Tuesday, October 20, 2009

That Old Indie Spirit

One of my favorite moments in Auntie Mame occurs shortly after news reaches the Dennis residence that the stock market has crashed and people are jumping out of windows. Mame's bleary, besotted and bitchy best friend, Vera Charles, grumbles "Oh, thank God I never put anything aside!"

While millions have been laid off from their jobs, many investors who thought their wealth was secure discovered that their savings had vanished into thin air thanks to crooks like Bernard Madoff. No longer could they expect the preferred placement or VIP treatment to which they had grown accustomed.

Those whose lifestyles required earnings in the higher brackets suddenly woke up to discover that they could no longer afford the pay to play entry fees. However, as Garrison Keillor notes, "Among the young and ebullient, there's no worry about interest rates because they have no savings. Sex, as we all know, is not accomplished by money alone, and that is why Wall Street traders get about 37 percent less than the average American. Anxiety has extinguished their pilot light."

In his stellar writing about the economic downturn in Rolling Stone magazine, Matt Taibbi described Goldman Sachs as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” And yet, for artists on extremely limited budgets, a powerful imagination can work wonders.

For filmmakers, in particular, having little or no money can mean keeping production costs down to a bare minimum. Using one's own resources, friends, and whole lot of people who lack union membership can produce surprising results.

This is especially helpful for documentarians who need access to their subjects far more than they need an onsite catering team, and who might produce a fairly compelling work product using off-the-shelf technology instead of the highest grade equipment. Consider the following three movies as proof that money can't buy everything.

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A person would be hard-pressed to find a documentary made on a smaller budget than We Said, No Crying, which recently received its world premiere at the Eighth San Francisco Documentary Festival. Much of this film was made as a husband and wife took turns holding a digital camera during the course of an intensely personal and melodramatic health crisis.

Assaf Sagi Gafni and his wife Hila are a young Jewish couple eager to do their part in helping to boost Israel's population. Each comes from a family with multiple siblings. Each would love to have four children. But there is a problem.

Try as they might, Hila has been having trouble conceiving. Despite encouragement from her mother-in-law (Shifra), she has started to resent every pregnant woman she sees on the street. When the couple resorts to in vitro fertilization -- and receives news that Hila has become pregnant with twins -- their joy is short lived.

One of the embryos is not doing well and could develop into a child with birth defects. Together, they face the difficult decision to abort the doomed embryo. Once this has been done, the film follows Hila through the delivery of their child.

As Assaf and Hila try to give each other emotional support, demand forgiveness, and debate whether they should tell the surviving twin that he had a sibling who died during Hila's pregnancy, We Said, No Crying gets about as up close and personal as any documentary could ever hope to be. Here's the trailer:

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I doubt you could get a decent Hollywood entertainment lawyer to fart for $1,200. Yet that's the anticipated budget that Nazir Shaikh gave himself for a good-natured spoof of Superman. A wedding videographer in the Indian city of Malegaon, Shaikh likes to "Indianize" movies that have done well with Bombay audiences and recreate them with his Mollywood touch.

Mollywood is the Muslim answer to Hollywood and Bollywood. Under Shaikh's guidance, much of his crew's filming takes place in the impoverished ghettos and slums of Malegaon. Soon to be screened at the Seventh Annual 3rd I San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, Faiza Ahmad Khan's endearingly cheeky documentary, Supermen of Malegaon, should be required viewing for aspiring film students. It will, no doubt, help them to prepare for the dreaded day when their parents stop writing checks.

Consider the many low-budget laughs and candid calamities captured by Khan in his documentary:
  • At one point, Shaikh drops his camera into the muddy waters of a local lake.
  • The screenwriters have decided that, because he is forced to fly through so much pollution, Mollywood's version of Superman should suffer from asthma. Therefore, the role has been cast with a scrawny, nerd-like bag of bones named Shafique who has no muscles, a 24-inch waist, and needs to take four days off in the middle of the film's shooting schedule in order to attend his own wedding.
  • As the bald-headed, Lex Luthor-style villain, Akram Khan has been given lines like "I want every Indian spitting on the streets, in restaurants, on walls, in toilets -- everywhere --because I love filth!"
  • Even though Muslim law forbids married women from working outside the home, somebody has to be available to perform a Bollywood-style dance number in an open field with Superman.
Shot in an atmosphere of abject poverty (as goats and ghetto kids look on), Supermen of Malegaon captures plenty of candid moments when the Mollywood Superman is idly paddling around the lake in an inflated inner tube while waiting for shooting to resume, as well as when onlookers cheer on the actor playing the villain as he shaves his head in preparation for his big moment of fame.

