g The Film Panel Notetaker: February 2010

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

One-on-One Q&A with Kimberly Reed, Director - "Prodigal Sons"

One-on-One Q and A with Kimberly Reed – Director, “Prodigal Sons"

Opens February 26 at Cinema Village in New York via First Run Features

“Prodigal Sons” is a compelling family portrait and personal documentary told from the point of view of its director, Kimberly Reed, a transgendered woman who works as magazine editor in New York and goes back to her hometown in Montana for her 20th high school reunion. While on her trip, she is reunited with her estranged older adopted brother Marc, who at the age of 21 suffered a brain injury after a car accident. Kimberly is the middle child of three, the oldest being Marc, and her youngest gay brother, Todd. Kimberly grew up as Paul and was the captain of the high school football team and was voted most likely to succeed. In the film, Kimberly tries to mend her relationship with brother Marc, who seems to come to accept her, but a breakdown with Marc ensues, and it gets harder and harder for them to reconcile, that is until a whopper of a revelation occurs as to whom Marc’s true grandparents were (I don’t want to give it away). Reed does an incredible job showing the complex dynamic between her and Marc and their family, which goes through several more ups and downs throughout the rest of the film. I sat down with Kimberly for the following One-on-One Q&A, where we talked about everything from her filmmaking choices, the emotional impact of the film on her, Marc and her family, to the reaction of others who have seen it in the LGBT community…and Kim also let me indulge my daytime television bug by asking her about the transgendered character of Zarf on "All My Children" a few years ago. What I learned from watching the film and talking with Kim was that the issue of being transgendered recedes from the identity one has within his or her own family, no matter what the genetic makeup.

TFPN: In "Prodigal Sons," you infuse your family’s super 8mm home movies of when you were young children, and then later when you and your brothers made your own films. Who shot the earlier footage when you were younger? Did that prompt your interest in making movies later on in life?

Reed: My dad shot the earlier home movies. He was always an early adopter. He was always the guy who had the super 8MM camera. Then he transitioned to video and was first on the block to have this two-piece video deck with a massive camera on his shoulder tethered to a VCR on his hip.

TFPN: What was your father’s profession?

Reed: He was an ophthalmologist. I often wonder if my fascination with understanding the world through vision, if you define being an ophthalmologist roughly enough, it kind of started to sound like being a filmmaker. I was fascinated with my dad’s job and how the eye works, but what really made me a filmmaker was experiencing films by being totally transported to a different place emotionally and sometimes even physically. Fairly early on, I was gathering all the kids in the neighborhood and coming up with these scripts and telling everybody what to do. The reason you didn’t see me in any of those later films was because I was behind the camera.

TFPN: So it was your brothers you directed in those films?

Reed: Yes. You can also see me trying to work out some gender issues pretty early on by forcing my younger brother to play the part of the girl. I knew that stuff was going on with me. There’s a reason I chose him and not Marc. I was in such denial of it at that age that I was so afraid of it that it would somehow magically transport me or I'd grow out of it. That’s what I wanted. I was afraid of the power it had and I knew from society that you’re not supposed to do that. I think a lot of people can relate to that. I did it vicariously through my younger brother.

TFPN: Did Marc know you were going to be filming him for your documentary before you both came back to Montana for the reunion? What was his initial reaction? Was he hesitant or cooperative?

Reed: Yes, he knew. I think you can tell from the early films he always wanted to be in the limelight. Sometimes that was him just being a troublemaker, doing crazy stuff that nobody else would do. I’ve kind of wondered if he had a limelight gene, and if he did, I think he got it [from the surprise relationship that Marc discovers that is revealed in “Prodigal Sons.”]

TFPN: By turning the camera on Marc and going down this path, do you think it in any way might have provoked him to have his outbursts, or would that have happened anyway?

