Saturday, September 27, 2008
Following is the text for Ted Hope's keynote address at the Film Independent Filmmaker Forum on September 27, 2008. Thanks to Ted for allowing us to reprint his speech.
A THOUSAND PHOENIX RISING
How The New Truly Free Filmmaking Community Will Rise From Indie’s Ashes
I can’t talk about the “crisis” of the indie film industry. There is no crisis. The country is in crisis. The economy is in crisis. We, the filmmakers, aren’t in crisis.
The business is changing, but for us –us who are called Indie Filmmakers -- that’s good that the business is changing. Filmmaking is an incredible privilidge and we need to accept it as such – and accept the full responsibility that comes with that priviledge.
The proclamations of Indie Film’s demise are grossly exaggerated. How can there be a “Death Of Indie” when Indie -- real Indie, True Indie -- has yet to even live?
Yes, there’s a profound paradigm shift, and that shift is the coming of true independence. The hope of this new independence is being threatened even before it has arrived. Are we going to fight for our independence and can we even shoulder the responsibility that independence requires? That is: will we ban together and work for our communal needs? Are we ready to leave dreams of stardom and wealth behind us?
When someone says “Indie is dead”, they are talking about the state of the Indie Film Business, as opposed to what are actually the films themselves. They can say “The sky is falling” because for the last fifteen years, the existing power base in the film industry has focused on films fit for the existing business model, as opposed to ever truly concentrating on creating a business model for the films that filmmakers want to make.
This is where we are right now: on the verge of a TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE, one that is driven by both the creators and the audiences, pulled down by the audience and not pushed onto them by those that control the apparatus and the supply. We now have the power and the tool for something different, but will we fight to preserve the internet, the tool that offers us our new freedom? Can we banish the the dream of golden distribution deals, and move away from asking others to distribute and market it for us? Can we accept that being a filmmaker means taking responsibility for your films, the primary responsibility, all the way through the process? That is independence and that is freedom
Indie, True Indie, is in its infancy. The popular term “Indie”is a distortion, growing out of our communal laziness and complacency – our willingness to be marketed blandly and not specifically. Our culture is vast and diverse, and we need to celebrate these differences, not diminish them. It’s time to put that term “Indie” to rest.
Independence is within our reach, but we but we have to do what we have never done before: we have to choose.
It’s a lot like the Presidential election. And it’s also a lot like the way psychotherapy works: we have to ask ourselves if the pain we are experiencing presently is enough to motivate us to overcome the fear inherent in change itself.
We have to change our behavior and make that choice. We have to choose the type of culture we want. We have to choose the type of films we want available to us. We have to choose whether the internet is ours or the corporations. We have to choose whether we decide for ourselves whether a film is worthwhile or whether we let those same corporations decide. We have to choose who are audiences are and how we are to reach them. We have to choose how we can all best contribute to this new system. And as we act on those choices, we have to get others to make a choice too.
For the last fifteen years our Community has made huge strides at demystifying the production process and providing access to the financing and distribution gatekeepers. Some call this democratization, but it is not. This demystification of production was a great first step, but it is not the whole shebang. In some ways, understanding the great behemoth that is production is also a distraction. It has distracted us from making really good films. And as it has distracted us from gaining the knowledge and seizing the power that is available to us. We have learned how to make films and how to bring them to market. We now have to demystify how to market and distribute films, and to do it in a way truly suited to the films we are making and desire to make.
Don’t get me wrong the last fifteen years have been great. The Indie Period – as I suspect history will call it --- has brought us a far more diverse array of films than we had previously. It got better; we got more – but that is still not freedom. We are still in a damn similar place to the way it was back when cinema was invented 100 years ago. And it’s time we moved to a new term, to the period of a Truly Free Film Culture.
If we want the freedom to tell the stories we want to tell, we all have to start to contribute to build the infrastructure that can support them. We need to step back from the glamour of making all these films, and instead help each other build the links, articulate the message, make the commitments, that will turn us truly into a Truly Free Film community. We have to stop making so many films.
The work before us is a major readjustment that will require many sacrifices. We must redesign the business structure for what the films actually are. We have to recognize that a Truly Free Film Culture is quite different from Studio Films and even different from the prestige film that the specialized distributors make. But look at what we gain: we will stop self-censoring our work to fit a business model that was appropriated from Hollywood and their mass market films to begin with. We will reach out to the audiences that are hungry for something new, for something truthful, for something about the world they experience, for something that is as complex as the emotions they feel. We can let them guide us because for the first time we can have real access and contact with them.