Whether it's easier for you to follow this film in English, Urdu, or Hindi, I doubt you'll be able to resist its ragtag goofiness or the enthusiasm with which the local populace follows Superman's latest exploits. Here's a brief trailer:

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There are plenty of snarky laughs to be found in I Need That Record (which is being screened as part of the Eighth San Francisco Documentary Festival) but, for the most part, this film is a sobering look at how and why so much of America's artistic potential has been snuffed out by corporate bean counters with no love for music. Brendan Toller's first full-length feature film is a well-informed tour through the rapidly shrinking subculture of independent record stores that hosts a refreshingly blunt cast of interviewees (punk rockers, nerds, geeks) while offering an ominous warning about what the future holds for lovers of underground music.

Filmmaker Brendan Toller

In his lengthy director's note, Toller writes:
"Since the 1980s the record store was the place to go for prerecorded music. But today, the way we access and consume music has been redefined by technology. Ecommerce, iTunes, the iPod, P2P networks, music blogs, and social networking sites have all had a profound impact on the way we access music and on the state of the independent record store. Downloading and pirating seem to be the easy answers to the chaotic state of the music industry, but higher powers like major labels, big box stores (Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy etc.), and corporate-owned FM radio are also shaking things up.

The music industry has always been a unique marriage of art and commerce, but today commerce has proved to be the ultimate influence. Rather than develop great acts, embrace new technology, and offer affordable products, the major labels are more concerned with turning the clocks back to preserve old business models with only one thing in mind: the bottom line.

Keep the fully-paid expense accounts and seven-figure incomes. Keep suing fans.

Keep shoving bland music down people's throats that will sell X amounts. Keep producing homogenized radio programs that play the same 50 songs.

Keep supporting big box businesses that could care less about music; businesses that sell music below list price. Keep screwing the consumers and retailers who love and care about good captivating music."
As he interviews store owners who have been forced out of business, customers whose favorite hangouts have vanished into thin air, and musicians who owe their early careers to the support they received from independent record store owners and counterculture consumers, Toller paints a bleak picture of America's diminishing landscape for new and experimental music.
"Over the past ten years it has become increasingly harder to compete with big chain businesses that have big money and Congress protecting them. The rich and powerful in business and government have thrown a wrench in the wheels of progress. American culture has become more isolated and atomized as a result of homogenous culture and thought. Businesses and establishments that make different parts of America distinct from one another are disappearing.

Squash new ideas, new innovations and new possibilities as the future of recorded music -- a commodity that supports the artist -- vanishes. While it would appear that the Internet is the new force for musical discovery and delivery, independent record stores have been -- and still are -- a strong force on the musical experience. Record stores serve as important community spaces that provide foundations for new musical and artistic scenes and movements, a place where unique under-the-radar bands have been continuously supported, a place where the underground can thrive, a place where independent thought is encouraged and challenged, a place where people of different ages, races, and taste can mix and mingle face to face.

Unlike the Internet, physical stores are a real place, with real people, where community is formed and supported. Not just record stores, but original mom and pop Main Street stores are all in a fight to stay alive. Independent businesses are hubs for new jobs, new innovations, and creative thought. In order to save community, ourselves, and our world, what we need are independent creative places where new ideas and thought can be nurtured. Not more of the same."
San Franciscans who are lucky enough to still enjoy venues like Amoeba Music, Streetlight Records, Aquarius Records, and Medium Rare (all within a hop, skip, and jump of a MUNI bus stop) may view I Need That Record with a sense of impending doom. Anyone who has idled away a delightful afternoon browsing through used book and record stores will be deeply moved by Stoller's documentary. The following segment gives a good taste of what the film holds in store for music lovers:

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