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An Injury to One is An Injury to All… Filmmakers

An Injury to One is An Injury to All... Filmmakers

Last October, I blogged about the belated–and much welcomed–DVD release of Travis Wilkerson’s celebrated agit doc “An Injury to One,” a stirring, compelling and formally innovative documentary about the lynching of a famous union agitator named Frank Little in Montana nearly a century ago. The film had garnered added relevance with the growing Occupy Wall Street movement, and was singled out by Dennis Lim in an L.A. Times story as “one of American independent cinema’s great achievements of the past decade”: The film seemed to have found an ideal moment to enter the mediasphere. But not so, according to Wilkerson.

“I had some real hopes for it. That people might finally see the film, ten years after I made it,” Wilkerson wrote to me in an email. But then something funny happened on the way to the ancillary release: Only 56 people purchased it. “56 total purchases, rentals, and downloads. 56. In three months,” Wilkerson complained. “No wonder I’ve never sold out,” he added. “Clearly, I have nothing whatsoever to sell.”

The problem of distribution remains perhaps the most diffcult obstacle for independent filmmakers these days. The dearth of sales for “An Injury to One” is just one more example. When an indie film as topical and as critically acclaimed as “An Injury to One” can’t cut through the clutter and find its audience, what can other filmmakers expect? Everyone is heralding the arrival of digital distribution as some kind of panacea for indies, but it’s not. It’s arguably just as crowded and cutthroat as anything else. And the film’s title even puts it at the front of the alphabet. (You can still buy it on Amazon or download it from iTunes.)

Fortunately, Wilkerson has continued to perservere in his unflinching and uncompromising work: He had two shorts at Sundance 2012, “Pluto Declaration,” a paean for Pluto (“Bring back planet Pluto. The solar system is 12!”), and his segment from “Far from Afghanistan,” “Fragments of Dissolution,” which the Sundance catalogue described as a “poetic, anguished cry from the heart of a rotting empire, where four women describe their own unique hells.”

“Far from Afghanistan,” which I reported on last year, continues to move forward, according to Wilkerson, as the project’s instigator, filmmaker John Gianvito, continues to integrate footage from a number of Afghan filmmakers and refine the omninus film. With the recent horrible events in that country, this project has also grown in relevance.

But among today’s glutted, apathetic consumers, you have to wonder if anyone will seek it out when it’s complete.

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Or we might just acknowledge that those few in search of either knowledge or the excitements of new forms don't look to the movies any longer. The medium can be abused by the larger community for only so long. When the trite and the unexceptional is routinely hailed as the monumental, and livelihoods are bound up in promoting the forgettable and the dispensable, it will be difficult to cultivate an audience.

Justin Kownacki

Unfortunately, positive reviews and accolades don't automatically translate into a viewer choosing to press the button that says "Watch Now." Plus, documentaries about potentially downcast subject matter will usually be a harder sell than feel-good comedies.

The good [and bad] news is that digital distribution has removed the barrier for ALL media. So while the playing field has been leveled in one sense, the need for relentless self-promotion has increased a thousandfold.

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