Presently, we are divided and conquered by a system that preys upon our dreams of success, encouraging us to squander collective progress on false hopes on personal enrichment. We follow the herd and only lead reluctantly. If we want Truly Free Films we have to stop dreaming of wealth, and take the job of building the community and support system.
For the last decade and a half, we have been myopically focused on production. Using Sundance submissions as a barometer, our production ability has increased eight and half times over -- 850% -- from 400 to 3600 films in fifteen years.
C’mon! What are we doing? Wasting a tremendous amount of energy, talent, and brainpower – that much is clear. If the average budget of Sundance submissions is $500K, that means the aggregate production costs are $1.8 billion dollars a year. That’s a hell of a lot of money to lose annually. And you can bet the Indie World isn’t going to get a government bail out like Wall Street and the Banking Industry have.
We need to recognize the responsibility of telling unique stories in unique ways. We are frequently innovators and groundbreakers, but that brings additional responsibilities. Working at the intersection of art and commerce, requires consideration for those that come after us. It is our responsibility to do all within our power to deliver a positive financial return. If we lose money, it will be a lot harder for those that follow us. With a debt of $1.8 billion per annum you can bet it will be a lot harder for a lot of people. And it should be – but it didn’t need to be.
We don’t get better films or build audiences by picking up cameras. Despite this huge boom in production, the number of truly talented uniquely voiced auteurs produced annually remains unchanged. What’s happened instead is the infrastructure has rusted, the industry has failed to innovate, and we are standing on a precipice begging the giant to banish us into oblivion.
There is a silver lining too this dark cloud of over production that they like to call The Glut. As a young man I never found peace until I moved to New York City; the calm I found in New York, is explained by a line of Woody Allen’s: “in New York, you always know what you are missing”. What’s great about a surplus of options – and we have that now, and not just from movies, but from the web, from books, from shows – what’s great is that you have to make a choice. You have to commit. And you have to commit in advance.
The business model of the current entertainment industry is predicated on consumers not making choices but acting on impulses. Choice comes from research, from knowledge, and from tastes. Speak to someone from Netflix, and they will tell you that the longer someone is a member, the more their tastes move to auteurs, to quality film. Once we all wake up and realize that with films, as frankly with everything, we have to be thoughtful. We have to make it a choice, a choice for, and not an impulse.
We are now in a cultural war and not just the red state/blue state, participate vs. obey kind, not just the kind of cultural war that politicians seem to want to break this country down to. We are in a culture war in terms of what we get to see, enjoy and make. The Lovers Of Cinema have been losing this war because the Makers have invested in a dream of Prince Charming, content to have him sweep down, pick us up and sing that rags to riches refrain even if it comes but once a year to one lucky filmmaker out of 3,600.
So what is this TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE I am proposing? It is one that utilizes first and foremost the remarkable tool that is The Internet. It is the internet that transforms the culture business from a business that is based around limited supply and the rule of gatekeepers to a business that around the fulfillment of all audience desire, and not just the desire of mass audiences, but also of the niches.
We have never had this sort opportunity before and the great tragedy is that just as we are learning what it means, forces are vying to take it away from us. The principal that all information, all creators, all audiences should be treated equally within the structure that is the internet is popularly referred to as Net Neutrality. The Telecos, the Cable Companies, and their great ally, the Hollywood Motion Picture Studios and the MPAA are now trying to end that equality. And with it you will lose the opportunity to be TRULY FREE FILMMAKERS. But they are not going to succeed because we are going to ban together and organize, we are going to save the internet, and keep equal access for all.
A TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE will respect the audience’s needs and desires as much as it currently respects the filmmakers. A TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE recognizes film as a dialogue and recognizes that a dialogue requires a community. Participants in a TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE work to participate in that community, work to get others to participate in that community. We work to get others to make a choice, to make a choice about what they want to do, what they want to see. We all become curators. We all promote the films we love. We reach out and mobilize others to vote with their feet, vote with their eyes, and vote with their dollars, to not act on impulses, but on knowledge and experience.
A TRULY FREE FILMMAKER -- be they producer or director -- recognizes their responsibility is not just to find a good script, not just to find a good cast, a good package. A TRULY FREE FILMMAKER recognizes that they must do more than find the funding, and even more than justifying that funding. The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER now recognizes their responsibility to also find the audience, grow the audience, expand the audience, and then also to move the audience, not just emotionally, but also literally: to move them onwards further to other things. Whether it is by direct contact, email blasts, or blogging, whatever it is, express what you want our culture to be.
