09 April 2010

Artist or Agent of Change?

by guest columnist Frederick Marx.  Follow him on Twitter.

I’m a filmmaker driven by both artistic and social concerns. All too often the question I have to ask myself is “which comes first?” Am I an artist first and an agent of social change second? Or vice versa?

Independent documentary filmmakers wrestle with this particular intersection of concerns all the time.

First let me say that I will always carry interest in both realms. Whatever I choose to make you can be sure it will be a product embodying both areas of interest. This has been true since the earliest experimental short films I made in the `80s. This was true even in the music I wrote and produced for fun in the early `90s.

You might say the question comes down to which takes precedence: form or content? Fundamentally, of course, the two are inseparable. But for the sake of argument you could say that aesthetic concerns (form) constitute the “artistic” realm and subject (content) constitutes the social realm. Again, I find them both compelling, but perhaps not equally so, and not in the same ways.

But if I had to choose one identifying label I’d most prefer it’s artist. Hands down. There’s a freedom in that term, a license to do what feels most right to me, a satisfying disconnect from the needs and demands of the market, from audiences, from constituents. Labeling oneself publicly as an artist means being exempted from undue concern with those things. It also carries with it greater license to choose both form and content with maximum flexibility and relative impunity. Labeling oneself primarily as a social filmmaker all too often means placing minimal emphasis on form and subjecting oneself more to the dictates of filmmaking’s social norms regarding form. Those norms that say ambiguity is not good, that any narration is better than none, that talking heads are always necessary, that issues drive documentaries, not stories, impressionism, experimentation or poetry.

The choice between labeling myself as an artist vs. a social change agent came down to, believe it or not, marketing. Labeling myself a change agent became a commercial decision. Instead of “How do you most want to be known?” the key question for me became “What moniker most clearly points the way to a financial future with some stability?” Simply put, I thought I had the best chance at making a living by aligning myself with social causes.

I realize the irony of this. People do not flock to careers in the social change arena because of the money. But let’s be real. It’s probably one of the few career paths you can choose that actually is more lucrative than being an artist. Put it this way – drawing a salary, however small, is easier to stabilize and maintain a certain lower middle class lifestyle than the totally uncertain income from film royalties and freelance work.

HOOP DREAMS laid the groundwork for that happening. Though perhaps not in the way you’d expect.

Prior to HOOP DREAMS' release I had a budding career as a film artist. I had premiered two of my films in the NY Film Festival. My shorts were being distributed by small distributors internationally and had won awards at numerous festivals. (See my blog: “Giving me the business.”) But once HOOP DREAMS came out I suddenly became something I had no interest in being: a documentary producer. Despite being a “co-maker” of the film, co-editor and writer, the label “producer” was thrust upon me by the industry. And producing tasks are the filmmaking tasks I most abhor!

Over the subsequent ten years I returned to what I had done before HOOP DREAMS: making my own “artistic” films - the feature film THE UNSPOKEN and a TV mini-series BOYS BECOME MEN? Though I’m extremely proud of them, they did what all my previous films had not done – they flopped. So around 2003 I found myself at a crossroads: how can I go forward making films? It was then I decided to go forward as a social filmmaker, in effect to rebrand myself.

So I did all the things that social filmmakers do: I founded a non-profit company, I developed a company mission, put together a Board, solicited donations rather than investments, etc. Not everybody thought this was a good idea. I have dear friend in Chicago, who, despite losing money in my for-profit investment project THE UNSPOKEN, thought this was a mistake. He thought I should stay the course, building my brand as an artist, working in the traditional marketplace. I respected his point of view, and in a perfect world I probably would’ve done that, but in 2003 I couldn’t see a future continuing in that direction. I recognized the brutal realities of the marketplace, I recognized my weaknesses as a producer, fundraiser, salesman, and marketer, (I’ve often said I may not have a commercial bone in my body), I recognized my passion for social change and my identification with mission and service over profit, I recognized how historically I had made the most money not through for-profit projects like THE UNSPOKEN but through non-profit projects like HOOP DREAMS, and I thought, “No, this is where I belong.” I had also seen many independent filmmakers and small film businesses go out of business over the previous 30 years because they didn’t become non-profits soon enough (or at all).

So I publicly redefined my company mission (“bearing witness, creating change”), gave up once and for all on making profits, aligned myself with the downtrodden, and turned my attention full time to how I could use my filmmaking to make this a better world. I created a company policy to turn over all film revenues above production costs and overhead to the filmed subjects and their causes. I opened my doors as a public charity.

There are other reasons too. If it takes me, on average, five to six years to make a film, any film, I might as well make one that is more likely to satisfy social needs. I’ll still exercise some artistic muscle along the way. But conversely, if I strive solely to fulfill artistic objectives, most likely I will not only never be paid, I may also never directly serve any social ends. Lastly, in this age of ubiquitous media it feels exploitive not to include film subjects as partners in the film’s business plan - so that they too will benefit if the film succeeds.

Even now, with the insane difficulties of the last two years of recession, I still think I made the right decision. The only way forward for me now is to convince as many people on the planet as possible (and to a lesser extent, foundations) that I will hold their dollars in sacred trust, to produce programs of value to positively shift the social reality we all inhabit.

Still, there’s that artist in me who says “Fuck it! Let’s make something wild and crazy, just for fun!” And of course I can. But unlike social filmmaking, I bear absolutely no more illusions I’ll ever be paid for my time – at the front end through salary (paid by investments), or at the back end (paid by royalties). But as a “social worker” I still hold to the intention that yes, I can make a living from this.

But we’ll see. With economic realities becoming harder every day, that may yet prove to be just as great an illusion!

What about you filmmakers out there? Are you an artist or a social change agent? Why?

Frederick Marx  is an internationally acclaimed, Oscar and Emmy nominated producer/director with 35 years in the film business.   He was named a Chicago Tribune Artist of the Year for 1994, a 1995 Guggenheim Fellow, and a recipient of a Robert F. Kennedy Special Achievement Award.  His film HOOP DREAMS played in hundreds of theatres nationwide after winning the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and was the first documentary ever chosen to close the New York Film Festival.  It was on over 100 “Ten Best” lists nationwide and was named Best Film of the Year by critics Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, Gene Shalit, and Ken Turran and by the Chicago Film Critics Association. Ebert also named it Best Film of the Decade. It won numerous prestigious awards, including an Academy Nomination (Best Editing), Producer’s Guild, Editor’s Guild (ACE), Peabody Awards, the Prix Italia (Europe’s top documentary prize) and The National Society of Film Critics Award.  The New York, Boston, LA, and San Francisco Film Critics all chose it as Best Documentary, 1994.  Utne Reader named it one of 150 of humanity’s “essential works,” the Library of Congress recently added it to its prestigious National Film Registry and the International Documentary Association named it the Best Documentary Ever.


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