Mateen Kemet, "On the Lot"

Matt Sussman July 24, 2007

It’s not too surprising that "On the Lot," the Mark Burnett and Steven Spielberg-produced reality show in which budding filmmakers submit weekly short films in competition for a pitiable $1 million production deal with Dreamworks, hasn’t completely caught fire. It might be the lack of shallow Machiavellian scheming and casual nudity within a hot house environment a la "Survivor" or "Big Brother," or, maybe, the dearth of withering judgments ("On the Lot" has no Simon Cowell amongst its trio of judges, and Carrie Fisher is this close to becoming the Paula Abdul softie); or the fact that thanks to 24-hour-paparazzi-surveillance and the collapse of studio-run P.R., Hollywood has lost much of its mystique. Still, the show has its strong points — Oakland-based contestant Mateen Kemet, being one of them. Now that only seven contestants remain, perhaps the presence of a Bay Area rep will boost local ratings. Kemet, though, is worth tailing for other reasons. [ editor’s note: As it turned out, Kemet’s last night on the show was Tuesday, July 24.)

The 41-year old Kemet — who has worked on Wall Street and in Bay Area urban schools — has plenty to say about himself. In the lengthy online biographical questionnaire on "On the Lot’s" site, he seems as at ease offering up his street cred (Bronx-born and raised) as he is at casually tossing off art house favorites (Kiyoshi Kurosawa and "The Conformist" are listed alongside Oliver Stone and "Cooley High").

Like all the other contestants, Kemet’s competition films thus far have been a variety pack — and filled with strong ideas, even when he seems to have a difficult time cramming everything into the allotted three-minute format. Guest judge Eli Roth called Kemet’s horror entry, "Profile," "confusing," which may have resulted from last-minute "Twilight Zone"-style change of P.O.V. But Kemet’s quick and bloody sketch of police brutality deserves kudos for attempting to put race and horror in overt dialogue with each other (speaking of which, I would love to see Kemet re-make Wes Craven’s "The People Under the Stairs").

Kemet’s latest entry, "Catch," has been his strongest by far. This deceptively simple chase film manages to pack in plot twists that work, without relying too heavily on the firepower and free falls that gunked up some of the other contestants’ action shorts. Like the brittle conversation between two exes perfectly caught on hand-held camera in his dramatic short "Lost," "Catch" also proves that Kemet can streamline his vision to meet the requirements of a given genre within the allotted time limit, and, most importantly have the results be entertaining to a general audience.

That may sound like an awfully dry form of praise, but in a sense, that’s what separates winning films from losing ones on "On the Lot." If many of the weekly entries — especially the recent one minute-short comedies — look like possible treatments for Superbowl ads, it’s not simply because contestants are given carte blanche access to top of the line production equipment and seasoned crew members (every film at least looks technically proficient). Adaptability, and not necessarily ingenuity, is a contestant’s best asset. And Kemet might just be the most adaptable of the bunch. The results of tonight’s double elimination screening round will prove whether or not he is in the eyes of the public.