Reed: Marc has explosive anger. It’s really interesting, because some people think the camera would make it worse, and some people think the camera would lessen the impact of it. I actually think in almost all cases where you see that, the camera didn’t matter because nobody knew it was on. There’s a scene on Christmas that nobody knew the camera was on, for instance. In that respect, I think the camera really did disappear. I think that it would be naïve to assume that the camera would ever disappear totally. I think if you’re ever going to be close to having a camera disappear, I can’t imagine getting closer than a really intimate family environment where everybody supports the making of the film. They’re used to me and others shooting and everybody’s on board. You’ve got a very open family that’s willing to share their story, warts and all. I think it’s my sense of Marc and almost all people that if the camera is on, it would lesson your anger not increase it. The decision to use (the footage) is also interesting. To that, I would say nobody wanted this film made more than Marc. Nobody. There were times when I was really questioning whether or not I should include some really rough footage. I took Marc as my guide. I took his advice. I followed his lead as to whether or not to show that. There’s a line in the film I really love when Marc says simply, “I don’t know about you, but the truth is the truth.” I learned a lot from Marc from that line, because I was in a situation where I was really hiding from my past in a lot of ways. His advice to me in that situation was “get over it!” It’s just the truth. It happened, deal with it. That’s how Marc feels in some of these explosive moments where we’re seeing warts and all. His response is bracingly honest and really refreshing. His actions may be hard for some people to interpret, because he has different principles, but I think some of those principles are bracingly honest.

TFPN: You seemed to have learned more because of that than you expected when you were going into making the film.

Reed: Absolutely. I had no idea we were going to get into all these family issues, and issues of sibling rivalry. It had always been there, but I had no idea it was really going to take over as much as it did. But probably a good portion of that was wishful thinking that it wouldn’t. You follow it where it goes. You follow your life where it goes, kind of in the same way you follow film where it goes.

TFPN: What has the reaction been by the LGBT community, in particular by those who are transgendered? Has anyone been impacted by the film?

Reed: I love the answer to that question because we’ve had almost completely uniform, positive reaction. We just had a story in Details Magazine, which is really getting the word out, and also recently in Jezebel. I hear from trans people whom I think were empowered and reassured by my story because they think, “Wow, I can do this!” I hear from the families of trans people. Before we even started editing I told somebody at Sundance the story of this and she said, “I’m so glad you told me that, because I’ve been freaking out because the day before I came to Sundance, I found out that my brother is going to be my sister. And my head has been spinning the whole time. I’ve spent the last three days with you and had no idea this was going on with you and it’s really reassuring that you can just share your story.” Even before you make your film, talking about it can reassure people, because a lot of people don’t quite know how to talk about it and hopefully our film will open up that discussion. I think an important element that I hear again and again from people is that, and this is always what I had in mind for the film, the way that the film confronts transgendered issues is important perhaps more because of how little it says about being transgendered, but about how willing the film is to let other things take over. I hear from people time and time again, “thank you for not letting that be the only issue.”

TFPN: I found the main through line of the film to be more about your relationship with Marc than your coming out to your family and friends.

Reed: Absolutely. That understatement, number one, represents my life.  It’s very important, but is it the only thing? No. It’s an aspect of who I am. To replicate that standing in the film, I think it’s important to let the topic recede in importance. As a storyteller, too, once you take it off the table, it’s also a lot of fun to put it back on the table. If you ask me, that’s the best way to affect social change is to put people in the shoes of somebody else and then let them forget that they’re in their shoes. Hopefully that happens with my character in the film. Hopefully it happens with Marc’s character in the film. I think he goes through a lot of issues with having a head injury and mental illness that people find very hard to imagine. If people can watch this film and feel like they really feel Marc, they know what makes him happy and what he’s frustrated by. I would be really happy to hear people have that response. I could have started with this side of the equation about people who have these kinds of head injuries and mental illness or with gender issues. This film is really just about family. It’s about siblings and family relationships and we’re all looking for love and want to be loved. In families, that’s such a big part of that currency that everybody is trading and it’s hard because there’s a lot of old pain and even hate sometimes. I think at the end of the day (these issues) operate metaphorically in the film…that thing that creates sibling rivalry. Sometimes I hear, “I was that sister who was envied by the other one.” I think if you have a sibling, you can understand sibling rivalry. In the end, it’s a film about family and love and how as we grow older, our identities change, not often as starkly as Marc’s or mine, but our identities change. We always have to renegotiate who we are within our families.

