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Cheryl Strayed, and she is a Portland-based novelist. For the past couple of years she's also been Sugar, the pseudonymous advice columnist over at the Rumpus. As Sugar, Strayed has amassed a large and passionate fan base with her beautifully original column, "Dear Sugar." What's original about it? Well, like most original things, it's a mash-up of two things that, by themselves, aren't that original. The first is the personal advice column, which has been reinvented by everyone from "Dear Abby"'s Pauline Phillips (the pen name for the column's founding writer, Abigail Van Buren) to Dan Savage. The second is the memoir, the non-fiction genre that sits to the left of autobiography and which typically shapes some period of the author's life into personal narrative. Other people have probably done this before, but I can't think of anyone who has done it like Sugar. Her columns are long, in the thousands of words. (Their length is, just by itself, a form of compassion.) And the questions she chooses to answer are the Big Ones. Like, how can one become an artist when one is "sick with panic and cannot -- will not -- override my limitations, insecurities, jealousies and ineptitude.". Or, how can a father emerge from a "dark hell" after his son is killed? And, in the most recent, what should a woman with small children who calls herself "Despair Girl" and is locked in an unhappy marriage do when the only love she feels in her life is through an online fetish relationship?So last week Sugar came out. Her name is
Some of Sugar's columns don't feature personal stories from her life, but most of the best do. To answer Despair Girl, Sugar lays out a real stemwinder, a thrilling and cinematic account of a moment from her first marriage when, she admits, she was already "aching" to leave her husband. The couple is driving a borrowed SUV in winter, when the car hits ice, slides towards a ditch, and its wheels lift off the ground:
"I'll never forget the feeling of that - flying in the car - and also how long that moment was, though I'm sure it was over in a flash. In this strange span of time, I understood that I was probably going to die in something like five seconds and my feelings about that moved from so deeply sad to so deeply accepting so quickly that it's astonishing to remember it now. No! Please! Okay! is what I thought with breathless clarity. The other thing that happened in that glimmer of time between leaving the road and landing wherever we'd land was that neither my ex-husband nor I braced ourselves. Instead, we simultaneously reached to clutch each other with both of our hands and, together, in the same instant, shouted I LOVE YOU!"
Sugar and her husband survive the crash, suspended upside down by their seat belts in an overturned car. And rather than turn this tale into some kind of homily about eternal love, Sugar writes in the column about leaving that man two years later, the bumpy years of her second marriage, and ends without giving specific advice to her reader but, hopefully, having opened her mind to the possibilities of her life once she stops "careening."
What do I want you to take away from this, other than you should check her column? Two things. First, picking up the bi-weekly "Dear Sugar" from its original author, Steve Almond, Strayed committed to it, continues to write it for little or no pay, and now has a giant audience for her new memoir, Wild, which recounts her solo hike of the Pacific Coast Trail following the death of her mother. In part because of Sugar, Strayed has gotten a ton of press for the book, which doesn't come out until next month. Interviewed on the Other People podcast she laughs about how her Knopf publicists, who didn't really know about Sugar, are surprised by all the interest. We talk so much in the film world about community building, developing true fans and all that stuff, and here's a case study of someone who did this on an incredible level and with imagination and heart.
But the second thing is deeper, and it comes from something Strayed said on the podcast. She talks about how, while her audience is large, the epistolary nature of "Dear Sugar" means that, at its simplest level, she's writing to one person. And that her decision to use in the column stories from her own life was a deliberate one motivated by empathy for the reader. "Books have changed my life, and stories have been my greatest consolation in my own struggles," she says. "I believe in story, and I think a lot of times the problems we have in our lives have to do with the way we have told ourselves the story of ourselves... I presented stories from my own life as a way of going to a deeper place with the problem... Storytelling allows you to animate and inhabit the complexity of the emotion, the exploration of what's at stake and what's possible... Whenever I told a story about myself, it wasn't because I wanted to tell you a story about myself, it was that I thought this would be a way into the letter writer's quandary."
I find this idea of story as personal advice really interesting, and it makes a fascinating thought exercise when applied to our own scripts. I've never been great at marketing speak - I always find it a little reductive. What if, instead of assuming that demographics determine marketability - like, this actor and this story means that this group of people will like your movie -- you thought of your film as a letters to a single person? If your film is a personal one to you, what does your story give to them? Does it give them what they need? And do you have the self-knowledge to offer that? And even if you don't, if you're still working out issues for yourself, have you left enough space in your film for your viewer to find him or herself within it?
