By Albert Samaha
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Six years and 13 credit cards in the making, John Gianvito's The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (at BAM May 31 through June 6; see review) stands as a rebuke to the cost-benefit models that have come to dominate American independent filmmaking. When Gianvito, a curator at the Harvard Film Archive who used to teach film production at UMass Boston, decided to make a movie about the Gulf War in 1993, he bypassed the usual fundraising sources, having been frustrated on a previous attempt. "It was a larger project that I'd spent years working on, and I remember it as a debilitating process," he says. "It was a real education on how films are made in the U.S. outside the studio system. You need access to family members with deep pockets or a connection with major actors who want to affiliate themselves with you."
Gianvito says he felt it was pointless shopping Mad Songs around because "there weren't sellable elements, and I didn't want to have to defend my idea of what the film was about." He points out that in this case, there were other reasons why traditional financing might have been inappropriate: "I didn't want to make profit over talking about the tragedy of war." (Gianvito says if the film ever yields a return, he will donate the money to a relief organization.)
The director, who grew up in Staten Island, was actively engaged in anti-war protests during Operation Desert Storm. "I hadn't made a connection between my political interests and filmmaking. During the war, I was writing letters to newspapers and battling my own family about what I perceived as their refusal to accept any responsibility for what was happening. I remember saying to my mother: Having put these people in office who are committing these atrocities, we have to accept that we bear some responsibility."
After hearing first-hand accounts from students who had served in the Persian Gulf, Gianvito says he became "inarticulate with rage. I needed an outlet for that energy." In the summer of 1994, he drove to New Mexico with $17,000 in hand. He chose the location for the visual rhyme that the Southwestern deserts provided and for the state's concentration of military bases, but also because "it apparently had a higher proportion of Gulf War veterans than any other state." (In an homage to the New Mexico-set, social-realist landmark Salt of the Earth, Fernanda Hussein's maiden name is Quintero, after the family in Herbert Biberman's film.) He rented a room, made friends in the activist community, and wrote a script in two weeks. Principal photography stretched over two years and three trips from Cambridge. The cast was assembled from amateur theater troupe members and by approaching people in the street. The crew came together with the help of the local film commission: "Besides me, everyone behind the camera is from New Mexico."
Gianvito's preliminary funds didn't go very far, but as he explains, "I did the classic indie thingI got myself all these credit cards in advance of actually getting into debt." He says he had no qualms about maxing out the plastic. "Since I don't have children and we don't have debtors' prisons, I really didn't see the downside. I couldn't have made the film without that option."
In the end, a little more than half of the $100,000 budget was borrowed, the rest cobbled together from small grants and donations. "I like what Werner Herzog once said: Money is the grease in the machine; it makes things run more smoothly, but it's not the machine. There are legitimate reasons to rail against how difficult it is to make a different kind of cinema in this countryarguments like why we can't have something like what the French call l'avance sur recettes, where a percentage of every ticket sold goes into a pool that everyone can apply to. But at the same time, some pictures can only be made through force of will."
Not that additional resources wouldn't have been welcome. Quoting another favorite director, Philippe Garrel, Gianvito says, " 'The style is the budget.' If I'd had more money, I might have thought about dolly shots and I would have had more experienced performers. There were a lot of scenes we had to shoot quickly. There's only one scene where I got an official location permit."
Mad Songsreceived its world premiere at the South by Southwest festival in 2001 (Sundance, Berlin, and Rotterdam all turned it down), and Gianvito has been fielding more calls from exhibitors since September 11. "It now seems quite odd to me that I could have driven my little car across the country to a state where I knew no one, and thought that I could put such a production together," he says. "I remember that I wrote a quote by John Cassavetes on the first page of my script that helped me on many days. It said, 'An artist can accomplish anything provided he doesn't accept facts or defeat for more than a few minutes.' At least he allowed us a few minutes, at least he granted us that."