Back to the Future

An independent-film veteran recalls the '80s and looks ahead

In the early '80s, I came to New York to attend NYU film school. By the late '80s, after working in various production positions and doing script coverage, I found my way first to Hal Hartley and then to James Schamus. I worked with Hal through his first eight films and founded Good Machine with James. Good Machine, along with Killer Films and the Shooting Gallery, was one of the producer-based, director-driven indie production companies that thrived here in the '90s. I was fortunate enough to work with Ang Lee, Todd Solondz, Eddie Burns, and Nicole Holofcener, among others. We all seemed to be producing movies with an energy and fury as though the world would end at any moment.

I have always felt the HIV scandal—the government's complete indifference to everyone's health and life—was a great stimulus to indie film production. Whether you were gay or straight, the message was clear in the Reagan-Bush era: The government not only didn't care about anyone who was different from the old boys, but actively wanted the "outsiders" removed. Recognizing this neglect as an act of aggression encouraged all to embrace new aesthetics, new subjects, new methods, and new technology. The threat of extinction upped the urgency. You were either on the bus or a complete roadblock.

Yet I have not felt a similar effect from the equally reprehensible policies of today, be it the invasion of Iraq, the blatant lies to the public, the inequitable redistribution of wealth, the hypocritical morality of the "values" coalition, the invasion of our privacy and reduction of our civil rights, the continued neglect of Africa, the rise of American "empire," etc. I certainly felt the New York film community engaged in politics far more last year than ever before—John Cameron Mitchell and Tony Kushner's ACLU and MoveOn benefits, the various filmmakers who made spots for MoveOn, the huge number of craftspeople who regularly sent e-mail mobilizations. But will this direct political action lead to a new burst of artistic output and experimentation?

Jonathan Caouette in Tarnation, a contemporary parallel to Poison
photo: Wellspring Media
Jonathan Caouette in Tarnation, a contemporary parallel to Poison

The indie production surge of the late '80s and early '90s was driven not only by a reaction to the Reagan-Bush agenda but also by the embrace of Gordon Gekko-esque greed. There is no denying that the indie scene of the '90s was overrun by narcissistic "I want to get mine and get it now" types as much as it was populated by visionary artists. "Indie" was as much about filmmakers who only saw the indie sphere as a stepping stone to further riches, who were only interested in making it cheap and selling it high.

I was on the narrative-competition jury at Sundance last year. Sundance is the best-programmed festival in the world, yet I was truly dismayed by how few filmmakers were concerned with how we live now, the choices we make, and the effect of history on their work—not to mention the effect the films themselves have on our consciousness. I have always been drawn to film by the connection it provides between individuals and communities, yet the majority of filmmaking is concerned with just the opposite: distancing us from those around us. And although there are numerous exceptions, I know that the presumed marketplace demand for "escapist entertainment" is discouraging to filmmakers, instead of being the rallying cry that I wish it could be.

I hope the exclusionary, polarizing policies of the administration bring a fuller recognition of our shared plight and commonalities—of course, how to do this without cheap sentimentality, didactic plotting, simplified characterizations, or overt positioning is the essence of true filmmaking (versus product making).

The vastly different approaches to dramatizing the Rwanda genocide of Hotel Rwanda and the soon-to-be-aired HBO production of Raoul Peck's Sometimes in April demonstrate what a great challenge this remains. Ten years after the Western governments and media's neglect of this atrocity (tantamount to a support thereof), audiences are treated to a clear lesson in the politics of approach—how it is never enough just to show, and how the triumph of one individual over such tragic circumstances can never fully ring true.

Despite Don Cheadle's heartfelt performance, Hotel Rwanda creates the impression that the genocide was just the rare thing that happened over there, and those who participated were either the Good Guys or the Bad Guys. Sometimes in April puts the audience at the center of the conflict. Peck gives a human face to both sides, and delivers an understanding of both the West's role in such histories and how such horrors are not the exception but still our inclination. (Full disclosure: I am working with Raoul on an adaptation of Russell Banks's Continental Drift.)

Innovative film will have a much harder time now than it did in the Reagan-Bush years. The art-film infrastructure has withered away as specialized distributors latch onto the Oscar-worthy, swing-for-the-fences, "cinema of quality" crossover mentality that makes it impossible for any distrib, other than the underfinanced ones, to chase the films that appear unable to achieve more than $5 million of American theatrical box office.

Sometimes in April will air on HBO—and though "it's not TV," it's certainly not theatrical distribution. And that's the challenge of today—it is time not just for the message, but also for the indie film community to focus on how it is delivered. It's an absurdist fantasy to think "if we make it, they will come." Outside New York City, audiences have never voted with their dollars for amore diverse selection of films and subjects —until now. The neglect that we, the film-loving masses, have shown toward turning up for anything remotely challenging has led us onto a rigid grid with regard to what the industry will finance or distribute from the indie sector. Unfortunately the press serves mostly to remind us of what sells. Audience activism, as indicated by the support for Fahrenheit 9/11 or The Passion of the Christ, indicates that people power can change the system.

All of a sudden it seems like audiences are mad as hell and aren't going to take it any more. But the question is not whether filmmakers can answer their cry, but whether they can find a way to deliver the letter to their door. We can't rely on a voice to rise out of the darkness. We have to show up in huge numbers for those who dare say something different, or indie film, as a movement, will truly die this decade.


Ted Hope is co-founder of and a partner at This Is That Productions. He is a producer of over 50 films, most recentlyA Dirty Shame andThe Door in the Floor.

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