Seven Questions For Macky Alston Of "Family Name"
by Anthony Kaufman
Macky Alston asked himself, “What will happen if I go looking for an
African American Alston?” The answer is his feature length film,
“Family Name“, a first person documentary about his search for the blood
that binds the African American Alstons of the South and the white slave
owning Alstons of his own heritage. A powerful and personal
investigation into the secrets of fear, race and sexuality, the film has
garnered more praise than the perky, passionate and gay director could
have imagined, winning the Freedom of Expression award at last year’s
Sundance and the upcoming Gotham Award from the IFP.
Shot on 16mm, edited on Steenbecks and made over a 3 year period, the
film was a labor of love. It is being distributed through their own
efforts and is closing its debut week run at New York’s Film Forum
today. Future screenings include Los Angeles, Seattle, Winston-Salem,
and, if things continue as they have been, Chicago, San Francisco,
Boston, Indianapolis, Portland, Philadelphia, Atlanta…. — not bad
for a film without a distributor.
indieWIRE: How much did you spend on advertising
for this first week run?
Macky Alston: The great thing about a debut is that you don’t have to
buy advertising, because you get reviews. . . That functions as our
advertising for the run, but as you go on, you need to continue to put
stuff in there and unless they do features, they’re done with you
editorially. And you have to pay for the space in the magazines. . . But
truly our goals, our priorities, given a film like this, are more a
grassroots approach to screenings. We’ve gotten a grant from the Ford
Foundation to do a broad-based grassroots, educational distribution
We’re going to be doing that throughout the year at churches,
synagogues, community centers, schools, universities, etc. I’d rather be
doing that now than self-distributing to art houses because it’s a more
focused approach and it’s a broader reach. Even if you have a successful
art house run, the numbers are not so great. It’s more the platform it
gives, the profile that it gives to your film, particularly in
preparation for the television run. We’d love that, but given we only
have X amount of dollars, it’s [a matter of] where we invest it. And the
television broadcast is in Spring/Summer ’98, national PBS, as a part of
something they’re developing called the Television Race Initiative…
And that is where you get your broadest audience.
iW: Do you think that a “Hoop Dreams” type phenomenon could…?
Alston: I would say no. Miramax has yet to call us, you know what I’m saying?
The truth is that those folks saw it at Sundance and responded to it,
but said ‘there’s not enough money in this, we think, for us. We think
it definitely has a theatrical life, but the way you should do it is
self-distribute it.’ There’s wonderful examples of people who have done
that successfully, such as Bruce and Joe [Sinofsky] with “Brother’s Keeper“
and “Paradise Lost.” However, that’s a very specific choice. Will I
do that for the next year or so or will I begin to work on the next
film? And will I invest my time with “Family Name” in the next year on art
house distribution or will I invest it in grassroots distribution? But
this specific film, which is really about the conversation across the
divide of race in the United States, my feeling is that better than just
getting it to all the art houses, I’d rather facilitate conversations in
a different kind of way.
iW: As far as money goes, though, this kind of distribution, this kind
of grassroots plan, isn’t really going to help?
Alston: But that’s not the goal. The goal is to continue to be able to do
the work that I want to do. I really chose this topic because it meant
so much to me anyway, so if I never pulled it off, I would never have
regret the years that I had spent doing the work. You know what I’m
saying? So it got made and we raised a lot of money for it. And yet, we
still have a lot of debt and we have money to raise for the grassroots
distribution. . . The only way that a documentary [can make money],
except for the rare exception like “Crumb” or “Hoop Dreams,” is television
and foreign sales, which we made. We just made our first foriegn sale to
Italy. England and France are both engaged with our foriegn sales agent.
iW: Did you think about foreign pre-sales?
Alston: Yeah. We didn’t get any. But it had to with my track record. The
reality was they didn’t know who they were banking on. I had made a few
short documentaries for hire.
iW: How did you raise the money?
Alston: We started with small Southern foundations. They were very
interested in the project. They had not had a whole lot of experience
funding media, but they weren’t closed to the idea. For some, we were
their first film, but these were generally not foundations that
specialized in funding media projects, but they were interested in the
subject matter. Liberal, Southern Foundations: Bittle, Mary Reynolds
Babcock, The Semila Foundation in Greensboro, the Craig Wall
Foundation in South Carolina. And then we shot a good bit, made a trailer,
and went for some of the usual suspects: NYSCA- New York State Council for the
Arts, a bunch of others…
iW: What was the time span?
Alston: I started full time in September ’93, got my first grant in December
’93, started shooting in January ’94, and we finished January ’97. Then
it premiered at Sundance.
iW: And you got the Freedom of Expression award. Did you expect it?
Alston: I wasn’t expecting anything. We had never screened it, except in
rough cut forms. I had a sense that it was good enough, and it was
accepted, so I thought ‘they want it, they can have it.’ But I had no
idea how people were going to respond. It’s a difficult subject to
tackle. I remember sitting with a friend who’s a Southerner and he said,
as I was telling him the film I was going to make, “Macky, you are going
to get skewered.” And you know, that was part of the reason why I was
interested in the subject matter. It was a taboo. It was an untouchable
topic particularly from the white person’s perspective. So many people I
know, like myself, are sort of inhibited, locked in our own PC silence.
And that’s not a constructive approach, so I dared to reveal my own
naivete, awkwardness, bumbling white liberalism in the hope that through
the process I would grow and that the process would be helpful and
enlightening. And that’s the response I’ve got. Instead of being
skewered, I’ve gotten a sense of appreciation that this was done. Really
it’s acting as a catalyst for people to say, “well, you know, I thought
exactly as you did.” Which is exactly what I hoped for, to spark that
kind of dialogue. This is one perspective and I wanted it to provoke
others to express their perspectives.
[For more information on “Family Name” and screening dates, see their