The meaning of the term ‘independent’ has of late become something of a paradox in recent cinema representing as it does two wildly different categories of form and content that have somehow come to be regarded by many as inherently similar or identical. The first and most well-known and accepted definition seems to be as a catch-all term representing cinema, most commonly from the United States, that is anti-mainstream, that which identifies itself with subcultures over majority interests and operates from the margins of traditional film production and distribution (preferring smaller producers over Hollywood studios and modest art house or speciality distribution over multiplexes and cinema chains). Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh and Charlie Kaufman are all typical of this movement, one that is rooted in an aesthetic that differentiates itself from majority taste, offering a sense of intelligence, literacy and originality that is often perceived (inaccurately, if I may add) as lacking in mainstream fare.
This movement’s ‘independence’ stems from an artistic sense rather than a financial sense as this sort of cinema is necessarily engaged in a dialogue with commercial cinema at the same time as it directly opposes it. This brings us to the second definition: that of guerrilla cinema. Whereas its counterpoint necessarily requires veiled funding from Hollywood studios (in the form of subsidiary companies such as Fox Searchlight, or Focus Features) as well as the support of celebrity actors, guerrilla cinema rejects any form of outside backing or distribution showcasing what John Berra views as ‘driven, resourceful […] filmmakers working against the grain of corporate sponsored cinema’*. Naturally rough around the edges, this second definition shares the innovative and alternative spirit that categorises the former though it also advocates a DIY attitude to film production that emphasises spontaneity, improvisation and a communal approach to film making, distribution and, perhaps most important, spectatorship that sets it apart from traditional cinema.
The attitude of this second definition is captured best in the phrase ‘No Gloss’, the name of a film festival which ran in Wharf Chambers in Leeds last weekend (8-9 September). The festival itself is hinged around the spontaneous ethics of the movement with its team only beginning to develop their ideas in February of this year and announcing themselves to the public via a website asking for submissions that was designed and launched in under a day. Submissions from the public were received as early as March and the sheer amount they received was both overwhelming and uplifting; Trent, one of the festival’s main organisers, tells me that they received upwards of 180 submissions which they inevitably whittled down to 60 or 70 entries for necessities sake.
All too aware of the duality inherent in the term independent, No/Gloss is not concerned with the artistic merits of the films involved, the bullshit of the Cannes critical mentality that Trent argues hangs over many festivals dictating what cinema can and cannot be, but by the possibilities of individuals and groups creating pieces of film in a largely exclusive business where the means to create are often beyond the reach of those hoping to get involved and that cinema can exist outside of the gloss that exists in mainstream film (including the independents of Tarantino, Soderbergh and Kaufman). To this end, No/Gloss maintains an atmosphere that encourages the sharing of ideas and ideals and to encourage people to get involved in the making of independent film, to be part of the filmmaking process no matter how small the budget or how short the distribution circuits are.
This is the primary ethos of the festival. The use of Wharf Chambers, a bar located in a decommissioned cotton mill in the centre of the city with its intimate space and inviting décor (a friend who I pass on the way to the festival remarks that the establishment feels more like a living room than a pub), is ideally suited for its means. The main viewing area emanates a spirit of camaraderie as well as carrying on the improvised feel of the films themselves: a black curtain separates the room from the bar area one that is decked with chairs and cushions strewn next to guitar amplifiers and microphone stands, signs of the pub’s forays into art and performance. At the back of the room is a projector that screens the films onto the wall in front. To the side stands Trent operating the laptop responsible for the festival’s content as if a DJ at a gig: in-between showings he speaks to the audience waiting for the next batch of films asking people what they think of the material so far or whether the sound levels are all right whilst lining up the next batch. People move between the two rooms grabbing a beer from the bar or indulging themselves with the free popcorn handed out by volunteers.
Between showings is held a Q&A session with the filmmakers in which they share their experiences with the crowd. Manchester based filmmaker Christian Sinclair, director of the headliner Mantis, speaks with a sense of reticence admitting how nervous he was about showing the film for the first time in front of a crowd of people. He praises the support of his local university and the help they gave him in providing him with equipment to make the film as well as the friends who gave their time to work on the production. Jonathon Ashdown and Stephen Gallacher talk about how their submission Big Al, a humorous take on the mafia film and the oft-quoted phrase ‘Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes’, was written and filmed in thirty-six hours showcasing the unabashed creativity that goes into this process.
Distribution is often an obstacle that blocks the independent filmmaker from having his or her work shown, something that has inevitably become easier with the dawn of the information age and the spread of the internet and viral videos (though the sheer size of cyberspace and the saturation of content still makes having films seen a difficult process). A series of films by Danny Plotnick, an American filmmaker operating in the boom of the original Indie filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch and Richard Linklater, show how wide the distribution channels have spread since the birth of Independent film in the 1980s. Blocked from traditional means of distribution, Plotnick and his crew would embark on road trips across the country showing their work in festivals as well as in cafes, clubs and warehouses in synch with the underground spirit. His work embodies the feel of the burgeoning movement, the sense of unease, impoverishment and disillusionment bubbling under the surface of Reaganite America, with his shorts (all filmed on gritty Super 8 video) variously mocking pop culture mentalities, documenting subcultures and underground icons and ironically underlining the seedier side of American life. Pillow Talk is perhaps the standout film showing a sleepless night through the eyes of a frustrated woman in a mouldy and decaying tenement building as her neighbours can be heard fucking and fighting through the walls and a creepy old woman stalks the laundry room meticulously guarding her delicates from theft.
Excerpts from the 5 Second Film series, comedic bursts that push the meaning of a ‘short’ film to its limit, contrast with Plotnick’s films and show the ways in which distribution channels have opened up in the course of the last twenty years with YouTube and purchasable URLs creating new ways for independent films to be discovered, though it still requires festivals like this to promote the work and to make sure audiences are aware of their existence in the sprawl of the information web. Other submissions also show the way in which filmic technology has progressed since Plotnick’s time and the ready availability of HD cameras and After Effects software have allowed filmmakers to make works of remarkable technical proficiency on limited budgets. The Feeling of Unreality, directed by Chris Stone, throws gunfights and demons into its visual mix whilst Blood and Bone China, also by Stone, is a feature length period vampire thriller (who would have thought that those three descriptions could in any way be associated with independent cinema?) that convincingly recreates the feel of Hammer horror films without the pressure of financial restraints.
To wax critically on the professionalism of these films would be to miss the point of the festival entirely though needless to say that every short or feature shown, be it fiction, animation, or documentary, displays the sheer talent and ingenuity of individuals on the very fringes of the filmmaking process. No/Gloss argues that a lack of funding should not stand in the way of those who wish to make films: indeed, the breadth and ability of the films showcased seems to nullify any excuse one would have as to why they cannot commit to their passion. It also reveals the sense of community that lies at the heart of independent production and the amount of people eager to share and join in the creation of guerrilla filmmaking. Contrary to what the auteur theory tells us, the story of film is not a story of individuals and, especially in the case of the independent sector, it requires communities and networks of talent to make it so, but it also requires festivals and programmes like No/Gloss to hold it all together.
No/Gloss will hopefully be returning to Leeds next year. Check out their links, as well as some of the individual films and filmmakers, and get involved:
* quote taken from Berra, J. (2008) Declarations of Independence: American Cinema and the Partiality of Independent Production, Bristol: Intellect Books (p. 16).