson River Valley. That's where she's filming her first feature, "Return," which stars Linda Cardellini, Michael Shannon and Tim Blake Nelson.
She told me that by asking people to "perform," she feels she can get closer to the truth than by attempting a straight interview.
“People have a strong sense of reality television and what sorts of personas they might have on a TV show,’’ said Johnson, referring to the subjects in her post-Katrina film, “South of Ten’’. “So, for example, if you went up to a person on the street, they had already been interviewed three times or at least seen how their town was portrayed. Adding the performance element actually gives the opportunity to make something more unexpected and something real. I don’t know if it’s realer. But it’s not any faker for sure.’’