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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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