SXSW 2020 Interview: Sam Davis and Rayka Zehtabchi on a Story to Embrace with “Just Hold On”

Even before Sam Davis and Rayka Zehtabchi started filming “Just Hold On,” you could say they were inspired by their subject Marlie McDonald not to let go. For nearly a half-a-year, they had been courting the then-six-year-old’s parents Kevin and Nathalie McDonald, hoping that they could have their permission to tell the story of young Mutton Bustin’ champion after seeing her hang on for dear life to a sheep at RodeoHouston, but with just a couple of shorts to their name, the McDonalds declined Davis and Zehtabchi’s entreaties. Then on Oscar Night 2019, Davis and Zehtabchi received two pieces of good news – one, “Period. End of Sentence,” their spirited portrait of women in India whose first steps towards taking control over their own destiny starts with being supplied with tampons for the first time won Best Documentary Short, and two, the McDonalds had been watching and realized these were not just any old filmmakers wanting to tell their story. However, if they wanted to catch Marlie in action, they’d have to act quickly since she was preparing for her final ride at the 4th of July Bell County Rodeo in Belton, Texas.

“We kind of just took what we had,” laughs Zehtabchi, when it’s suggested that they might’ve used a special lens to capture the larger-than-life feel of Texas as accurately as they do.

“Because it was so spur of the moment, a lot of that I think comes from the location and the on-screen personalities,” adds Davis.

You wouldn’t know from the end product that “Just Hold On” came together so quickly, but Davis and Zehtabchi harness that adrenaline rush in their worthy follow-up to “Period. End of Sentence” to create a brisk, vivacious film befitting of its indefatigable subject. If the duo were captivated by Marlie from afar, they launch a full-on charm attack in getting up close to the charismatic kid as she approaches one last ride inside the ring before aging out of the competition. Although mutton busters have always been well aware that every second is precious as they cling to their sheep, holding out for the longest time, Marlie is especially so, having already overcome a bout with brain cancer at birth, and as “Just Hold On” exuberantly explodes off the screen, it becomes an extraordinarily moving celebration of perseverance and the strength of a family.

While the film had been set to screen at SXSW last month before the festival was cancelled as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, it has been made available online for a limited time here through Mailchimp and Oscilloscope as a surefire way to brighten your day, and after winning the SXSW Jury Prize for Best Texas Short, Davis and Zehtabchi were kind enough to shed light on how “Just Hold On” came together, keeping up with its precocious star and getting a handle on filming inside a rodeo.

How did this all come about for you?

Rayka Zehtabchi: It all started with one of these little social media videos that you see, just this compilation video of the sport of mutton busting — Sam came across it on Facebook and he showed it to me and we were just so intrigued by the sport. We’d never heard of it as Californians and we thought it was really interesting and fun and that it would be a really cool world to explore for a documentary, so we went down this rabbit hole of searching for a subject.

Sam Davis: And we stumbled upon a video of Marlie. It’s actually the clip you see in the film of her accepting her award after having won her first mutton busting competition. We were just so smitten by her. We just knew she was the perfect person to take us into this world of mutton busting and it wasn’t until we got in touch with her parents that we learned that she actually was also a cancer survivor, and it felt like a story that was worth telling, so we hunted her parents down on social media because that was the only way we could get in touch. At first, I think they were skeptical, [thinking] “Who are these random people that want to make a film about their daughter?” but we kept the conversation going for a few months. Eventually, Rayka and I just decided to pack up one weekend and go out to Texas and make the film.

Was that a whirlwind?

Sam Davis: Yeah, we really didn’t plan too much with this one. Everything was dying down with “Period” and we felt like a lot of pressure after that to be very high stakes and we saw this as [slightly] rebelling against that idea that every project in the follow-up period had to be a big award-winning project, so we really just set out to have a fun weekend and make something simple.

Rayka Zehtabchi: It was 4th of July weekend though, so we went into the heart of Texas and it was a very colorful moment we were able to capture. It was also really great because Marlie was embarking on her last mutton busting competition because she aged out and her whole family was gathered around for the holidays, so it was really nice to get to speak to a bunch of people.

Still, this has such energy to it. Did you know how you were going to cut it together before shooting?

Rayka Zehtabchi: The only thing we knew upfront we wanted was we wanted this film to be kind of formless and we wanted this portrait of this young girl who’s this just incredible fighter and survivor, so we wanted the film to be through her lens.

Sam Davis: It took on her personality too. Organically where when we were editing it, her personality just informed a lot of the choices that we made in the cut in that it’s very energetic and spontaneous, a little like anything goes…

Rayka Zehtabchi: And at times emotional because that’s part of her backstory.

You handle that in such a beautiful way and those brain scans tell you all you need to know. How did you figure out how to present that part of the film?

Rayka Zehtabchi: Well, we wanted to make sure we found the most creative way to tell her story and ultimately, it’s a story about her fight. But a lot of what we shot was basically her at the rodeo with her family and the interview with her parents, so it was working within limitations, like how do we creatively find a way to really tell this heavy part of her story in a way that feels emotional, it’s visual and it’s also creative and not something we see a lot in documentaries about survival. It was definitely a little bit of an evolution and sometimes the limitations are the best thing for art just because you have to take what you have and work with it.

What was it like to shoot at the rodeo?

Rayka Zehtabchi: It was pretty wild. It was definitely my first rodeo – [not] in terms of film production, but definitely my first rodeo. [laughs] And it was a really different environment [for us] too, just because it was the heart of Texas on the 4th of July, but we had to get permission from the rodeo and Sam was able to be down there with Marlie and with her mom and be right there front and center with the camera. It was pretty awesome that we got that privilege, and if it was a bigger rodeo and wasn’t in such a small town, I don’t know if would’ve been possible to gain that sort of access.

Sam Davis: Yeah, that was pretty frantic to shoot, just because a lot of moving pieces, but it was fun.

The film also has a wonderful score. What was it like to work on?

Sam Davis: We’ve worked with [Giosuè Greco] several times — he did some of the music for “Period” and a bunch of other projects we’ve done and he’s a really brilliant composer. In a similar way to what we were saying with the edit, capturing Marlie’s personality, he found ways to embed her spirit into the sound of the music and that was really cool to see come to life.

Even if you hadn’t planned for another award-winning project, you gave an adorable acceptance speech after the film won the Texas Shorts Competition at SXSW. What was it like to inform Marlie and her family that the film was honored?

Sam Davis: They were really, really excited. We really never even expected to do festivals with this one. It was more like let’s see what we get. Maybe we’ll just put it online and then it was kind of a fantasy to go to South By because we knew it was going to be a very Texas story, so we kind of threw [that idea] around while we were shooting, wouldn’t it be cool if we could premiere it at South By and Marlie and her family could attend the festival?” Everything was going according to plan until there was no more festival.

Obviously, we’re still really grateful. It’s exceeded our expectations for how well it’s been received so far and I think [Marlie] was really disappointed the premiere wasn’t happening in person because her family was ready to go and we were going to have a whole cheering section at the screening, so it was disappointing not to have that in person, especially for her, because as I think you can tell from the film, she just has a spirit for adventure and she also sings at her church’s plays and has interest in theater. But she was really excited to hear we had won an award and she and her whole family have just been really supportive and really lovely throughout the process. It’s been a fun experience for everybody and even though the festival didn’t happen physically, it’s a huge honor.

“Just Hold On” will be streaming through DOC NYC as part of Shorts Program: She Stories from November 11th through 19th.

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