The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER also recognizes that knowledge is power, and not ownership. The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER recognizes that others, as many others as possible, sharing in that knowledge will make everything better: the films, the apparatus, the business, and the just plain pleasure of participating. We are walking into new territory and we best map it out together.
The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER is no longer bound to just the 5 or 6 reel length. The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER is no longer bound to projection as the primary audience platform and is not stuck on the one film one theater one week type of release. The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER recognizes that just because there is no user term, no audience term, no consumer term for the cohesive cross-platform immersive experience, does not mean that we don’t want that. A child understands that when you say “Pokemon” you mean not just the films, or tv shows, but also the cards, the games, the figures, the books. And a child understands that when you say “Brand Management” or “Franchise” you are just looking for ways to separate you from your wallet. We need to define that term to help the audience recognize what it is they want, what it is that we now can create, own, and distribute independently.
It is this thing that we once called the Independent Community that is the sector that truly innovates. The lower cost of our creations allows for greater risks. It is what we used to call “indies” that have innovated on a technical level, on a content level, on a story telling approach, and it is this, the TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE that will innovate still further in the future of distribution.
With the passion that produces 3600 films a year, with just a portion of those resources, we can build a new infrastructure that opens up new audiences, new models, new revenue streams that can build a true alternative to the mainstream culture that has been force fed us for years. We are on the verge of truly opening up what can be told, how it is told, to whom it is told, and where is told. We can seize it, but it requires that we embrace the full responsibility of what independence means.
Independence requires knowing your film inside and out. Knowing not just what you are choosing to do, but what you have chosen not to do. Independence comes with knowing that you have fully considered all your options. It is knowing your audience, knowing how to reach them – and not abstractly, but concretely. Let’s make the next ten years about seizing our independence, killing “indie” film, and bringing forth a Truly Free Film Culture.
Ted Hope has produced over 50 independent films. He takes particular joy in first features, having produced 14 of them. His extensive list of credits includes, The Savages, American Splendor, 21 Grams, Lovely & Amazing, Human Nature, and Happiness.
Labels: Web Exclusives
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
My name is Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo and this is my guest post for the just-concluded Independent Film Week here in New York. Along with Zachary Lieberman (co-creator of The West Side), I spoke on Monday’s panel “Your Film Online,” and I wanted to expand here on some thoughts I shared during that panel — mostly in response to the prevailing wisdom that “the sky is falling” on independent film.
(This is also cross-posted on my own blog, No Film School).
I’m a New Face of independent film, not an Industry Veteran, so maybe it’s naiveté that leads me to have a very different outlook on distribution than The Film Department CEO Mark Gill, whose comments in June were still on everyone’s lips at IFW. After proclaiming, “As it relates to independent film, the sky really is falling,” Gill’s solution was for the indie film world to make “fewer, better” movies. Unfortunately, that’s not actually a productive piece of advice. After he spoke, did most of the audience pack it up and leave to pursue a different career? No. Everyone’s already trying to make the best film they can, and telling financiers or filmmakers to try harder isn’t going to materially affect the market.
While Gill obviously gave the right speech at the right time and touched nerves across the industry, if we take a step back from the shake-up currently going on, the future is very clearly brighter than ever for independent productions; we just need to embrace a number of fundamental changes in distribution. Ten years ago, to get someone to pay to see your indie film, you had to mobilize a local crowd in dozens of markets in order to get butts into art house seats. Now we’ve got a global interconnected audience of millions of online movie watchers and the answer is to make less movies? No. The audience is larger than ever; we don’t need to make fewer movies. The answer is we need to make it easier to watch movies.
The way independent film distribution currently works is self-defeating. Let’s say I’m reading the current issue of Filmmaker and I find out about a film that opened at Sundance. I want to see it… but I can’t. The film showed at the festival, a distributor bought the rights to it, and now it won’t come to a theater for six to nine months and won’t be on DVD for a full year. Here I am with my interest piqued, the title of the film foremost in my head, but in order for that movie to earn a dime from me — an interested, paying customer — they’re going to have to count on me remembering the film several months later. They have to count on me actually becoming aware of its release through an advertisement or a listing of showtimes during the theatrical window, they have to count on me being in town and having some free time during that brief period, they have to count on me being able to interest someone else in the film as well (like most people I prefer not to go to the theater alone), and on top of all of that, they have to count on me actually remembering the article I read nine months ago and connecting that to the title of the film currently listed on the marquee next to several other titles.
