PART 1. PHILOSOPHY. INTRODUCING MY FILM CURRENTLY ON KICKSTARTER, ALONG WITH SOME THOUGHTS ON SPEAKING IN THE FIRST PERSON
Earth Camp One is a work of creative nonfiction about how I lost four family members in five years. The film is also about a hippie summer camp in the 70s in Northern California, the connection between those two things being that when you’re young, you want to break away from your family, find different cultural markers. What happens when they leave you? The film also has animation about different conceptions of the afterlife. Earth Camp One is about my experience of grief and loss and about a broader understanding, or exploration, of how our society’s denial of mortality leads to everything from people feeling isolated and alienated when they’re going through something which is THE universal human experience. To national policies (wars) that, in not just my opinion, are predicated on a core belief that no soldiers and no civilians can die because, actually no one dies.
Right now I’m nearing the end (Friday night at 8!) of a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to get to a rough cut on the film. I’ve applied for a billion grants where people I don’t know go into a room and look at my project and come out and tell me “yes” or “no,” (usually no, and by email) so it’s incredible to build a web page, put a video on it and have 400+ people say “yes!” by backing the project. It’s pretty mind-blowing, that “yes.” All the endless reservations, differences in taste, politics, and sensibility that kept various granting organizations or corporations from supporting my project are absent. Of course they may be hundreds of people viewing my video and reading my text who loathe it, but fortunately Kickstarter and Indiegogo have no guestbook for people who looked and left. Whomever might’ve rejected my project and moved on, I’m blissfully unaware, checking my email and racking up the next 15 backers who write me messages about how much they love the excerpt, and the idea of the film, and can’t wait to see it!
There are a lot of precedents for the kind of first-person documentary I’m making: just about anything by Ross McElwee, Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I, Thomas Allen Harris’s That’s My Face, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, and films by Alan Berliner, Jem Cohen, Doug Block, Su Friedrich, and others. I am not inventing a genre, just finding an authentic voice and structure within it. But finding money to make it is another story. Earth Camp One has been turned down by just about every place you could go to for documentary funding, but it’s GOTTEN funding from The Guggenheim Foundation, Netflix, Chicken & Egg, The French American Charitable Trust, and like most nonfiction projects that aren’t works for hire, it’s produce-as-you-go. This one is tricky because there really is some kind of aversion, amongst funders, to work in the first person. I’m not fond of the term “personal doc” as it implies you’re telling the story as therapy or for a small group of friends. No one called Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking or Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius “personal books.” Films in the first person can be self-indulgent, but so can the majority of Hollywood blockbusters. What could be more self-indulgent than the studio exec, whose main purpose in life is to keep his job, so that he green-lights a series of movies whose primary quality is that it looks like every film that came before them?
I think at least some of the discomfort that people have with films in the first person goes back to a time when men controlled printing presses and universities, and women were barred from running presses or getting an education. Women had one form of writing: the letter. Their language was personal, it was domestic, and they took their “I-statements” very seriously because the personal realm was their realm . They might dare to think about literature or politics or industry, but they didn’t speak about them: they were allowed to reflect on one thing and one thing only: their own experience.
I can’t help but think that the extent to which first person speech, in film, is considered too personal, or not appropriate to fund goes back to the sense that someone speaking in the first person speaks with a small voice, with a domestic voice, as opposed to with the authority of the state, the church, the university. Whether the filmmaker is Alan Berliner or Agnes Varda, there’s still a sense that if you are talking about yourself, it must be personal, and if it’s personal, it can’t be universal. Or, as a woman in the audience at a recent screening of Tiffany Shlain’s Connected, one of my favorite films of 2011, said, when I pressed her to tell me what she thought, “I think films like this one are self-indulgent because documentaries should be about something important, and if you’re talking about yourself, it means you think you’re important.” I appreciated this woman’s candor, but I think her views are not only unconsciously sexist, I think there’s an unfortunate sense that what’s important must be outside ourselves! And I would argue that what’s universal is not always what’s rubber-stamped by experts or confirmed by mass appeal, but is always a good story well-told: and that Joan Didion is no less universal than Toni Morrison: and that Tiffany Shlain is no less universal than Steven Spielberg: the difference is the form, not the authority of the speaker nor the weight of the story.
Jennie Livingston works in both fiction and nonfiction. Her films include Paris is Burning, Who’s the Top? and Through the Ice. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. This summer she directed a video for Elton John’s Las Vegas stage show, a series of portraits of New Yorkers to accompany the song “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.”