Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Independent Film Coolness: Diversity within a Niche

While independent film is diverse, so are its individual niches, including one that’s compelled me for a long time. 

Our first outsider cinema, African-American film already had a long history before I came to it in the early 1990s.  Fresh out of college and living in Brooklyn, I got interested in Spike Lee’s films, especially Do the Right Thing.  It grabbed me not only as a semi-hip film geek, but also as a young white resident of a dodgy downtown Brooklyn neighborhood.  I loved how the film was crafted, how it dealt bluntly with social power and perception, and how it so authentically portrayed New York sensibilities in a neighborhood so close to my own.  

Another early moment in my connection to this niche involved film posters.  In the mid-90s, I gave MoMA gallery talks on African-American film posters from the 1920s to 1950s.  This plugged me into the rich history of black independent film as well as how blackness was portrayed attractively and with diversity in public during the era of Jim Crow discrimination.  Black athletes, musicians, lovers, heroes, villains, comedians, ministers, families, even cowboys.  To my surprise, when I researched the films, I found that many had been made (or at least financed) by white people.  Looking back, maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised, given the ongoing challenges faced by black filmmakers as well as dominant tendencies to co-opt the marginal.  

That’s part of what makes films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Killer of Sheep, Tongues Untied, and The Watermelon Woman so exciting—that they were made at all, and with such credibility.  Still, I like the popular films too.  Now living in L.A., I often get sucked into Boyz n the Hood when it comes on TV, for similar reasons that attracted me to Spike Lee’s film, plus the charisma of Ice Cube.  To my chagrin, I’ve also been watching Malibu’s Most Wanted and Soul Plane, enjoying the raw ethnic comedy at face value but also more critically—asking myself what it means to me as a white man. 

As the adoptive father of a girl from Ethiopia, African-American film and culture have become even more important to me, especially the Africa part.  Sometimes I tune into The Africa Channel to watch music videos with my daughter.  Or, with my wife and son, films like Saint Louis Blues, a remarkable Senegalese film that combines local people and issues with Hollywood-style musical and road-film genres.  In learning about the complexities of transnational / transracial adoption, I’ve attended lectures and read a lot, but also learned from films such as the encyclopedic and deeply personal Live and Become. 

All of these films vary in their independence from mainstream commercial cinema as well as their motivations and meanings.  Together, they suggest a vibrant mosaic visible in just one small part of what’s called “independent film.”  As a group of films that have been important to me, they also say things about me.  Where I’ve been, what I’ve done, who I’ve been and am becoming.  I’m not exactly the target audience for this niche, nor an expert on it, but it still has mattered a lot to me over the years.


This post is part of a series in which I talk about independent film in a more detailed, wide-ranging, and personal way than I usually do here.  And it’s a chance to hear from you.  Feel free to post a comment anytime or let me know if you’d like to write a post.

For more on The Valley Film Festival, visit our website or Facebook page.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Independent Film Coolness: Diversity

Unfortunately, “independent film” has become something of a marketing term, a catchall for the likes of Sundance Channel or IFC programming:  a limited number of narrative films, made more or less outside Hollywood, having some personal creative vision—quirky, original, provocative—that appeals to mostly niche audiences (with occasional breakout hits like The Blair Witch Project).  For me, that’s only part of “independent film.”

I prefer to think of independent film very broadly, as a large and diverse range of films, genres, sensibilities, filmmakers, and audiences—from all over the world and with varying degrees and kinds of independence from mainstream commercial cinema.  I like one recent article that playfully helps get at this diversity.  Observing that “every film isn’t either indie or studio,” the writers of How to Classify Movies Now That “Independent Film” Is Dead came up with ten categories that together reflect a range of independence, from the greatest (including “underground” and “Malick-wood”) to the least (“studio” and “explosion-ganza”). 

For me, even these categories are limited.  Part of what’s cool about independent films is how they work against traditional approaches to film, ranging widely in their production circumstances, subjects, genres, tones, styles, etc.  They may be highly collaborative or individual, as commercial and slick as Pulp Fiction or as plain as the Rodney King beating video.  They may be esoteric, or wallow in pop culture, or both.  They may have clear or ambiguous storylines, or no stories at all—maybe even nothing recognizable from our world, as with the abstract animated short films of Stan Brakhage, many of which resemble Jackson Pollock paintings in motion.  The more inclusive the idea of independent film, the greater the ability to appreciate this most unruly and eclectic of cinemas. 

One list of categories for “independent film” that’s closer to home for me is on The Valley Film Festival’s own submissions page.  We welcome all kinds of independently produced films, including—but not limited to—animation, comedy, drama, erotica, experimental, family, horror, mockumentary, music video, musical, rockumentary, sci-fi, student-produced, thriller, trailer, and viral.  Another imperfect list, but still way better than what the “independent film” brand has come to mean.


This post is part of a series in which I talk about independent film in a more detailed, wide-ranging, and personal way than I usually do here.  And it’s a chance to hear from you.  Feel free to post a comment anytime or let me know if you’d like to write a post.

For more on The Valley Film Festival, visit our website or Facebook page.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Reminder of Our Call for Entries

"I feel like everybody's on the same level as far as grass roots, really independent, really doing it themselves.  Nobody's really stuck up about anything."

That’s Preston Northrop, the producer of one of the many films we’ve screened, Motel San Fernando, describing his experience with The Valley Film Festival.  User-friendliness is one of our great qualities, but we also offer filmmakers a Los Angeles setting, great screening facilities, a fair evaluation process, and openness to a wide range of independent films.  Check us out filmmakers, if you haven’t already.

There is still some time to submit your short or feature-length film for just $50.  The final deadline is mid-July:

April 1 - May 18 -- $50 per film (US)
May 19 - June 30 -- $75
July 1 - July 15 -- $100

We are seeking quality films of all kinds—narrative / fiction, documentaries, animation, music videos—that were produced independently anywhere in the world.  The films or filmmakers may have some connection to the San Fernando Valley area, although this is not required. 

The tentative festival dates are November 6-10, 2013 at a San Fernando Valley venue to be announced later this year.  Last year, we were at the Laemmle NoHo 7.  For more information, visit our website or Facebook page.