AUSTIN, TX: With so much (warranted) scrutiny these days on the mainstream film industry’s shameful shortage of films by and about women, LGBT people, and people of color, it’s very easy to assume that inclusion is inherently easier and more prevalent in the world of independent film. But it’s not quite as simple as that, according to the filmmakers who gathered Monday afternoon for South by Southwest’s panel, “The State of Diversity in Independent Film.” Gatekeepers are still out there, and most of them are still (consciously or not) more inclined towards art that reflects their own experiences. But the good news, as noted by the panel, is that you can frequently cut those gatekeepers out of the equation.
“We don’t really go in rooms, we just go out and make our stuff,” said Matthew Cherry, whose debut film The Last Fall premiered here in 2012; he’s back this year with 9 Rides. “I think the reason why we don’t attempt to go in rooms is we kind of already know what it’s gonna look like… It’s one thing to just complain about it and say why me and woe is me. But the great thing about independent film is even if you don’t have access to money, if you have access to resources — whether that be equipment or friends that are down, so you can barter — you can just go out there and make your stuff.”
In fact, some of these filmmakers have come around to the realization that their identities and experiences are a bonus rather than a disadvantage. “For me, the big revelation came when I realized that the fact that I’m different and the fact that I’m unique is a freaking gift,” announced Sudhanshu Saria, whose debut film LOEV is playing at this year’s festival. “That’s the greatest strength I have. What the hell would I do if I was a 29-year-old white male screenwriter, living in West Hollywood, trying to figure out how to get my film made? Now I get to go be exotic and different and talk about this past — and it’s all the same shit, about falling in love and falling out of love, but at least I can put some scenes with, like, Indian curry-making or something. So the moment I realized that me being me was the greatest asset I have, I stopped looking at it as a disadvantage.”
The only catch, Saria continued, is the kind of stories people are used to hearing from people who look like him. “There’s a certain expectation that these festivals have of what an Indian arthouse film should be. They need to be about poverty, or migration, or some kid dying and snotty noses. There’s a ‘poverty porn’ expectation people have, that’s just not the world I come from. In my world, there’s Indians, and they drive BMWs, and they stay at the Four Seasons hotel. So what the hell is a festival supposed to make of that? They’re like, ‘What’re we championing here? Bourgeois? Third-world bourgeois? We have enough first-world bourgeois!'”
But that expectation can lead to questions of overall representation, particularly in a landscape where there are so few of those voices. “There’s a burden to tell underrepresented stories,” said Logan Kibens, whose debut film Operator is screening at this year’s festival. “And when you’re somebody who has the ability to tell those stories, if an audience member or someone sees themselves reflected in you, they’re gonna be like, ‘Why aren’t you telling my story?’ But it’s because I’m telling my story… The burden of telling everyone’s story is, like, you’re a chef, but you should make airline food that caters to everybody. No, I’m not United Airlines.
“You can find a commonality with anybody, even people who you don’t look like, if you can find a vulnerable connection,” she continued. “I believe in films that are really specific, and art that’s really specific, because I think that becomes more universal. But I do think there’s a burden to create an outward universality, which is a little bit antithetical to art-making.”
Luckily, the tools are in place in the current environment to not only make these films inexpensively, but get them in front of audiences who are hungry for them. I’m old enough to remember a time, barely more than a decade ago, when you couldn’t submit a film shot on video to major film festivals; now, like Cherry, you can shoot a feature on your phone that looks better than 16mm ever did. And between user-generated content sites, an expanded cable landscape, and pretty much every website shopping for “original content,” there are more opportunities than ever. But is there a reverse problem? With so many opportunities, is it now harder to make enough noise to rise about the static?
“It used to be that the technology made that first step harder to get to, so the initial pool was smaller,” Kibens explained. “With the technology of the medium being so much more accessible, the entry is easier but the pool is larger, for that first step… In my millions of moments of frustration, some of them had to do with thinking the pool is so over-saturated.”
So for these three, it’s again a matter of standing out by being unique. “If I had made a regular film with two people in Hollywood falling in love or whatever, in my opinion, it would’ve been a hundred times harder to get this film seen,” Saria said. “It’s because I’ve made this love story, between two men, set in India, etc., etc… We are lucky that we are unique, and that’s the reason why the films we make will be seen.”
And the more they get seen, the more they inspire others to do the same. Or, as Cherry put it, “My thing was, if we can prove we can get name talent, premiere at a major festival, and it actually looks good? Hopefully this young kid who’s int he Midwest somewhere who aspires to be a filmmaker and has an iPhone that his parents bought him, can be like, ‘Oh wow, I can tell my story too.'”