See you next week.
IFP CO-PRESENTS ONLINE SCREENING OF RETURN On the heels of its theatrical release earlier this month, IFP will be co-presenting with Focus World a special interactive screening of the feature film Return on Tuesday, February 28th - presented on Constellation, the online social movie theater platform. Following the movie, writer/director Liza Johnson will be hosting a Q&A, which will take place in Constellation's virtual movie theater platform, with Johnson live via webcam. Return was a selection of IFP's No Borders International Co-Production Market in 2008 and world premiered in the Directors Fortnight section of Cannes 2011. Linda Cardellini stars along with Michael Shannon and John Slattery in the story of a returning war vet who finds it difficult to settle back into the family life she left behind in her small hometown. Time Out New York's Joshua Rothkopf wrote that the film's "anxieties... are at the heart of the American experience for many. It's what indie filmmaking ought to be." FILMMAKER readers can receive a 25% discount for this screening with code "IFP." For more on this special screening, click here.
Hammer to Nail Review
The Forgiveness of Blood
An Interview with Charlotte director Jeff Kusama-Hinte
IFP Co-Presents Online Screening of Return
THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD By Tom Hall
The future of American independent filmmaking may not lie in America at all. In recent years, a number of filmmakers have turned their eyes away from the complexities of 21st century American life and toward the world beyond our national borders. The decision to engage another culture through filmmaking, to do the work to create a compelling and accurate (if fictional) representation of the lives of others, has come at a time when American culture seems to have deepened its inward gaze; with every push by artists seeking to give voice to the complexity of, say, Arab or Persian life (vital stories in the age of our engagements in the Middle East), there has been an apolitical pull among many filmmakers to put aside the divisive politics of our culture in favor of genre and/or personal filmmaking. Add to this the commercial challenges that continue to face most foreign language films and it becomes clear that when American filmmakers, and especially directors of fiction, take the plunge to tell stories from other cultures, their actions carry an extra, subversive power. read more THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD Since premiering at last year's Toronto Film Festival, Joshua Marston's The Forgiveness of Blood has been steadily lauded as a worthy follow-up to 2004's Maria Full of Grace. In our Spring issue, Scott Macaulay wrote that the film is a "depiction of small-town Armenian society (that) feels vividly naturalistic, just as its storytelling is inflected with the urgency of a smart, character-based thriller." In that same issue, Marston sat down for a two-way interview with Here director Braden King, and discussed the claustrophobic nature of the film, why he chose to shoot outside Hollywood, and what it was like working in Albania. Read the full interview online here. WANDERLUST The State and Stella alum David Wain has tracked an interesting career trajectory since his 2001 directorial debut, Wet Hot American Summer. While that bizarre summer camp excursion is now regarded as something of a cult classic, Wain's followups (The Ten, Role Models) have gravitated more and more towards the commercial. Wanderlust, Wain's latest, stars Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston as an unemployed Manhattan couple who decide to move to a New Age-y commune and practice free love. It remains to be seen where on Wain's career spectrum Wanderlust will fall, but considering the film's off-beat premise, mixed with the fact that Wain has been talking up a possible Wet Hot sequel lately, it could turn out to be a strange surprise. This week on the blog, Scott Macaulay sings the praises of Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky's Francine (pictured left), Malika Zouhali-Worral and Katy Fairfax Wright check in from the Berlin premiere of their award-winning documentary Call Me Kuchu, and Howard Feinstein offers a review of Bosnian war drama Circkus Columbia.
To read more posts from our blog, click here.
AN INTERVIEW WITH CHARLOTTE DIRECTOR JEFF KUSAMA-HINTE By Scott Macaulay
We are filmmakers. We are artisans. Or so we forget. With filmmaking so often abstracted from the actual work of making a film, so enmeshed in conversations about new models and plans and strategies, we sometimes lose touch with what should be the main reason we make movies in the first place: to take pride in works of art made beautifully and with love. read more
AFI/Discovery Channel SILVER DOCS
Regular Deadline: February 24
Late Deadline: March 9
WAB Deadline: March 16
Festival Dates: June 18 - 24
Los Angeles Film Festival
Final Deadline: February 23
WAB Deadline: March 2
Festival Dates: June 14 - 24
Montclair Film Festival
Late Deadline: February 24
WAB Deadline: March 2
Festival Dates: May 1 - 6