Getting it right on a shoestring budget

The Independent Days section of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which kicked off in the northern city yesterday and runs to December 12 at the port complex at the end of Thessaloniki’s coastal promenade, is one of the event’s most revealing sections as it highlights what indie filmmakers are up to around the world. It is also a section which proves that where there’s a will, there’s a way, as much of the work showcased was developed on a shoestring budget and pushed through by virtue of tenacity and teamwork. This is the case for one young American independent, Matt Porterfield, a Baltimore-based filmmaker who premiered his first feature film, «Putty Hill» (due to be screened in Thessaloniki), at the influential South by Southwest (SXSW) festival held every spring in Austin, Texas. Tagged by the press as a «guerrilla» filmmaker, Porterfield drew the material for «Putty Hill» – a portrait of a community in decline as told through the reminiscences of the friends and family of a young man who dies of a heroin overdose – from the groundwork he had done for another project that fell through due to lack of funding. Porterfield went into the film with a tiny crew, a cast of nonprofessionals, $20,000 and a three-week lease on a camera. He tells Kathimerini English Edition what his work is about and how he thinks independent filmmakers will fare in the future. Your films are about urban life. Are cities where it all happens? Are they the microcosms of a country? If so, what does Baltimore say about the USA? More precisely, my work is about the outlying areas of Baltimore City, where urban and suburban life meet. It’s true, American cities generate much of the media culture that Americans (and the rest of the world) consume. In terms of cinema, it’s Los Angeles and New York that dominate. But the US is so large, each state, each region, has its own distinct culture. I visit Texas and it’s like visiting another country. The East Coast is very different from the West. And the Pacific Northwest, Portland, Seattle, has a distinct culture, too. Then there’s the middle of the country, which is vast. Being in a postindustrial East Coast city like Baltimore is very different than growing up in the Midwest. What does Baltimore say about the USA? I see a lot of disenfranchised communities in Baltimore, which says to me that the citizens are not getting what they need from the government in terms of social services, most importantly education and healthcare. I see many individuals who have lost hope. The rest of the world sees the US as a land of opportunity and privilege. What do you have to say to them, both as an American and as an artist? The American Dream has a seductive power. I believe it’s easier to immigrate to America with nothing and build a life than it is to be born into poverty in America and find opportunity. Because our government continues to build its deficit through improper spending, public services cannot compete with the private sector. As an artist, there is little state and federal funding available to me, so I search for private equity to finance my films. You use a mixture of documentary-style footage and the techniques of cinema verite. In combination with your nonprofessional cast, were these choices dictated by necessity or by your vision? Both. I’ve always been interested in the potential of working with a nonprofessional cast, but I also believe in making art that is built with the parameters of your particular economy in mind. Every decision I make is driven as much by economic concerns as by aesthetic ones. What does the future look like for American independent filmmakers? Do they have a chance? Certainly. As technology changes, means of production, distribution and exhibition change, and artists adapt. Though it will become increasingly cost-prohibitive to make feature-length narrative films for the darkened theater, people will still tell stories for television and the Internet. Filmmakers will make cinema for the mobile phone and the PDA. The other independent Americans Twenty-nine-year-old Aaron Katz from Portland, Oregon, presents «Cold Weather,» a 2010 drama about the bond that develops between two siblings following the mysterious disappearance of a girl. For the director, «Cold Weather» represents a departure from mumblecore (an indie movement that emerged in the USA in the early 2000s), an evolution in cinematic style, as well as more sophisticated and subtle character presentation, arising from a polished and intelligent script. His 2007 film «Quiet City» received an Independent Spirit Award. From another big American city, David Robert Mitchell brings us «The Myth of the American Sleepover,» a comedy drama set in Detroit about a group of teens living it up in the city for one final weekend before school starts again in September. The film received a Special Jury Award at the 2010 South by Southwest festival for its ensemble cast. New Yorker Lena Dunham, meanwhile, uses her own family members and their experiences as the backdrop for «Tiny Furniture,» a fictional account of actual situations that occurred in the 24-year-old filmmaker’s household when she graduated from college and was wondering what her next step would be.

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