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Critic’s Notebook: Is the American Indie Film Extinct?

Critic's Notebook: Is the American Indie Film Extinct?

The film is about a traveler in a foreign land, stationed there for work; while on assignment, he falls in love with a native, even though the foreigner is due to return home soon. The film, made with a complicated formalist approach and focused on the foreigner's attempts to understand this new and exotic land, is mimicked by the filmmaker’s journey, because the director is the same nationality as his foreign subject.

This description might call to mind Alain Resnais' "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," but it just as easily describes Braden King's newly released "HERE" (which opens in Los Angeles next Friday). "HERE" is about an American cartographer on assignment in Armenia; after falling for an Armenian photographer, they travel the countryside together. It's not uncommon for filmmakers of different nationalities to make works that bear a resemblance to each another. "HERE" is set in Armenia, in which all but one character is Armenian, with a narrative that resembles a French-made film set in Japan more than anything else. So what exactly qualifies it as an "American" movie?

There’s no failsafe indicator for what determines a film’s nationality, but two main criteria come to mind: country of production and filmmaker nationality. Of course, filmmakers can have different nationalities from their films: No one’s going to argue that "Drive" is a Danish film because its director is Danish or that "The Darjeeling Limited" is an Indian film because it takes place in India. Generally speaking, "national cinema" tends to mean films made in a certain country by filmmakers of that nationality.

The thing is, filmmaker nationality and country of production have become increasingly complicated terms. "HERE" is just one of many recent high-profile "American" indies set outside the U.S. Joshua Marston's "The Forgiveness Of Blood," released earlier this year, was made in Albania with an all-Albanian cast. Any viewer who doesn’t know the filmmaker will assume it’s an Albanian film.

Julia Loktev, a Russian-American who has lived in the U.S. since she was nine, went to Georgia to make "The Loneliest Planet," which revolves around a Mexican man and an Israeli woman and their Georgian guide.

Antonio Campos shot "Simon Killer" (about an American man’s relationship with a French-Senegalese woman) in France. So Yong-Kim, a Korean-American who grew up in Los Angeles, made 2008's "Treeless Mountain" in South Korea. Sophia Takal ("Green") is making her next film in Africa. In short, low-budget filmmakers are broadening the geographical scope of their stories as never before.

The cause is globalization: Between the advent of technologies like Skype, increased internet access and social networking, it has never been so easy to contact people in an exotic locale and learn about their environment. A filmmaker can see a photograph in a magazine of a country like Armenia (as King did) and research that area with ease. Detailed knowledge of setting is a prerequisite for intelligent filmmaking; in the past, this has necessitated a kind of insular perspective in independent cinema. "Write what you know" is the well-worn aphorism, but contemporary technology has expanded the scope of what we can know. The information necessary to mount a film production in Armenia, Albania or Georgia 10 or 15 years ago would have been much tougher to come by.

The result (and one of the reasons we can expect this trend to continue) is that many of these indies, as a result of their settings, take on cinematic qualities that would otherwise belong in larger-budget films. "The Loneliest Planet" is a story about a couple's relationship falling apart, which is entirely familiar as an indie film cliché, but setting the film in an obscure foreign country (which indeed feels like a whole other planet) enabled Loktev to bring a palpable tension and strangeness to the film's atmosphere. One particular scene turns on a fear of the unknown that would have been unachievable had the film been set in the U.S. In "The Forgiveness of Blood," the Albanian setting enables the film to examine a strange and unfamiliar topic (blood feuds) for most American audiences.

Instead of making films in which excitement is supplied by special effects, these filmmakers have made films in which the setting is the special effect. Creating an unfamiliar and intriguing narrative is an imperative for most narrative cinema, but indie films often have it rough; due to budgetary constraints, they typically have to try to make the most ordinary, quotidian existence seem unfamiliar. Propelled by this interest in the unknown, we can see a route through which indies are regaining some of the weirdness and tension that had been lost, to some degree, due to financial constraints for American productions.

Filmmakers have to accept that the presumptuous label "American independent cinema" is no longer valid. It’s too simplistic in a global climate. Of course, a lot of Americans may want to slap that label on anything they can: "American Pie," "American Psycho," American Idol," and so on — but I would counter that in order for a film to be termed "American" it has to have a concrete, specific interest in this country. When content comes at us 24 hours a day from every corner of the earth, when researching Armenia is becoming as easy as researching Wisconsin, and when a shoot in Armenia is becoming as logistically feasible as a shoot in Wisconsin, filmmaking with a specifically American interest gives way to the lures of the rest of the world.

And so for us to claim the efforts of these filmmakers — influenced by vectors from Armenian magazine articles or French films — as "American" would be extremely disingenuous. It’s not unusual that the narrative of "HERE" recalls "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" to some degree; movies have been trading influences across international borders for as long as movies have been around. What is changing is that the logistics of research, communication and production are now enabling a world in which the filmmaking practice has become heterogeneous.

