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First Person: Jim Mckay - The Fate of AIVF and the Question of Community

By Indiewire | Indiewire April 8, 2006 at 10:48AM

While I have cherished the AIVF for years and benefited from the organization and my participation in it greatly, I feel that it has, for quite awhile now, consistently failed to live up to its mission. This is not necessarily the fault, as I see it, of any recent Executive Directors, staff members, or board (though we all had our negatives, I'm sure). It is simply because as time has passed and the country and its media and art scenes have changed, the mission of AIVF has became increasingly impossible to fulfill.
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While I have cherished the AIVF for years and benefited from the organization and my participation in it greatly, I feel that it has, for quite awhile now, consistently failed to live up to its mission. This is not necessarily the fault, as I see it, of any recent Executive Directors, staff members, or board (though we all had our negatives, I'm sure). It is simply because as time has passed and the country and its media and art scenes have changed, the mission of AIVF has became increasingly impossible to fulfill.

This is not a simple situation and there are no simple answers. But here are a few of the larger problems, as I see it:

SCOPE: The organization is national, not local, and yet it runs on a comparatively small budget and can never fully reach and serve its constituency (despite good faith attempts like the salons, workshop tours, and regional issues of the magazine, etc.). Trying to reach out to such a wide base has challenged the organization's coffers and priorities while at the same time done little to change the image that it is NY-centric.

THE HIP FACTOR: As "independent film" became more trendy and enticing, AIVF got caught in a downward spiral of trying to "keep it real" in terms of its grassroots history while at the same time trying to siphon some of the energy, fabulousness, and, potentially, funding that was coming from what would become the mini-major scene. Organizations like indieWIRE and Filmmaker Magazine have been able to have feet in both ponds because they are written media only. The Independent (Film & Video Monthly) magazine tried to do this, but was also beholden to the mission of the organization, which, in reality, couldn't be more adverse to things like celebrity directors, box office comparisons, etc. And so the magazine (and the organization, as well), began to sink in both ponds.

TECHNOLOGY: For an organization representing media that has been consistently moving away from analog storytelling, AIVF never got up to speed technologically, forget about breaking new ground.

ALL OF THESE THINGS HAPPENED because the organization was always behind the ball, always trying to change and catch up and bring in new people while in the midst of also trying to simply stay afloat and remain faithful to its original goals and membership. The struggle to stay solvent, combined with the constant tug and pull of a constituency that wanted diverging things, led to an inertia that became, ultimately, debilitating.

One can see from some of the comments that people wrote in to indieWIRE about the situation that many people out there are not interested in an organization that provides support and community. They are interested in an organization that will somehow, for their $75 a year, find them funding and distribution for their feature film.

Since AIVF is not that organization, what is it? When I served on the board, I realized that it was slowly becoming harder and harder to answer the question, "why should I join AIVF?" For many, the answer was immediately "you get a good discount on insurance coverage." A great benefit, but hardly the reason for an organization to exist. My answer was always more abstract, about being a part of a community, having connection to media makers who were real heroes and groundbreakers -- members like Barbara Hammer, Julia Reichert, James Schamus, Arthur Dong. The list goes on and on. But this idea of community and connection, it felt like it was becoming more and more about the history of the organization than it was about the present day.

In the present day, we are dealing with a societal inertia that is the product of a massive effort by our government to bring "democracy" to other countries while stripping our own citizens of any role or voice in their media or political spectrum. Government support for alternative or public media is practically non-existent. Foundation support has dwindled tremendously. Corporate support goes to...well, corporate friendly organzations.

A truly grassroots, activist media organization cannot rely on awards dinners with $10,000 tables. Or ad revenue from movie studios. Or support from a membership base that has changed with the times, either.

In the course of writing this, I went to the AIVF website and was confronted with the fact that as I type, AIVF is in the midst of a fundraising campaign to raise $75,000 to "reinvent" the organization. The last thing I want to do is undermine that effort. Yet descriptions of how this reinvention will happen, however well-intentioned, still seem vague and far less radical than is needed. If AIVF is to live, it needs to present the media community with a specific, radical reimagining of the organization, one that presents itself as not only unique and necessary, but also dependable and self-sustaining.

A new paradigm must emerge.

Whether it emerges from within a "reinvented" AIVF or from its ashes, we desperately need a community and a voice for real alternative, grassroots political and personal work.

Jim McKay is a writer/producer/director based in Brooklyn. His films include "Girls Town," "Our Song," "Everyday People," and the upcoming "Angel." He is a former AIVF board member.

This article is related to: Advocacy