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Support Your Local Contrarians: A Manifesto for Local Filmmaking

This is a manifesto for local collective filmmaking. My experience is with Georgia and UGA but is not isolated to it. Student filmmaking has been a place where I’ve seen creative people ground down to shiny, marketable, employable good workers. I’m really tired of being a good worker. I care about film more than I care about any other medium; I find it uniquely communal in its production and exhibition, and I think that it’s a beautiful way to textually fix the energy of a collective of like-minded and self-motivated creative people. How does making a Hollywood-style short student film document the collective happiness of making a movie with your friends?

A still from my short documentary of the same name documenting Scrawls on Cinema in our first official production venture.

Have we lost that understanding of film as a communal endeavor? Streaming services and COVID have exacerbated the atomizing tendencies of the past 20 years, and with newfound vertical integration and monopolies forming in Hollywood, how is making films that play into that same mindset any form of resistance? I’m not naive enough to think that a few people banging out ratty student films on VHS and Super-8 is going to be a viable alternative to the pretty hand of Hollywood that’s so tightly gripping my peers’ necks, but at least it’s something local. Why does Georgia have such robust film production infrastructure but no indigenous film scene, no unique feel? Are we so comfortable with runaway production that we’ll aspire to be enveloped within it? I’m surrounded by bright people in my classes who don’t have the film culture necessary to cultivate these things. The piecemeal program at UGA as it is, a brief two years where you can essentially graduate without having ever watched a screening for class, is creating technically adept filmmakers but not nourishing ambitions toward art cinema. I don’t say that just to be a pretentious film snob; making anti-Hollywood films is a way in which one can resist the corporate hellscape to which we’re so bound.

It starts locally. Athens is a place that fostered a significant music scene years ago and its shadow still looms large over musicians here today. Why isn’t the same thing happening in film? We have Ciné, a place all of us should be attending regularly and in as large of groups as possible. We have caring and intelligent teachers in entertainment and media studies, film studies, and video art. We have ties to industrial figures in Atlanta for film production and post-production. We have a small (but committed) film club and production offshoots of that. The component parts are all here, but what’s missing is a dedicated fire under the ass and the potential to see student filmmaking as something more than résumé builders or portfolio padders for when we go into the “real” world. What’s so fake about right now? Student filmmaking is an independent venture that gives you leeway in being risky and shitty and creative and ambitious. It will always be seen as worse than large-scale industrial filmmaking, and that perception is only getting worse with the ballooning budgets of Hollywood pictures. If it’s doomed to be a failure from the start, why not fail boldly? 

Student filmmaking has the benefit of already being pejorative. You can’t get much worse than having you work called “amateurish” or having “film school” used as an adjective to describe it. Isn’t that freeing? Film began from individual hobbyists, bricoleurs who took component parts from different technology and used them in search of moving images. We owe Citizen Kane to the humble sewing machine. Have we lost that sense of experimentation? Of wonder at discovering a new language with no Rosetta Stone? Celluloid is old, but it’s not all we have to work with: VHS, shitty DV, webcams, your old DSi; the medium with which you work is unique and you are not required to have high end equipment to make something beautiful and, more importantly, authentic. You don’t need an Arri Alexa, you don’t need a DSLR, and you certainly don’t need permission to start expressing yourself with film and video. The only gatekeeping that matters is that of personal taste, and that’s something that you should constantly be working to define and refine. Having a good grasp on the films that came before you and align with your sensibility isn’t about having pretentious name-dropping bonafides, it’s about learning the vocabulary and grammar others have used to express the same feelings you have. You are learning how to read so that you can learn how to write.

Learning how to write is a lot of work and it’s certainly not the path of least resistance. It’s very easy to sit back and watch whatever series has just dropped on Netflix. It’s okay if you do this, but you have to understand that you are working with the ultimate goal of producing with everything you consume: everything that crosses your gaze must be turned into grist for the mill. Working toward this, again, is a lot of effort. Here are the ways in which I’ve learned to try and do this for myself. It should go without saying that this becomes exponentially easier when you’re doing it with a group of people as well. Watch at least one movie every day and do a small write-up about it. Letterboxd is ideal but a notebook for yourself will do just fine. It can be a short film for all I care, but say something fucking original about it. If you miss a day, watch two the next day to make up for it. Be cine-literate. Watch films you haven’t seen before. Watch boring films, foreign films, problematic films, perverse films. Watch things that challenge you. Watch your friends’ films. Contribute to their goals and ambitions. Have some damn ambitions of your own. Have a personal canon and a point of view and an ideological project that you are advancing with every work you make. Never put your name (above the line, at least) on anything that you don’t believe to be worth your time and a good representation of yourself. If it’s shit, make the next one better; it’s only an ass-whooping if you didn’t learn anything. Have some goddamn pride about yourself and make something that you think is important. Make sure your friends are doing it too. The people around you are making things that are more interesting than the antiseptic slop Netflix is feeding you every week and you are morally obligated to support your local contrarians and quit deferring to the faceless corporate monoliths that don’t really give a shit about you anyway. Local, coordinated, communal filmmaking is our best shot at telling our own stories.

Runaway production is a big problem in Georgia, but these same problems aren’t just state-wide, they’re national, global even. I’m using Georgia as a case study because it’s my community and I care about it and if I don’t intervene, I don’t know who else will. You can make something special wherever you are. New York and L.A. weren’t picked for film production hubs because creative ley lines lead there; they were picked because of existing cultural production and close-knit communities in New York and predictable weather and atrocious labor laws in L.A. Georgia has one of L.A.’s qualities and the polar opposite of the other, so there’s that. Basically, if you’re a creative person, you can make things anywhere. Life doesn’t have to be one big crawl toward an urban center, one bum-rush to the top of the industry. You can be more fulfilled with the autonomy that small, amateurish, low-quality production provides. I can’t promise you that a local rhizome of little provincial indie scenes is a viable alternative to the arborescent production strategies that giants in Hollywood have very carefully refined over decades, but I can tell you it’s a lot more fun. Go make something you care about. Go on. This is me giving you permission.