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Comments

Keith Chernin

Yes, we all love visiting new places via cinema, but if the narrative of a story lends itself to an alienating and otherworldly environment, it is a challenge to the filmmaker to make even the commonplace seem inhospitable. There is no need to travel around the globe when there is mystery waiting to be unearthed a half mile down the road.

Michael Medeiros

No, it's not extinct, it's thriving. Recent and ongoing advances in camera tech continue to democratize production and the results have not really hit the general radar yet. But they will! Our feature, Tiger Lily Road was shot on a micro budget and will compete visually with most of what's out there. It also means location is just not an issue. One of my next scripts deals with an American on a journey through Europe. Will it be an American film? I guess ultimately, who cares? — Bennett Park films

jingmei

This is an article narrow-minded. No matter indie or blockbusters commercially, since long ago Amercian film makers have already shoot films worldwide, not mention people who are like Steven Soderberg who based on indies to become famous then nowadays finds more or less boredom to shoot comercials but especially would like shoose bunch of areas in the world to shoot in one film, is like Haywire. Domestic Hollywood prefer shooting in compared less expensive neighborhood such as Canada to make films, that's just quite popular. From this to treat those cool indie films which shoot in different locations, but they still can be good indie films, this is just cool. So how about Littlerock, a native American dude Mike Ott, shoot in America native location, meanwhile still told an inspiring global humanity story. (not mention with the good relationship of Indiewire.) So what's the point of this article's concerning. No need at all.

SW

same goes here in LA, studios make "english speaking films" not american films (i.e; when was the last time you saw a socially conscious film about daily struggles of an american family, maybe in 70s?) but the argument is pointless, good film is what matters not the label; HERE should be judged if its a good emotional film or not; who cares about an essay focusing on web communications etc…and if you want to know the truth its the critics who murdered the indie movement, because they came down on emerging filmmakers with an axe never allowing them to grow. first film has to be either a box office hit or a Sundance winner to be able to make another film in this country; in such circumstances half of the french new wave would've never gotten a chance to make not even an industrial promo, let alone another film. Hardly any critic showed sympathy or understood and supported many young talented filmmakers. Its time for the same critics to turn the tables around and analyze themselves thoroughly and be more self critical and honest.

bguest

Very naieve article…think about the neighborhood and town you grew up in…the relationships with people you had there over many years, your understanding of the local schools, politics, neighborhoods…and then imagine an idiot showing up in your town saying he read some articles on wikipedia so he's ready to make a film about your town! That is the threat that's extinguishing a uniquely American indie cinema? Really? And soccer's gonna replace the NFL?

Jeremy Walker

the click-magnet headline of this story is misleading and frames the debate in an urgency that simply doesn't exist. Very Web-y.

C.F.

sounds like a description of transnational cinema.

F.P.

I'm sorry, are we forgetting the American identity is framed by the migration from other places in the world TO America, and therefore, children of migrants are frequently looking beyond these borders by their nature? While any of the films that have been name-checked here having nothing to do with migration, why is it a problem if American filmmakers work abroad? There's state money to be had, exotic locales, and a wealth of new ideas to present. Do we chastise Steve McQueen for filming in NYC, Winding Refn for shooting in LA? There's also an alarmist tone in the idea that we've forgotten to mine distinctly American stories when the most exciting film to play at Sundance this year was about the most American thing we export around the world. Centering COMPLIANCE in a fast-food restaurant, and ONLY in that space, while making a tense and uncomfortable premise come bursting through the screen, blows apart this article and its theory to bits. I say any filmmaker with a premise worthy of cinematic treatment has the obligation to film it wherever it makes the audience feel it most, and considering the navel-gazing reputation that Americans in general have about world events, we frankly need more international stories on our screens to combat this premise.

Ron Merk

Putting labels on anything seems to me to be a marketing tool more than anything else. We have to call things something. I've never understood why the thing cannot speak for itself, but in a world more concerned with the sizzle than the steak, labeling and branding have taken over where story and production value once ruled. We keep using labels like "independent American cinema," and yet no one is independent of the system in which we all swim and try to survive. It's called market capitalism. We make things, we sell things. So, no one is really independent at all. When we chose to embrace illusions, we're often disappointed. Many disaffected filmmakers look for a "clubhouse" to which they can belong. For a while, it was "being an indie." But as the money that we get for our projects turns from dollars to nickels, many filmmakers are trying to figure out "what the hell is going on" to the marketplace and our place in the world. The simple fact is that we are all so interdependent, and relying on response from others, for anyone to say they are independent, they would have be be locked up in solitary in a maximum security prison, with no outside contact or communication. I think the more pertinent discussion for most filmmakers, and one I would love to see explored, is how to monetize our films and programs in this new, fragmented world in which the big pie of distribution is being sliced into smaller and smaller slices.

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