It’s often said that world cinema eclipses American independent cinema, hands down. That’s generally true.
But why? Is it that Europeans have a much richer and deeper history to draw from that enhances their perspective? Is it that Iranians tell more culturally meaningful stories? Is it that Asian cinema is unselfconscious and frenetic?
Yes, yes and yes.
Does that mean that most American independent filmmakers are insular, shallow and circumspect?
Yes, yes and yes.
Must it be that way? Certainly not.
So why, then, are American independent films so often lacking?
I think it begins with the fact that nearly every other country on the planet has a governmental cultural anchor that almost always offers at least partial funding to filmmakers and others in the arts. (The NEA is a wonderful resource, but its film-related funding goes almost exclusively to film festivals and media centers rather than to filmmakers themselves.)
Great art has, of course, been generated by countless Americans over the past couple of hundred years and I’m not sure we need government-funded films in order to get back in the game. (A Culture Secretary – a person and office with the the mandate, budget and resources to advocate filmmaking and storytelling at an early age – would be nice.)
The primary advantage of government-involved funding, though, is that it goes a long way toward lifting the burden of business and commerce from the shoulders of filmmakers and onto those of sales agents and bureaucracies – which is a whole other kind of problem but one of far less import.
Unfortunately, the independent film community in the U.S. has deteriorated into little more than a business – an industry – and the art suffers mightily under that oppressive structure.
Another reason that world cinema excels – especially films that make it onto screens here – is that what reaches American theaters generally emerges from that country’s primary filmmaking community rather than a poorer, independent source. Unfortunately, the media in the U.S. find it impossible to distinguish between foreign-language films and American independent films, so they beg the comparison and enhance the disparity. This is patently unfair and irresponsible, but it’s never going to change and I’m not suggesting it as an excuse of any kind for the quality, or lack or quality, in our independent films.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The bottom line is that in order for American independent filmmakers to escape their creative shackles, they’ll need to put aside any lingering dreams of traditional film distribution and financial rewards and get on with the filmmaking.
How? By any means necessary. It may not be pretty and it won’t be easy, but it’s likely to be far more interesting than what you would have produced under the crumbling old system. And you may even make some money.
In the meantime, the entrepreneurs among us will build an online infrastructure to support both the production and the distribution of your films. One that will embrace new media and new technologies and will renew and regenerate the community (not the business, not the industry) that will ultimately be the engine that makes it all make sense.
Light it up.