What kind of consumer product is intentionally made this elusive? In the above situation, if I do eventually realize I want to see the film, I’ll add it to my Netflix queue at position 336, which is not a great value proposition to the distributor or filmmaker. Even worse, after reading the Filmmaker article, I might never hear about the film again, and, like so many other movies I was interested in at one point, it might fall through the cracks and I’ll never see (or pay for) it.
It doesn’t make sense: if your film has someone’s interest piqued, they need to be able to plunk down a few bucks and watch it NOW. Not tomorrow, not next month, certainly not a full year from now.
The way I see it, there are two main problems with distribution as it stands today: one, release windows, and two, online experience.
In terms of release windows, I understand the arguments behind finding an audience and building hype. But the marketing costs that a movie incurs in order to achieve some sort of penetration into the collective cultural conscience is not befitting of an indie film. Besides, in the indie world, advance hype for something that hasn’t come out yet is more expensive and less effective than a simple recommendation from a friend for something that’s currently available. Regardless, if you’re going to spend money building an audience for a film, why not build that audience while the film is actually available for purchase instead of during an “advertising-only” window?
The supporters of staggered theatrical windows and expensive ad campaigns have a reason to want to stick to their guns: their jobs depend on it. Distributors are the ones whose companies are in trouble, so they’re the ones most likely to cry apocalypse. On Wednesday’s panel “The State of Independent Distribution,” Scott Kirsner of Cinematech asked Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard about the wisdom of continuing to use release windows in the face of piracy. Why not make a film available for paying customers if it’s already available for free via illicit channels? Bernard’s response: “Because people are used to windows.” Well, people were used to snail mail before e-mail came along, and most of us have managed to adapt (with the exception of a certain Presidential candidate). I doubt many of us would want to go back to waiting three days for cross-country written communication, just as one day I doubt any of us will want to go back to waiting for film reels to be shipped across the country for an exclusive theatrical window.
If release windows are completely done away with and we put every film online day-and-date, wouldn’t that put many theaters out of business? Probably, but for most major releases nowadays, the film is already online day-and-date. It’s on Bittorrent, it’s on Kazaa or whatever file-sharing service they use on college campuses these days, it’s available via any number of illicit online distribution channels. These pirated copies are popular for two main reasons: price (free!) and convenience (now!). It’s hard to beat the pirates on the price issue, but as it stands, the illegal option is also more convenient than the legit option, and that’s a problem. Not only is it more convenient, but it’s also often of higher quality: if you look around on Bittorrent, the community cares deeply about the quality of the films they’re downloading; they rip a movie from an HDTV broadcast if possible, they make it available with subtitles in several different languages, and in general a downloader can watch a better quality movie for free than if they actually ponied up the cash to watch it through an authorized download or streaming service. Ultimately, when piracy is offering a more convenient, higher-quality experience in addition to a cheaper one, we’re failing at digital distribution.
There are existing online distribution options — including nascent day-and-date release plans like IFC’s VOD program — but the currently available choices offer limited viewing options and no sense of ownership. Using myself as an example, at home I have several legal means to watch movies online: one is my Netflix subscription, with its Watch Instantly feature, but it offers an extremely limited selection (less than 10% of Netflix’s titles are available to watch online), and it doesn’t work at all on my Mac. So I turn to iTunes, Amazon, or my Playstation, all of which tout online video stores; each has a different catalog, however, so you never know if the content you’re looking for will be available on that particular store. Additionally, each store has a different pricing structure and different viewing limitations thanks to their Digital Rights Management. Only my Playstation is hooked up to my TV, so content bought at Amazon or iTunes is only viewable on my laptop. Whereas if I download a movie illegally I can play it on the screen of my choice, if I “buy” a movie from an online store the DRM often won’t let me transfer the film to other devices. And limited transferability is only part of the problem with DRM; mainly, the issue is the consumer’s ephemeral ownership of a product they paid real money for. I don’t have any faith that a movie I purchase online today will be watchable three years from now; I might have an entirely new computer that it won’t transfer to, or I might forget the password to an account I have to “refresh” my licenses with. Imagine if you bought a DVD at the store and it expired after a few days unless you logged into a server; no one would buy such a disc. They actually tried that with DIVX ten years ago… and no one bought it. Yet DRM today is essentially the same as the failed DIVX experiment.
After years of hemorrhaging money, the music industry is finally offering decent options for online music consumption: iTunes and Amazon (and Rhapsody, I should note, since I currently work there) are finally selling MP3s, which are DRM-free and thus work on any device. That sounds like actual ownership. That sounds like an experience finally equal to that of… what’s already available online via pirated means, for free.