TFPN: Do you think that LGBT people, particularly those who are transgendered, are properly represented in the media such as film and television? Are they being represented as stereotypes? Can you think of any examples of transgendered people who are being properly represented?

Reed: A big motivation for me making this film was to give a real representation of someone who is trans and to go back to reactions we heard from people. That’s what people appreciate, whether you’re trans or a family member or a friend of a person who is trans, I think it’s really important to show everything else but that issue. That’s where the humanity lies. A lot of times I feel the transgendered issue is where gay issues were in the 1960s and earlier. I didn’t want to make the transgendered version of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” In LGB cinema and media in general, the “T” has yet to really undergo that. I hope that our film takes a step toward that.

TFPN: Were you ever aware that there was a transgendered character on the daytime serial drama “All My Children” a few years ago?

Reed: Was the character’s name Cricket?

TFPN: No, actually the character was Zarf/Zoe (Jeffrey Carlson), a male to female transgendered rock star who was in love with Erica Kane’s (Susan Lucci) lesbian daughter Bianca (Eden Regal).

Reed: No, I didn’t. When was it?

TFPN: I think it was in 2007. I watched it and was blown away by it, but I can’t say 100% how realistic it was or not, but I was moved by it. So I was wondering if you had ever seen any of it.

Reed: No, but I ought to now. I thought you were going to tell me that people tell me I look like one of the characters on the show.

TFPN: People used to tell you that?

Reed: Yeah, it was Cricket, but I don’t think it was "All My Children." [Editor’s Note: If anyone does know what show Cricket was on, please leave it in the Comments.]

TFPN: I don’t remember a Cricket.

Reed: It was probably in the mid-1990s. You would know.

TFPN: Well, that’s not even really my show. My show’s "One Life to Live," which is on after AMC, but I occasionally watch it and when they had that storyline on, I found it fascinating. I don’t think it had ever been done before where they had a contract character that was transgendered in a major plotline.

Reed: The more stories like that, the better. One of the best reactions I ever had to the film that just floored me was when someone came up to me after a screening and said, “I think I fell in love with your brother Marc.” I love that, because Marc does some pretty intense things, which are hard to digest. The fact that you can go through that and experience it in the film, which is arguably more intense than in real life…and the fact that you can go through that and still see this other side of Marc that’s really sensitive and sentimental that’s terribly connected to our family and our past. I’m almost more proud of the fact that people can affiliate themselves more with Marc than they can with me. The thing about head injuries, the number of people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with head injuries…there are going to be so many people dealing with this, questioning where this explosive anger comes from? This is not the person who went off to war. At the end of the day, it’s just about humanity, whether we’re L or G or B or T or this or that. To hear Albert Maysles talk [at Stranger Than Fiction’s presentation of “Running Fence” on January 19] about the humanity in which he approaches his filmmaking and the compassion that he feels for his film subjects, which so comes through in his films, that is what I’m interested in.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

UnionDocs Presents Inductive Thread at MoMA's Documentary Fortnight

This Saturday at 8pm, UnionDocs will present Inductive Thread, a shorts program panel discussion as part of MoMA's Documentary Fortnight.

Produced by the Brooklyn nonprofit UnionDocs, this two-part program combines short works that engage multiple subjects and diverse aesthetic approaches to documentary arts. The first part touches on the history of the organization, its rotating body of participants, and their collaborative exploration of topics as diverse as the death of payphones and the popularity of currywurst. The second is an investigation of myth in contemporary society. This excerpt from a larger ongoing project shares many inspirations, including the experimental laboratory of the Bauhaus and the collection of short but revelatory essays within Roland Barthes's classic 1957 text Mythologies. Presentations by UnionDocs founders Christopher Allen, Executive Director; Jesse Shapins, Kara Oehler, and Johanna Linsley; UnionDocs programmer, Steve Holmgren, and UnionDocs Collaborative participants.

