“So, what kind of films do you make?”
People tend to ask me this dreaded question when I introduce myself as a filmmaker. I usually hesitate for a good amount of time until they start to question if I’m really a filmmaker. Then, embarrassed and perhaps with a shy giggle, I would admit, “I make experimental stuff.”
I say “stuff” for its informality that would hopefully tone down the pretentiousness of the word immediately preceding it, “experimental.” What in hell does that even mean?
According to Film: A Critical Introduction by Maria Pramaggiore and Tom Walls, experimental or avant-garde cinema is “a mode of filmmaking that rigorously re-evaluates cinematic conventions and explores non-narrative forms and alternatives to traditional narratives or methods of working.” Notably, the aim of such films is usually “to render the personal vision of an artist or to promote interest in new technology,” rather than to entertain or to generate revenue as is the case with commercial films. Some technical and creative hallmarks to look for are the absence of a linear narrative, abstracting techniques such as collage and non-diegetic sound and a rather impressionistic approach to the subject matter. Most experimental filmmakers make their films with a ridiculously low budget and minimal crew, sometimes simply on their own.
We were shooting a project in Prague and needed a location permit from this gorgeous cemetery. When asked about the film I passionately described it as “an experimental exploration of time and our experience of time” and quoted Walter Benjamin’s notion of history. The manager’s polite smile faded a little bit, and my cinematographer stepped in just in time, “the film follows this woman who wanders around the city and the cemetery would be one of her stops.” “Ah, ok.” The smile returned and he gladly signed the papers and wished us luck on the shoot.
“Never, EVER, describe your film as ‘experimental’ or ‘avant-garde’ to producers or anyone outside your creative team,” my collaborator told me on our way out. “I am an experimental filmmaker though — you should know that of all people.” I tried to argue. He sighed, “I do. But you should always assume that people don’t understand or don’t care enough to understand. Makes things easier.”
This stuck with me. Since then I’ve been trying to divert the question by describing a recent specific project, talking about themes I focus on or saying that “I incorporate experimental techniques in storytelling.” Even so, it hasn’t been easy. When I share my work with friends it’s often met with lukewarm responses, and professors have repeatedly advised me to work on something “more accessible.” My experience may explain why experimental filmmakers have to work with low budget and under other sub-optimal conditions — you simply don’t get much support anywhere, financial or otherwise.
Why do we still love, and make, experimental films then? Other than pure passion there’s really no justification for it. Now that I’ve committed to an MFA program in film and video art I will probably spend the next two years, if not the rest of my life, scrambling for funding so I can make the type of films I want to make. In all likelihood, they may not have an audience outside of tiny galleries, local arthouses and lesser-known film festivals. Yet artists I deeply respect have done it and are still doing it; my cinematographer works on shitty reality shows and commercials all year long so that he can afford to shoot passion projects when he opts to. Robert Todd taught at Emerson so he could make all his films accessible online for free. Zia Anger and Kelly Sears tour to present their work.
All this is to say that if you ever get tired of Netflix and Hulu in quarantine, it’s a wonderful opportunity to experiment with experimental cinema. Multidisciplinary artist Kate Lain has already started a “Cabin Fever” playlist, and all you have to do is to start watching.
The irony, however, is that artists and the art industry have been hit extra hard by this crisis, though everyone is now consuming an unprecedented amount of art and entertainment. Many of my freelancer friends are out of work until summer. Festivals are canceled or postponed, cinemas and galleries closed. Please, if you can, consider donating to your favorite artists directly, or at the very least, give your artist friends a bit more attention and love. I know I could use some.
Ruby Que is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Escape runs alternate Thursdays this semester. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.