And that’s where watching movies online becomes viable. If I want to buy something, give it to me free of restrictions and I’ll gladly pay money for it and start building a library. Indeed, if people are buying millions of unprotected MP3s from online stores — instead of just one person on the planet buying the album and emailing the files to everyone — I’m pretty sure consumers will buy a DRM-free movie, load it onto any device they own, and enjoy it however they want. They’re much less likely to email around a 2GB movie file than a 4MB music file anyway. As a final point, does anyone think that selling a protected file to the paying customer is going to prevent piracy when there are a million unprotected, pirated copies of that same song or movie already available online? All DRM does is screw the person who actually paid for it.
Consumers don’t expect to pay as much for a digital file as they would for a physical product that was manufactured and shipped across the country, and rightfully so. But as filmmakers we’ll sell a whole lot more copies of our movie at a lower price point, and we’ll end up making more money this way anyway (the same thing happened with DVD when it undercut the price point of rental tapes — the drastic increase in number of units sold more than outweighed the drop in per-unit revenue). Today, a $20 DVD nets the filmmaker how much after the physical production, distribution, and company overhead? $2? Environmentally it’s not a great time to be shrinkwrapping a disc and freighting it all around the country, anyway. If we sell it through an online store for $10 we’ll keep significantly more than $2 of that sale; if we sell it on our own site, we’ll keep the whole $10.
And that’s another point about the bright future of indie film: direct sales. Gary Hustwit (dir., Helvetica) talked on Wednesday’s panel “The Digital Download” about the revenue streams he was able to generate directly from fans; when asked how much they added up to, he tellingly responded, “a lot.” And thus ended the panel. Some of these revenue streams were just rounded up by Peter Broderick in a two-part post at IndieWire, “Welcome to the New World of distribution” (part 1, part 2). As with countless business innovations over the years, cutting out the middleman, or at least reducing his role, is of paramount importance for independent productions. Getting back to Gill’s speech, he predicted, “It will feel like we just survived a medieval plague. The carnage and the stench will be overwhelming.” He’s right, but the carcasses he speaks of will be the bodies of distribution companies and theater owners, not filmmakers.
The future of independent film is instant, digital gratification. As filmmakers, we’ve already brought down production costs down by shooting digitally; now we need distribution costs brought down by distributing digitally as well. Cut out the P&A — the 35mm blowup, the trucks across the country, the bloated ad campaign — and put our films in digital theaters and online, simultaneously. Make our films available anytime, anywhere: on our computers, on our iPhones, iPods, Playstations, TVs, etc. — all with the guarantee that if you buy it, it’s DRM-free. People will pay for something if they actually own what they’re paying for. In addition to hundreds of digital theater screens, we also now have hundreds of millions of computers with internet connections as our venues. That’s a lot of screens. I’m pretty sure the sky is not falling.
Labels: Web Exclusives
Friday, September 19, 2008
The four-to-five week run of New York Film Festival screenings and press conferences each fall functions as something of an annual end-of-summer camp for a certain caste of mostly local film journalists. The series of videos shot, directed, edited by and usually starring Jamie Stuart which document this ritual should be, then, something of a camp yearbook... except that over the years Stuart has only rarely seemed interested in directly documenting the festival itself. He uses the experience of the NYFF — its films, visiting filmmakers both relatively obscure (Hany Abu-Assad, Hong Sang-soo) and unquestionably famous (Warren Beatty, Nicole Kidman), his commute, his permanent fatigue, Lincoln Center and its inhabitants, the daily breakfast provided by the Film Society, his daily lunch procured from Burger King — as raw material for a series of personal mediations on a month spent in the highbrow cinema dunk tank.
Stuart first documented the NYFF on video in 2004. Certain tropes were established early on, particularly point-of-view shooting and Stuart’s noir-ish voiceover (typical line: "I grabbed a cup of pick-me-up, then hunkered down for the movie”). As festival exhaustion set in, Stuart was increasingly taunted by b&w cartoon cutouts, first masculine and mockingly raising middle fingers, and then — after Stuart declared The World a “masterpiece” — tiny, flying Olsen Twins. But aside from occasional diversions into unexplained surrealism, these early pieces were pretty straightforward critical diaries. Stuart’s tongue only seemed to be slightly in cheek, best evidenced when Notre Musique prompts him to offer Jean-Luc Godard the following advice: "Quit criticizing other successful, modern filmmakers, and just concentrate on making a successful film of your own. Jesus."