The Space, which will host an afterparty with music from The Hungry March Band and more, is a not for profit corporation in the Long Island City area committed to the use of 'Underutilized Property in the Name of Art'.  Dedicated to maintaining the artistic heritage of Long Island City, and providing a foundation for the future of a thriving community of artists and the arts.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Putting My Winter Book Reading to Good Use in Woodstock

I am so excited to be returning to Woodstock, New York, this weekend, not for the Woodstock Film Festival, but rather for the Woodstock Writers Festival, a "Celebration of the Memoir." The festival will include workshops, fetes, readings, panels, moveable feasts and more with many of today's best-selling authors including Ruth Reichl, Susan Orlean, Julie Powell, Susan Richards, and Laura Shaine Cunningham, just to name a few.

Woodstock Writers Festival Executive Director (and The Film Panel Notetaker's favorite film panel moderator of all timeMartha Frankel invited me as one of the lucky scholars to attend the inaugural festival. I was so delighted by the offer, I couldn't pass it up. I also couldn't go without first reading some of the memoirs by the authors who will be in attendance.

* Since mid-November, I've read the following books, all of which I highly recommend, my favorite being Hats and Eyeglasses...seriously :)

 Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell
 Hats and Eyeglasses by Martha Frankel
 The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
 Foreskin's Lament by Shalom Auslander
 Pride of Family by Carole Ione

While a writers festival celebrating the memoir might seems like a bit a departure for me, I have been toying with the idea of writing a memoir, if not in novelization form, then perhaps as a short. Whatever I end up doing, I am sure I will get much inspiration from the Woodstock Writers Festival, and look very forward to attending and meeting all of these great writers.

* All of the above mentioned books can be purchased on Amazon.com by clicking on the widgets below:

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Stranger Than Fiction - "The Cove" - Feb. 8, 2010

Q&A with Louie Psihoyos and Fisher Stevens
February 8, 2010
New York, NY

(L to R: Thom Powers, Louie Psihoyas & Fisher Stevens. Photo by Brian Geldin)

Stranger Than Fiction continued its string of screenings this season of 2010 Academy-Award nominated documentaries Monday night with “The Cove.” (STF recently screened Oscar contender “Which Way Home” and is also scheduled to show “Food, Inc.” on Feb. 17). “The Cove” is a thriller about a small group of environmental activists including director Louie Psihoyas himself and the original “Flipper” dolphin trainer Rick O’Barry, who lead an expedition to expose the atrocious slaughter of dolphins in a Japanese village using hidden surveillance equipment. The film also points out the harmful levels of mercury in the ocean that not only affects sea life, but people who eat it, namely for sushi. Psihoyas successfully weaves a narrative in a highly entertaining and informative manner, while introducing us to unique characters, both heroes (O’Barry for instance) and villains (a man they call “Private Space.”) After the credits rolled, the audience gave Psihoyas a standing ovation and Thom Powers led a discussion with him and producer Fisher Stevens. They even had some exciting news to announce about the film’s distribution in Japan.

Given the fraught circumstances and conditions Psihoyos and his crew endured in Japan, Powers noted that “The Cove” screened at the Tokyo Film Festival this year, but it wasn’t an easy endeavor. Stevens said they submitted the film seven times to the festival. The theme of the festival was “green,” but they kept getting rejected. Rick O’Barry told them they had to get it into the festival. At a screening in Nantucket, they asked if anyone there knew how they could get their film played at Tokyo, and Ben Stiller raised his hand in the audience saying he could help. Through Stiller, they got it into Alejondro Inarritu's hands, since he was the president of the Tokyo jury. He saw the film and persuaded the festival to take it “with incredible caveats of changing and blurring certain scenes,” he said. “That’s what really helped our journey in Japan.” Psihoyos said when he went to Tokyo, there were three arrest warrants for him: trespassing, conspiracy to obstruct commerce, and photographing undercover cops without their permission. He brought his lawyer just in case he’d be arrested, but luckily he didn’t get arrested. “It was the most amazing screening I had ever been to,” Psihoyas said. “In the audience were all the bad guys” including the infamous “Private Space,” the mayor of Taiji, and the fisherman. They were there to watch to the film to see if they could find anything litigious to keep it from going further to the Japanese population.

