Many years ago, before becoming a photojournalist and roaming the world for the likes of National Geographic Traveler, Forbes Travel Guide and The Boston Globe, a young master’s student named Frank DiCesare finds himself standing in the back of a high school classroom in Cohasset, Massachusetts, watching a short film about glass blowers in Amsterdam. Entitled Glas, and directed by Dutch filmmaker Bert Haanstra, the 11-minute film won the Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject in 1959, and DiCesare’s colleague screens it for his students as they study filmmaking. Ostensibly, DiCesare should be studying the classroom on his way to a higher degree in education, but in these eleven minutes he only has eyes for the flickering box at the front of the class. “I was blown away,” he says. “And I vividly recall thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to film something like this someday.’” Several years and a career in photojournalism later, “someday” would come in the form of a chance encounter in Beaumont, Texas.

On assignment with U.S. News and World Report, DiCesare arrives in Beaumont ready to deliver his level best argument for this Texas town as one of the best places to live in the United States—a yearly feature for the publication and nothing DiCesare can’t handle, but with a twist. “They told me to go out, interview some people, take some pictures,” he says. “And they also wanted, of all things, a cinemagraph.” Similar to GIFs shared online, a cinemagraph incorporates minor and repeated movements into a still frame to give the appearance of a seamless and neverending animation. Being in the home of the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum, an open-air museum on the Lamar University campus dedicated to the discovery that began the Texas oil boom and featuring oil derrick replicas and period reenactments, DiCesare went to capture footage of the famous “Lucas Gusher”—an iconic image if he ever saw one. The magazine won’t end up using the cinemagraph (“Why they wanted it, I don’t know.”), but, inadvertently, they’ve put DiCesare precisely where he needs to be.  

Wandering the museum gift shop alone, fresh off filming and surrounded by heavy machinery and metals of a bygone era, DiCesare’s mind turns to Glas and the project he never got around to making—a short documentary on blacksmithing. In a world of iPhones and on-demand this and that, DiCesare wants to roll back the clock a moment for the audience, not as a luddite, but as appreciator. “I want them to appreciate the creative process,” he says, “and the things that are handmade, that are homemade.” And while he believes blacksmithing is making a comeback in America, there remained a hurdle as persistent as his obsession. “I didn’t know any blacksmiths,” he says flatly. “This isn’t 1910, where there’s a blacksmith on every corner.” But there was a guy in the corner—short, stocky, with a mohawk and leather jacket like a bouncer—and DiCesare wasn’t as alone in this gift shop as first appeared. His name is Rob Flurry, he says. “And I’m the blacksmith.”

Subject in hand, and with a little time to kill between assignments, DiCesare knew he couldn’t let the moment slip by, but also that he needed help. “After 20 years of photography, I have a natural eye for composition,” he says, “but there were things that I had to learn about filmmaking, cinematography and directing by going through this process.” Finding a co-director in Lamar University Film Professor Mahmoud Salimi, who also brought on a pair of young film students to serve as crew, the film seeded all those years ago in Massachusetts and that would soon flower into Blacksmith began in earnest. With one night a week available for filming, and even then only after 4:30pm, shooting past midnight became almost SOP, but progress came steadily as well. Beginning filming in early March of 2017, they finished three months later in early June.

Clocking in at approximately 16 minutes, Blacksmith stands as DiCesare’s ode to process and creation—whether it be forging or filmmaking. Flurry and his craft take center-stage, with the blacksmith tapping into something almost primal as he wrestles molten metals to his will with nothing but strength, skill and the raw elements of his artisan’s arithmetic—fire, air, water and iron. But in form DiCesare’s film also delivers as tribute to the poetic documentary style, so skillfully employed by Haanstra all those years ago, but largely uncelebrated today. Not a “talking head documentary,” Blacksmith eschews all voiceover, narration and straightforward interviews in favor of utilizing music, rhythm and visual language to create an atmosphere and tell a story. “I want the audience to really see this art form,” DiCesare says, and he could be referring to either one.

Screening this past April at the 51st WorldFest–Houston International Film Festival, Blacksmith won a Remi Award, a distinction whose first recipients include Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas and the Coen Brothers. Blacksmith is currently available on Amazon. As a winner of the Special Jury Award, with an A+ score, the film also made the running for the year’s Grand Remi Award.