When NYFF43 rolled around, Stuart dropped both the diary format and the direct critique. The first NYFF43 episode centers on audience member Nobuhiro Hosoki. In dispassionate voiceover, Stuart tells us that Hosoki admires George Clooney (at the festival representing Good Night, and Good Luck) because he “has sexual intercourse with women so exclusive no average human has the opportunity to ever come in contact with them in their lifetime." Once Clooney takes the stage, Stuart tells us, "a gradual feeling of elation swept over" Hosoki, We watch him snap photos until a wide smile spreads across his face. With the next cut, we see Hosoki levitating at the top of the Walter Reade, as if the mere sight of Clooney functions as a fizzy lifting agent. In the next episode, a Philip Seymour Hoffman super fan also finds himself floating, this time above the Capote press conference. "How this bizarre experience had changed them, nobody could tell,” Stuart intones, after his floating boys have returned to Earth.
TOP OF PAGE: JAMIE STUART'S NYFF45 (PART TWO). ABOVE: NYFF42 #6. PHOTOS COURTESY OF JAMIE STUART.
During the NYFF44 series, Stuart would complain about the gulf between the practical hassle of covering a film festival and the glamour of it presumed by "average" ticket buyers — he calls it "a gaping chasm between the fantasy screen, starpower, and my reality." And yet, somewhere in between cynicism and blind celebrity adulation, there's an intimacy to the NYFF press screenings that can, very occasionally, turn a simple screening of a great film or an otherwise rote professional encounter with an admired celebrity into something like a transformative experience.
NYFF44 brought Stuart back to Stuart. In the first episode he announces that these videos will be about the process of putting these videos together. He warns that he won’t get too personal — "Ain't showing my johnson like Swanberg," he promises — but the NYFF44 series is exhibitionist in its own way. That year’s batch is so much about the minutia of Stuart’s process — from his struggle to secure royalty-free score music to the sexual fantasies about Penelope Cruz that get him through the press conference for a subpar Almodovar film — that the videos themselves play best as a provocation to anyone looking for traditional entertainment coverage.
In 2007, Stuart took a huge conceptual and creative leap forward. Though still attending the press conferences and pulling them into a narrative via his voiceover — and still commenting on his own production foibles — for the first time Stuart enjoyed one-on-one access to filmmakers like Wes Anderson and John Landis, and used this footage to play with notions of public and private within the layered false intimacies of both the press conference and the publicist-vetted “alone time.” Here Stuart takes his work home with him once again — in the form of an infestation of cartoon cockroaches with the face of Nicole Kidman in his apartment. The NYFF45 series seems less self-referential — even when Stuart is literally referencing himself — and more about the strange, mind-bending nature of encountering famous people in semi-intimate settings.
The NYFF45 series may be more elegant and creatively exciting than the clips that came just a year before, but the crude self-deconstruction of the earlier series is necessary to deliver the thesis that ties the whole project together. If traditional videotaped entertainment coverage tries to foster the illusion that the end user of an entertainment product has been invited to an intimate conversation with a filmmaker or star, Stuart's NYFF coverage constantly reminds us that there is an architect behind that fake conversation. It takes the all-seeing but allegedly impartial press conference eye and restores to it the intellectual agency and emotional response of the interested but skeptical viewer. Stuart’s NYFF dispatches are not quite filmmaking, not quite video blogging and not quite journalism, but transmissions from one brain inside the press hive, without phony objectivity, without bought-and-paid-for favor, without filters.
Stuart's coverage of this year's New York Film Festival for Filmmaker begins next week.
Labels: Web Exclusives
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
New York-based film critic Godfrey Cheshire was attending a Christmas gathering with his family in North Carolina when he received some surprising news from his cousin Charlie. Midway Plantation, the ancestral home of their extended family since the 1840s, was to be transplanted to a new location. In the name of progress, the city of Raleigh was expanding a highway and strip malls. If the plantation house and its surrounding buildings were not moved, the deterioration of the surrounding environment would be so drastic, future generations would not want to live there.
Charlie’s decision sparked controversy within the family, with conflicted attitudes about whether the traditions associated with the southern plantation is found in the land itself, or the collective history within the buildings. This stirred up memories within Cheshire of his childhood, and of the legends and stories associated with the place. As a critic, Cheshire has always been interested in looking at the context of movies and what they mean. With his film Moving Midway, he is also creating an essay about our perception of the southern plantation, weaving his way through mythologies and historical realities, the ideas inherited from popular culture and propaganda, and actual accounts from within his family and beyond.