Psihoyas paused to announce his news that “The Cove” now has a Japanese distributor, Medallion. The audience applaused. The film will open theatrically in Japan this April, then will go onto DVD about three months before the September dolphin slaughter season. He equated this journey and struggle finally coming to fruition in Japan as "gaiatsu" meaning outside pressure that creates inside pressure for change. He said the most social change since World War II has happened through gaiatsu.

Did they recruit locals from Japan in the making of the film, asked someone in the audience? Psihoyas said that they did, but they were way in the background. This film has given permission for other Japanese people to speak out. It’s helped them to break through the glass ceiling. Beforehand, the press was not covering it. They received more coverage during the Tokyo Film Festival than “Avatar.” He beckoned back to the earlier news of the Japanese distribution being extremely important.

As someone who’s produced other films, what was it that stood out for Stevens about “The Cove,” Powers asked. Stevens said he’d met Psihoyas while scuba diving. He loves the ocean and the environment, which he feels has been abused and he saw an opportunity after seeing the footage that this film would wake people up. Besides that, he saw an entertaining thriller. They both also had mercury poisoning from eating a lot of sushi. Stevens recommended that everyone get their levels checked. Powers joked that actors have used that excuse to get out of Broadway plays. Stevens added that when he got to meet and know O’Barry, he saw the passion he has for his work, besides the importance of saving the dolphins.

Powers asked what’s happening with O’Barry nowadays. “He’ll be my date for the Oscars,” Psihoyas said, adding that O’Barry has had a visceral response to everything and has been going back to the cove by himself. “We’re trying to give the ocean a voice with this film,” he said, which is the true value of getting these awards. The important reason to win the Oscar for him is because it’s one of the most watched shows in Japan.

Will sales of the film go toward any of their causes, asked another person in the audience? Psihoyas said they have about $2.4 million in loans, which they’ll put into making another ocean movie. He’s also been using some of his own money to pay Japanese organizations to do websites and financing other people’s operations for community outreach. Stevens added that the box office receipts here in the U.S. was “really bad” considering all the press the film got, because people were afraid to see “the dolphin slaughter movie” no matter how much they tried to sell it as a thriller. It became depressing to them. There was a stigma about it that they hope will be lifted by marketing and selling it differently. It’s not just about the slaughter of the dolphins, it’s about much more. There’s only about 90 seconds of it in the whole film. Psihoyas said they considered every frame. “They say most documentaries are abandoned, not finished,” he said. “We finished it.”

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Union Docs - Documentary Distribution and Access - Feb. 7, 2010

Documentary Distribution and Access
February 7, 2010
Brooklyn, NY
Guest Blogger: Colin Beckett

“It is like running a treadmill and never going fast enough," filmmaker Ashley Sabin said of her efforts to bring her low-budget documentary to audiences at Union Docs' February 7th panel, Documentary Distribution and Access.

With two moderators and seven guests, there are a lot of names to keep straight, so I'll do us both a favor and start with introductions. Steve Holmgren, who assembled and moderated the panel, is the programmer at Union Docs. He has also worked at HDNet, Cactus Three, and a variety of festivals. Todd Sklar, Holmgren's co-moderator, started Range Life Entertainment, a company that tours small films around the country in a van, screening mostly at colleges. It is probably worth noting that that both his company and the feature comedy he directed share their name with Pavement songs. Richard Abramowitz has worked as a distributor and producer for over 30 years. He founded Abramorama in 2002, which distributed Anvil! and We Live in Public, among others. Over the past two decades, Jim Browne has programmed work at the majority of New York's film institutions. Prior to founding Argot Pictures in 2005, he was the Director of Theatrical Distribution at Plexifilm. Caitlin Boyle's grassroots distribution company Film Sprout connects documentaries with unconventional venues like union halls, restaurants, and public libraries. Ashley Sabin got into distribution as a means of making her own work self-sufficient, and in the past year has started acquiring other people's films for release. Nicholas Jayanty co-founded Reversal Films in 2007 with friends in Austin, TX after they noticed major gaps in the city's film finance and distribution structures. Andrew Mer runs the Content Acquisitions Department at SnagFilms, an AOL-backed online distributor geared towards thinning the "distribution bottleneck" that forms after major commercial festivals like Sundance. The only non-distributor on the panel was Dennis Lim, who edited the Village Voice's film section before their arts pages were bowdlerized by New Times. He has since founded Moving Image Source, the critical writing appendage of the Museum of the Moving Image.

