Lost in Translation: American Indies Seek Inspiration Overseas
by Anthony Kaufman
"Ultimately, I think naval-gazing and solipsistic filmmaking is boring," says Joshua Marston, the writer-director of "Maria Full of Grace," the story of a Columbian girl who traffics drugs to the United States, which won an Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. "I'm not interested in my own life. I don't think it's that interesting," Marston explains. "I believe passionately in a cinema that looks outwards and seeks to find new experiences and hear other people's stories."
Marston is not alone. Whether it's the United States' recent sober awakening to other cultures or simply the ever-shrinking world in which we live, a number of novice American independent filmmakers are looking abroad for inspiration.
At Sundance 2004, Christian Johnson unveiled "September Tapes," a "Blair Witch"-style docu-fiction about a journalist's disappearance in Afghanistan, shot in Kabul and Southern Afghanistan. Traveling the 2003 festival circuit were two foreign-made indie debut features, Paxton Winter's Americans-in-Turkey satire "Crude" and Bradley Rust Gray's Iceland-set "Salt." And earlier this month, filmmakers Michael Ojeda and Joel Goodman premiered their Balkan immigrant melodrama "Lana's Rain" in Chicago-area theaters.
"I think America is more aware of the pain that people are going through in other cultures," says "Lana's Rain" producer Joel Goodman. "We can't just eat our dinner and watch footage of all these people dying on the news anymore. After 9-11, what we see on TV is more real and we're getting more compassionate."
Inspired by the filmmakers' own immigrant family backgrounds and the horrors of the Balkan war, "Lana's Rain" depicts the travails of a Bosnian woman who flees to the U.S., only to find herself sold into prostitution by her mobster brother. While lacking the subtlety of such recent British-made tales of immigrant strife ("The Last Resort," "Dirty Pretty Things," "In this World"), "Lana's Rain" is one of the only American films of late to focus on the struggles of foreign protagonists.
Like Ojeda, Paxton Winters "didn't want to make something didactic," he explains. "Crude" -- which won top jury awards at the Los Angeles and Seattle Film Festivals and follows two hapless backpackers making their way through Turkey -- comes from Winter's eye-opening journeys around the world, particularly a resonant experience traveling along Asia's Silk Road for 15 months. "The culmination of that amazing trip gave me a different perspective," he says. "I am an American and I very much believe in the ideals the country was set on, but I wasn't going back to America to make a romantic comedy."
"Bush has done horrendous things to foreign policy and the view of America in the eyes of other countries," continues Winters, whose political beliefs inform the satiric bent of "Crude." "However," he adds, "I'm more interested in stories and characters"
Likewise, Bradley Rust Gray was compelled to make a film set in Iceland because of a character that was in his head: a young woman from a small fishing village -- where he had once spent time as an exchange student at Iceland's College of Arts and Crafts. Gray was attracted to the isolation and remoteness of the small Icelandic locale, both as an extension of his own alienated upbringing in Florida, but also as place so faraway from the U.S. experience that he could take liberties and be inventive with what he was depicting onscreen.
"I can lie about what Iceland is about, but I can't lie what Montana is about," he explains. "If you're doing a movie in a foreign country that other people don't know about, you're creating a new world apart from what people think it will be like."
Gray's reasons were also financial: he had been trying to get a pair of U.S.-based projects up-and-running after the success of his poetic short film "Hitch," but discovered that nobody in the States could raise financing. "I could do it for real cheap, but nobody's going to give you the money if you're not asking for enough," he says. "There's no system set up here for people to pay for a $100,000 movie."
"It is cheaper to go off and shoot in a foreign country," admits Gray, who self-financed the DV-shot "Salt" and is considering producing his next project in Canada. "People are more interested in helping out, whereas generally speaking, in Los Angeles, it's almost impossible. You can't even shoot in your own house without getting a permit."
"If you go to a foreign country and you have a foreign producer," adds Gray, "you're eligible for foreign money and that's more conducive to experimental filmmaking, especially in France and Germany."
While foreign tax laws and national subsidy guidelines are often in flux (the U.K. recently tightened a loophole, throwing a number of productions off track), additional countries such as Brazil, Iceland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg are known for their various tax incentive "soft money" programs, as long as local producers are involved. "Salt" didn't directly benefit from such financial schemes, but the Icelandic Film Fund helped pay for the movie's blowup from digital video to 35mm when it was accepted at the 2003 Berlin Film Festival. (Still without a U.S. release, "Salt" will play in the "Village Voice: Best of 2003" program at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music this June.)
Winter agrees that shooting abroad can mean shooting cheaply and with more help from the community. "In Turkey, without a doubt, I was able to do a lot more with a lot less money than I could have in the States," he says. "And there is an incredible resourcefulness. When something breaks in the U.S., you throw it away or you buy a new one, whereas 'no' is not an answer in Turkey. There's always an alternative way to do something and that is very conducive to independent filmmaking."
Winters also notes there's lot less competition making movies overseas. "There's not a lot of American filmmakers outside of America," he says. "Here in New York, I'm one of a gazillion."
While runaway Hollywood blockbusters continue to be made more cheaply all the way from Morocco to Mexico, Winter says the run-and-gun, intimate nature of indies can get to places where the studios can't. While shooting in Southeast Turkey on the Iranian border, a multi-million dollar film project was denied access, whereas Winter says, "We went there and talked to the village chief, and not only did they not take money from us, but they opened up their houses, fed us and they were extras in the film."
"Lana's Rain" director Michael Ojeda relates a story about the few days he and his director of photography spent shooting exteriors in Croatia. To create the visceral feel of a country besieged by battle, they spotted a random pile of tires near the already bombed-out buildings and lit them on fire. "There was black smoke everywhere," he says, "and we got this awesome shot." Could he have pulled off the same improvised special effects in the U.S.? "Probably not," he says.
With the exception of "Maria Full of Grace," which Fine Line will release in July, the other films discussed here have not yet found a wider audience ("Crude" and "Salt" don't have distribution, while "Lana's Rain" has Chicago-based David Sikitch pushing a micro-release). But the hope is that moviegoers finally may be looking to other cultures and peoples than ever before.
"The great thing about Bush is that before Bush people didn't know about the rest of the world," says Winter, who is currently working on his next project "Iraqi Freedom," a script he workshopped at the Sundance Lab about an American solider who develops an intense relationship with an Iraqi family. "But now, there's a lot more people thinking about what's going in the rest of the world. And there's a little more interest in how we're viewed," he adds, "and what we're up to and why we're up to it."