Cheshire’s search inevitably led to the institution of slavery at Midway, and the descendents of those slaves. He began a collaboration and partnership with a professor of African-American studies at NYU named Robert Hinton, whose grandfather was born a slave on the plantation. Through their dialogue, sometimes spirited and frequently illuminating, Cheshire and Hinton look at the plantation house from a racial perspective, and its long-term effects on society, but also from a personal one as Cheshire meets his African-American relatives for the first time who have also traced their roots back to his family.
At one point, Cheshire had seven camera crews at work documenting the physical move of Midway Plantation as it is lifted off of its foundations and dragged by truck across a rugged landscape. The epic nature of this undertaking matches the historical and individual journey Cheshire takes us through. Regarding the film now, it seems almost strange to consider its auspicious beginnings, where he was hoping to create a document for his family, and it blossomed into so much more.
First Run Features opens the film this weekend.
TOP OF PAGE: A SCENE FROM MOVING MIDWAY. PHOTO BY: LISSA GOTWALS. ABOVE: MOVING MIDWAY DIRECTOR GODFREY CHESHIRE. PHOTO BY: J.D. WHITMIRE.
FILMMAKER: It seems like Moving Midway started out as a home movie, and it expanded into a larger project.
CHESHIRE: When my cousin Charlie Silver told me at Christmas of 2002 that he was thinking about moving Midway Plantation, our family’s ancestral home, I was shocked. The place [contained] generations of my family’s collective identity, so the idea of digging up this building and hauling it somewhere else was a blow. I had long thought this plantation was worthy of being filmed, and obviously now was the time it had to be done. I thought that I could just get a digital camera, interview family members and, as you say, make a home movie. The change happened in New York when I was asking friends, “What sort of camera should I get?” When I told them what it was for, they responded, “Gosh, that’s such a great subject. You ought to make a real movie about that.” I started to wonder what a “real movie” meant.
FILMMAKER: It sounds like the scale of the project, which at one point involved seven camera crews documenting the actual moving of Midway, matches the scale of your idea. There are southern ties to the land that are challenged when the plantation house is moved, as it is literally being uprooted.
CHESHIRE: There’s a question at the heart of this film that I didn’t verbalize, but is implicit to anyone who sees it, which is, “What is the plantation? Is it the land, or is it the buildings?” That’s the emotional conflict the family went through. Charles’s decision was based on his idea that the plantation is the building our ancestors built, that we grew up in. Others feel like there is an argument to be made, or at least very strong feelings, attached to the idea that the plantation is really the land and you can’t transplant the buildings and have it be the same place. There are complicated feelings around this, because the land is a part of southern identity. Your own roots literally go down into this dirt and soil that your ancestors have been living on for generations.
FILMMAKER: When most people think of the mythology of the plantation, it’s tied in with ideas we’ve received from popular culture like Gone With The Wind.
CHESHIRE: When I started my research, I was shocked by the lack of academic work that has been done. I could only find one book in all my research that was titled The Southern Plantation by Francis Pendleton Gaines. It was written in 1924, fifteen years before Gone With The Wind, and can be ordered online. This book is actually not about Southern plantations but about the mythology of the plantation up until that point.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the first novels that romanticized the plantation appeared in the 1830s, at the same time as significant abolitionist propaganda campaigns. In the late 19th Century, you had a population boom and very rapid industrialization in the northeast. All of these printing presses were trying to satisfy a voracious need for content, and people preferred a kind of fantasy literature. This spawned a couple of prominent genres, one being the western and the other being the southern romance, basically saying these were noble cavaliers trying to defend their besieged way of life. It’s ironic that the north, which had recently defeated the south, embraced this romantic myth so completely, and not only in the romantic literature of the cheap popular press. The myth permeated virtually all of American popular culture from visual arts to music to theater to literature to just about anything you can name.
FILMMAKER: But our own memories of childhood are romanticized as well, and you spent significant parts of your childhood at Midway Plantation.
CHESHIRE: I think everybody romanticizes childhood. But as you grow older, without denying the nostalgia, [one has to] keep it in perspective, see where your feelings come from and deal with them realistically if you can. Certainly, I was aware going into this that part of my impetus were my feelings about the plantation based on my childhood experiences. To me, it was this wonderful escape from humdrum daily suburban life in Raleigh, that on weekends as a child I was able to take a trip back to another century. My great-great aunt had tried to keep things from changing since the Civil War. There was no heat in the house, and my grandmother would wake up and make fires. My profound fascination with history may have started there, based on the stories I heard and these great imaginings of epics, heroes and distant lands.