Holmgren's first question-- "can you make a living as a documentary filmmaker?"-- provided the premise on which the rest of the afternoon was based. The answer was unanimous: unless you're extraordinarily lucky, you cannot without getting deeply involved in your film's distribution. It is easy to point to the obvious bias informing the responses -- most of these people are unconventional distributors -- but it seems commonsensical. With more independent distributors vanishing every year, and fewer lenders willing to take the surefire loss promised by film investment, the future of theatrically released, mid-budget films is, to put it optimistically, uncertain. As Jim Browne argued, the old model, wherein you pay for your film as you make it, and expect to recoup upon its sale at a festival, is no longer much more than a fantasy. "You might as well play the lotto," he said.

Everyone concurred that at this point, small filmmakers and producers have to take on roles that they had traditionally left to others. Distribution, marketing, and, as Jayanty suggested, even advertising are quickly becoming the producers' responsibilities. This means apportioning both time and money in advance. Browne recommended that producers include distribution costs in their initial budget outlays, setting aside the money to fund unusual distribution tactics like the kind of tours that Sklar puts together with Range Life. Caitlin Boyle said directors should expect to stay with a movie beyond its appearance at festivals, allowing themselves between two and five years to deal with distribution and marketing before moving on to other projects. Lim noted that critics and journalists faced similar problems. Writing had once "felt like a career," but these days it seems more like a passion pursued alongside comparatively lucrative work like programming and teaching.

As disheartening as that sounds, the panelists all saw an upside: it is now easier than ever to get your film seen. Of course online distribution is the simplest way to cast a broad net, whether with paying video-on-demand services like GreenCine or iTunes, or free ones like Mer's SnagFilms. But the quality of streaming video is still not ideal, and nature of this set-up is such that, even taking into account the money you save on travel, and prints or DVDs, it is quite hard to break even. On the internet, you are also competing for increasingly distracted audiences. Ashley Sabin bemoaned the distance online distribution creates: your film is given a greater number of potential viewers than in the past, but you cannot directly interact with them like you can with the people who show up at theaters or community screenings. And Mer, the panel's greatest advocate for online distribution, admitted that despite the advances made in recent years, the format still has a long way to go. Until it is as easy for your parents or grandparents to watch a movie on the internet, it cannot fully compete with theatrical or broadcast releases. Online should for now, he said, be considered "one piece of the puzzle.”

It has become harder to find conventional distributors willing to bring small docs to increasingly conservative movie houses. Even if you're able to get booked, fewer and fewer people are willing to pay to see movies in the theater, partially thanks to the online schemes described above. But there are still ways to get small documentaries screened in public spaces. Omnibus programming, like Sklar's, is one way around the problem. The publicity-minded Jayanty formulated it as "marketing conversations rather than products." Another possibility is adding a live component to screenings, something audiences could not see at home -- "gimmicks" is how Abramowitz bluntly put it. He helped make Anvil! The Story of Anvil a success by bringing the band depicted in the movie on tour with it, during which they turned a profit on merch sales. With Film Sprout, Boyle seeks out communities interested in the topics dealt with by a particular film, even if they do not traditionally program films. She was able to place Pray the Devil Back To Hell, a film about the women-driven peace movement in Liberia, on 500 screens by appealing to feminist groups, human rights organizations, and Liberian community centers across the country. "You need to be honest about your audience," she said, cautioning against Hollywood-style grabs for the widest possible audience. Others on the panel echoed her sentiment. Sklar pointed out that "having access to an audience doesn't mean it's the right one." Abramowitz mentioned that he prefers working with small docs because the audience is so "easily defined."

