“A lot of people’s first films are bad,” Zia Anger said, or more accurately, typed, in her breathtaking multimedia performance My First Film, as her own first film played right next to the text.
It is hard to define what My First Film is. “An interactive live cinema performance,” sure: Anger sat in the first row of the theatre with her back to the audience, and on the big screen, a projection of the desktop of her computer. Throughout the event, she displayed image and video files, while typing in a text window to offer context and personal commentary. But it’s also a rare piece of self-reflection that’s not self-indulgent, and an invitation into an intimate past that I somehow find myself living in right now.
I started to introduce myself as a filmmaker to people about two years ago, when I was struggling to find a subject for my documentary filmmaking class. My professor told me to just go out and approach whoever I found intriguing: “Say you’re a filmmaker, and that you might want to make a film about them.”
An initial awkward exchange led to my first short documentary, one I still think of fondly despite all its imperfections. Anger mentioned a similar feeling when she showed her favorite scene from Always All Ways, Anne Marie, her first and only feature film. She made it from 2010 to 2012 in her hometown with friends and non-actors. On the screen, two girls run down a dirt road, laughing like there’s nothing to worry about in the golden hour sunlight. A drone glides by. She typed, “I’m proud that we pulled it off with what we had.”
I’ve had the exact same thought many, many times. When I had three days to finish a project I would never have the chance to do again, when the producer quit a week out from shooting, when the cops showed up asking for permits, when the main actor was a creep, when we had to do a feature with a six-person crew, we almost always managed to barely, but proudly, pull it off.
But I often ask myself whether or not it could have been better. Could I have done this or that differently? Should I have waited, for the right person or the right moment? Am I doing this project justice? Could someone else have done a better job if I hand it over? I never really dared to ask others these questions as, when did, my first film professor dismissed me as self-deprecating and gave me a C-minus.
Anger’s first film didn’t get into any of the 50 festivals she applied to and she is described as “sharply self-deprecating” by New Yorker critic Richard Brody in his review. Singaporean filmmaker Sandi Tan’s first film was lost for 19 years, and when she was finally reunited with the footage as a professional director, she wasn’t uncritical either. Yet both women recalibrated these flawed explorations early on in their career into something bigger and more profound; Tan’s Shirkers, a documentary about the making of and the loss of her first film, also utilizes old footage and assigns them new meaning. Maybe Anger was right, that “this happens to a lot of people, it’s just that nobody talks about it.” But the talking about it part is what’s important; only when “failure” is talked about can we reclaim the past experience as part of us.
And perhaps what we consider as “failure” with our perfectionist filmmaker mentality isn’t even that bad. Cynthia Wade, academy award winner for her 2007 short Freeheld, was giving a masterclass about her career. She was incredibly honest about the underbelly of being a filmmaker, like not knowing where you’re gonna sleep every night while shooting on location and desperately scrambling for money all the time. She also repeatedly mentioned, “you have to do it because it’s do or die. Do it yourself, just do it. Get it out there even if you can’t get everything, do it. You have to be a bit crazy to do it, because otherwise you could never.” And on and on.
When I saw Wade later that night after a screening of her most recent documentary, she asked what was my biggest takeaway from the masterclass. I told her it meant a lot for me to hear that you just have to “do it” even if the production value is low or you’re not getting everything you want to get. She laughed and said, looking directly in my eyes, “the scrappier, the better! That’s what I think.” “I’ll keep that in mind,” I promised her.
“Beg. Borrow. Steal. Crowdfund. Alienate your friends and family. Write from your experience. Almost kill someone.” This is Anger’s essential checklist for first-time filmmakers, which I can confirm is accurate. I’ve done most of those things. In fact, I’m doing them right now, working three damn jobs to fund my thesis and begging all my talented friends to work on it for the love of God. Maybe it’s still gonna suck, I just hope 30-year-old me would feel more ok with that.
Ruby Que is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Escape runs alternate Thursdays this semester.