FILMMAKER: Slavery ties into our collective idea of the southern plantation. When you started this project, how did you consider incorporating this into the film?
CHESHIRE: I initially planned to have the discussion of slavery be part of the essay I was writing within the film, and connect it to my family’s memory of slavery. There were stories that were passed down about individual slaves, [along with] attitudes and memories people had. Southerners have a lot of ideas that are not politically correct, which don’t make it into the public record. I wanted to record these without necessarily judging them too much. But I also wanted to deal with the way the plantation had evolved in the popular imagination going from this very early time when slavery was romanticized to being contradicted by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which became the best selling American novel of all time creating the dominant view that plantation owners must have been bad. Some of the propaganda suggested to northerners that slaves all hated where they lived, and the moment they had the chance they would slit their masters throats and run away, which was almost never the truth.
There was [another shift with] the publication of Roots, which registered an enormous impact on national attitudes about race. African-Americans developed a great interest in pursuing their genealogy. Up until that point, the dominant attitude was it is better to look forward than look back, and forget about those bad old days. Once Roots came along, there was a sudden, immense interest in re-exploring where they came from, including going back to the plantation roots and seeing what those were all about. All these things were forming the culminating arc I would tell in the essay part of the film.
FILMMAKER: That changed after you started shooting.
CHESHIRE: It became less of a historical third-person essay and much more of a first-person story of me rediscovering this relationship to slavery within my own family. Two significant events changed my approach. By chance, I met Dr. Robert Hinton, a historian who teaches African-American studies at New York University. He had the name of my mother’s family, the Hinton family, and his grandfather was born a slave at Midway Plantation. He had done extensive research, and told me the first time I met him that he had a premonition he would meet someone from our family. This gave both of us goose bumps, and he agreed right away to join me as my chief collaborator on the film. He later said that he had this idea that all the work he had done until that point was preparing him to work on this film, and he had a great deal of input on how we examined this question, as well as portraying it historically.
The second thing was that in early 2004 when we interviewed Charlie, he told us about being visited by a black man who said he was kin. I spent a long time unsuccessfully searching for the family of this man, who had passed away. Two years later, almost at the end of filming, Robert got an email from a Brooklyn middle school teacher named Al Hinton. He said his Internet research had convinced him that he was kin to me from Midway. We met him and his 96-year-old father Abraham, who has a memory going back to our common mixed-race ancestor born in 1848. This personal reconnecting with the black part of the family, which I didn’t even know I had, took over that part of the story. I feel very honored to have this relationship with them and feel grateful to them for being so generous and good-hearted throughout this journey we have taken together.
FILMMAKER: When you are doing a first person documentary, how do you separate yourself and your family and friends from being a part of this narrative construct?
CHESHIRE: If I had given it more thought, I might have been too hesitant. It was startling to get back to the editing room in New York, viewing my family as characters. I saw the editor react to these people he didn’t know at all, saying, “That’s really funny, that’s not so interesting, and that’s really fascinating.” I hadn’t really expected to be objectifying them in that way, but the more involved I became in the process, the more comfortable I became, while trying to preserve the idea of representing them in a way that was fond, understanding, and non-caricaturing.
As far as my own presence in the film, I’m basically the narrator and a very peripheral character, not a main one. The main characters of the film were always intended to be the family members who were most concerned with moving Midway, and the place itself. I wound up taking on a larger role when I ended up going to meet Al and his father Abraham and attended their family reunion in North Carolina. Meeting other members of the African-American part of the family, my “character” bridges the two sides of the family. I wasn’t so reticent about it once it started evolving in this organic way.
FILMMAKER: I am curious about the audience response to the film, since the impetus of the movie seems to be about creating a dialogue with them.
CHESHIRE: The film exists to challenge preconceived notions about the south and history that people have, and also get them to separate in their own minds what about plantations, which is just one aspect of the south, are things they know from history and what is known from popular culture. We need to continue looking at our attitudes about race in history based on this complex interpenetration of reality and myth. This film is an effort to throw a light on certain things that haven’t been discussed adequately until now, as far as I’m concerned. One of the things that has been most gratifying to me is it gets strong emotional reactions from people. People have told me they and their friends talked about the film for the rest of the evening, and the next day, and that they want to see it again. The fact that people are engaged by it or learned something and want to talk out the issues has been the most valuable part of this experience.
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