That sentiment suggests the weakness inherent to this model. It is perhaps outside of the purview of this weekend's panel, but I would have a liked a little more discussion about how we can sustain a wider public conversation around non-fiction films. Targeted distribution like Film Sprout's is an exciting way to bring films to people already interested in them, or in the issues they raise, but they do not contribute to a larger cultural dialogue. Documentary has never had a mass audience, but there used to be a coalition that could keep an eye on the genre's full spectrum, from social issue films to more essayistic or poetic projects. It is hard to understand why you would make a film if the only people who are going to see it are the ones already crouched in your bunker.

While these sorts of live events and targeted screenings might bring in local news coverage, Sklar was quick to note that they make it no easier to get actual reviews. With fewer critics on staff at smaller papers, opening anywhere other than New York or LA means that a film might screen for months before any critical pieces appear. Dennis Lim seemed a little baffled as to why he was invited, but he provided a valuable perspective from the other end of the distribution chain. He would like nothing more, he said, than to highlight undistributed and overlooked films in festival coverage, or even standalone pieces, but  news outlets are only interested in writing that pertains to the "newsworthy," in other words films that have already garnered a substantial amount of attention.

The panel provided a broad overview of the distribution options available to small filmmakers without shying away from specifics. Although the outlook may appear bleak to those hoping to sustain a career in independent documentary production, the seven panelists agreed it was easier than ever to get a film in front of attentive eyeballs. This is, however, of primary benefit to audiences -- an economically and geographically wider segment of the population now has access to these films. But it can start to sound an awful lot like the smug crowing one used to hear about the democratization of the music industry. Without a viable means for artists to live off their work, the creation of art is left to the independently wealthy. I hope that as the distribution tactics discussed this afternoon continue to evolve, they create as much room for the production of work as they have for its consumption.

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Friday, February 05, 2010

Stranger Than Fiction - A Night with Ross McElwee - Feb. 2, 2010

A Night with Ross McElwee
“Charleen” and “Backyard”
February 2, 2010
New York, NY

Ross McElwee, perhaps most noted for his films “Sherman’s March,” “Time Indefinite,” and “Bright Leaves” presented two lesser-seen gems Tuesday night during Stranger Than Fiction – “Charleen” (starring the outspoken Southern poetry teacher Charleen who later appears again in “Sherman’s March”) and “Backyard” (McElwee’s first attempt at an autobiographical documentary focusing on his family’s home in the South). Thom Powers led a Q&A with McElwee after each film screened, and beforehand noted that the evening’s presentation was dedicated in the memory of award-winning documentary editor Karen Schmeer, who had been killed in a hit-and-run car accident last week in New York’s Upper West Side.

“Charleen” Q&A

Powers noted that “Charleen” was a student project of McElwee’s when he was attending graduate school at MIT in the 1970s. Among McElwee’s teacher were documentary veterans Richard Leacock (“Primary”) and Ed Pincus (“Diaries”). With all that inspiration, what gave him the courage to make films about people who aren’t well known, Powers asked? McElwee said that Leacock believed in the first part of his career that one should make films about people who achieved a lot in their lives such as John F. Kennedy. McElwee and other of his contemporaries thought that one can find the same sort of heroicism in everyday life and those people have to have some sort of “star” quality, “which Charleen clearly has, even in a crudely shot piece that I did for my senior thesis at MIT. You can still see that she somehow takes over the film in a way.” Regarding the MIT program, it was highly unstructured and was just in its infancy when he went there. They were given sync sound cameras. “Charleen” in particular was shot in 16mm, and he also used a Nagra tape recorder. He recalls it being terrifying and liberating, giving him the freedom to do very unstructured film.

