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Kevin K Shah on “Making A Contemporary American Art Film”

Kevin K Shah on "Making A Contemporary American Art Film"

We make films to have a dialogue with our audience & communities. Our viewers, and how we connect with them, is such a bit part of the equation, that we spend a TREMENDOUS amount of time discussing the business: how do we discover films? how do we aggregate audiences? how do we achieve a sustainable career? And so on and so on and so on.

The answer always remains the question of “How do we make better films?”. I am a big believer that all filmmakers need to know what they love (and how to strive to achieve it). I am also a believer that audiences benefit from the same knowledge. I know we don’t discuss this enough. It’s personal. It is difficult to articulate. But we must make the effort. It’s worth it. We can build it better together. Thankfully Kevin Shah has stepped forward; someone always needs to get on the dance floor first!

Making a Contemporary American Art Film

Although what constitutes the ‘success’ of any artistic endeavor is entirely subjective, there are some fundamentals that I believe great art films can share. Ted and I briefly lamented that there are few videos on the internet about ‘making an art film’, or aesthetics of cinema and it’s process, or personal attempts to explore Transcendence on screen from a director’s perspective. This is my attempt at scratching the surface through our own experiment called White Knuckles – a feature film by sabi.

Art films often have characters with complex or even unclear motivations, and especially in scenes that don’t depict the characters moving toward a specific goal. Often these scenes are artistic, moody and beautiful — but despite this, we’ve learned often these scenes end up edited out of the final film. An art film’s effect doesn’t stem from specific moments — it stems from how the viewer feels about the journey the character’s take throughout the entire experience (and its resolution). If the scene must say something unique and honest between the lines on the page to foster deep empathy within our audience, then we must get to the heart of what the scene is about (what our character’s central driving motivation is) and communicate it to the cast and crew precisely in order to execute. Only then, can the collaborative team organically shape what springs forth: by being in-the-moment and present to what is happening around them on set, and remaining open to explore surprises or subtlety as it happens.

Directing this experiment was about bringing a well-defined shell of a character to an actor to make their own, and then re-defining the entire story for that specific actor. And together, taking the emerging character on a more authentic journey than scripted to discover greater questions about life, love, and forgiveness. Directing the improvisation throughout this story was more of a spiritual practice than a craft with steadfast rules. Dramatic improv is about collaborating with your actor to find the character’s voice in a safe, family-like atmosphere. It’s not about collecting ‘off-script’ options for the editor.

In order to survive, genuine collaboration is a need in all artistic feature film endeavors today. I truly prefer not to see my vision exactly as it appears in my head (I already have that vision of the story and it’s fine the way it is). When embarking on a new film, I want to work with our team to make something more powerful than anyone could achieve alone. Something that can only be called an “Interdependent Film” because of the family that worked together to make both the process and the result of the experience unique and meaningful.

As White Knuckles enters the world and finds its audience (recently picked up by Vanguard Cinema) we hope it will continue to spark discussion and debate about this parable of forgiveness that ends in a moment of transcendence, captured as honestly as it happened. This ‘making-of’ video contains creative lessons we definitely intend to bring to more ‘genre’ endeavors, and shares our experience to inspire you to take your own artistic journey.

Learn more about The Sabi Company’s artistic & commercial endeavors at

Kevin K. Shah is a creative artist-entrepreneur / ‘interdependent storyteller’ with several feature films, shorts & documentaries he’s written, directed, produced or been an integral part of. He’s also worked with several studios on high-profile transmedia campaigns including special concepts, webisodes, behind the scenes, mobile content & interactive games. With the feature ‘White Knuckles’, Kevin wanted to experiment with an immersive collaborative experience in order achieve honesty and authenticity in character and emotion. He is presently CEO of The Sabi Company and is currently packaging ‘A Falling Rock’ a thriller & and is in post on ‘Lucid’ a horror-drama he directed. Kevin begins production on ‘Down and Dangerous’ with director Zak Forsman this fall. Found on Twitter @kevinkshah, or or

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ekim namwen

great, thanks for sharing kevin! we definitely need more art films that are honest and thoughtful rather than pretentious or pedantic.

Kevin K. Shah

I truly enjoyed The Killing of Jesse James; as well as others such as Good Night and Good Luck and would personally consider these and several other American films Art. Hollywood has and will always create some of the best. But on the topic of the literal ‘source’ of art films today (be it hollywood or indie or both), I hesitate to speculate beyond the obvious understanding that Art is itself entirely subjective — which is the biggest hesitation about trying to explore and decipher what goes into the actual making of an art film. It’s a valuable but circular discussion that threatens to bog down any chance at evolving both the form and content of Art Films, which is the hope here.

It would be a blessing if artists can be inspired to share more about their process, their collaborative journey, and the results (and lessons learned) in an effort for us to collectively push the medium of Art Films forward into the future (and help it survive).
This is not a template, nor intended to be a persuasive conclusion of any sort – it is a simple re-telling and sharing of an experience for someone who may wish to embark on their own journey (and this admittedly only scratches the surface).

One way for us to evolve as consumers and creators (IMHO) is to elevate the discussion by talking about the internal journey of artists involved, the meaning behind their work and their process — and their collective efforts to overcome obstacles and attempt something unconventional (another arguable word) to great result. But at the end of the day, ours is one way of doing it, seeing it — and our process together at Sabi is simply an effort to create something that is truly greater than the sum of its parts, creatively and artistically.

I would hope thoughts such as these are starting points for discussion, rather than devolving into discussions of what and what doesn’t constitute art, and what is or is not an art film, or defining ‘conventions’ of art films or discussing films of the past. I just feel there is too much urgency — and it would be a disservice to the number of talented present-day artists that are capable and ready.

I would suggest there needs to be a way for the medium to evolve creatively, and I would love to hear (and learn from) personal experiences from artists and audiences on what works for them and why. Forget I even mentioned ‘contemporary’ – it could be a chance to begin an understanding of what we as Artists and Audiences are truly looking for with art films of tomorrow! :)

Gerald Heller

If your experiments and your conclusions aren’t all that persuasive, it’s probably because anyone looking for American art films today, great, middling or failed, really needs to look to Hollywood, not indies. “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” comes to mind, as does Ted own’s “The American”, which could easily pass as a contemporary art film, if not for the professional killer thing (or does it still pass?). That both directors were foreigners must also say something. Bear in mind, “art film” refers here to literary and filmmaking conventions, not claims of absolute quality.

Even if we’re willing to lump “modernist”, “new wave” and “post-60s art film conventions” into the notion of “art films” generally, they’re still rarely found on the American indie circuit. American narrative indies are perhaps better understood as documentary melodramas – the literal dialogue, the plodding actions, the “naturalistic” approach to the material, the social themes. But, good or bad, they’re not “art films” as that term is widely understood.

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