Having finished “Charleen,” what was his takeaway from the experience and what did he do between making this film and “Backyard,” Powers asked? McElwee said the two films were shot very close together within a year, but he didn’t have the money to process the print. The sync sound camera rig was the most expensive thing. In between “Charleen” and “Backyard,” he and Michel Negroponte shot a film called “Space Coast.” He was very pleased that he made “Charleen,” which was a learning film for him, but on a more profound level, this kind of filmmaking where he was always behind the camera asking other people to tell their stories, made him a little uncomfortable, so he decided largely through Ed Pincus’s example, doing autobiographies was a positive direction to go in, even though he was a little reticent to do it then. More to the point, there were possibilities that he hadn’t seen before with subjective writing an almost fictional shape to nonfiction. Journalistic writing to could possibly be applied to cinema vérité footage. Also, he cut his crew down from two to one, because it allowed a kind of intimacy. “Charleen” was a film he loved making, but he was still working out ideas of how he should shape his films. “Backyard” was a sketch for what would become a style he was more comfortable with and which he invested his artistic inclinations in his filmmaking, which is exemplified in “Sherman’s March.”

Lastly, Powers asked if Charleen is still alive today. McElwee said she’s “very much alive and if you ask her that question, she’d hit you over the head.”

“Backyard” Q&A

Powers asked if McElwee’s father (a surgeon) ever accepted him as being a filmmaker? McElwee said he’s very grateful that his father came to the premiere of “Sherman’s March.” His father didn’t really understand what he was doing in the film, but when he heard people in the audience laughing, he started laughing and turned to him and whispered, “I never knew you were so funny.” After a while, his father realized he found a way to make films that suited him and also could find an audience at least on a small scale.

In “Sherman’s March,” McElwee appears on screen fumbling in the weeds, almost like a Buster Keaton-type character. How much of that was he consciously cultivating an on-screen persona, Powers asked? McElwee said he was cultivating an on-screen persona of a doofus fellow who’s trying to execute one task, but constantly being distracted, which in a way is him.

Powers said when “Sherman’s March” came out, the idea of being a one-man band was more uncommon than it is today. People have talked about McElwee’s films as an observer walking through life and he actually cares a lot about formal qualities of filmmaking, such as the role that light and shadow plays. McElwee said while those things are important to him, he’s not always on top of those technical aspects. In “Backyard,” he was carrying a huge Nagra recorder and a heavy 16mm camera and dealing with a microphone. While he wasn’t the only person to do this at the time, this approach to making films really placed demands on a filmmaker. He hoped that he could continue to be conscious about composition. For instance, in the scene in “Backyard” where his father hands him a measuring tape in the backyard to put up the volleyball net, he has to deal with multiple elements from making sure the sound is recording to having the correct exposure on the camera while also composing the shot. He said he finally found the right composition towards the end of the shot with the lawnmower in the background and the microphone in the foreground. While this is important to him, it’s a compromise when you elect to do a film on your own.

Powers said there seemed to be a novelty to the moment during the scene in “Backyard” where the busboys are working in the kitchen at the country club and they speak to the fact the camera is there. How much has changes since then? McElwee said the world has changed tremendously. You have to get permissions and be more conscious of whatever’s being shot, as it can end up on YouTube. There was none of that back then. People were so relaxed. He said he thinks it’s going to continue to be hard for people to go into public spaces to make documentaries now compared to the freedom he enjoyed in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

While he lives in the North, the South seems to be the place McElwee always continues to go to in his films. When he goes back to the South, does he feel like a Southerner or Northerner, Powers asked? McElwee said while he’s made his home in the North where he’s supported by his teaching gig and has also raised money from various sources such as WGBH in Boston, there’s part of him that has a strong connection to the South. He loves going back there and being with his family. In “Backyard,” he said you could especially see some of the ambivalence he had toward the way things were down there. That bothered him for a while, and had a lot to do with his decisions to make his life in the North, but things aren’t like that anymore, as things have loosened up for racial relationships. “I think you gain some perspective on where you came from when you go to a different place,” he said.

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