Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

My First Essay: The Performance of Being a Filmmaker

May 1 2019

In August of 2015, I went to my first international, and fourth ever, film festival, for my short film I Remember Nothing. Before I went a man I knew, who was a well established cinematographer and had been to many festivals, told me, “Make sure you talk to everybody and have one nice thing to say about each person’s film.”

Somehow in the blistered-foot, hot haze of mingling and making out with other short filmmakers from around the world, I found myself at a screening for Chantal Akerman’s last feature film, No Home Movie. The warehouse-turned-1000-seat-theater was packed. It was the first premiere for a feature film I had ever attended, and the audience was buzzing, electric almost, exactly what I had imagined it would be for one of the godmothers of avant-garde cinema. It was unseasonably warm out and I remember a few of the attendees I went with had decided to attend the two-hour-plus screening to beat the heat, and had no idea who Chantal Akerman was.

Twenty minutes after the film started, before I could even make sense of the rhythm, I began to notice a steady stream of people getting up from their seats and shuffling towards the exit. There was only one door, just to the left of the screen. To leave you had to follow the flow of people up to the front of the theater and then line up parallel to the screen, waiting for the person ahead of you to move forward and ultimately out of the theater. For the next hour I watched as more than half the theatre emptied. It became so absurd that I laughed, multiple times, during the course of the very deliberate and patient film. The stream of people became interwoven with the experience of watching the film and its narrative. It became a theatrical performance where each impatient character was momentarily dwarfed by the moving images, by which they were so bothered. Audiences were more eager to stand outside in the sweltering Swiss summer than sit in an air-conditioned room to watch a woman’s rumination on the final months of her mother’s life.

With a half hour remaining the stream of walkouts finally stopped. A wave of curiosity washed over me as I considered that I might be missing out on something more social outside. I felt guilty. I whispered to the person I had come in with, “Let’s give it five more minutes.” Then I turned back to the screen, and the film opened wide. What I had thought was a meditation started to feel like the end of an Interval Weight Training session. I began sweating and holding my breath as the film’s final scenes played out. Everything that had come before finally made sense, and I found a clarity and a superiority with knowing what happened in the final moments. When the movie ended, Akerman walked out onto the stage. And the people who had stayed rose and applauded for her as she looked out at an almost empty audience and raised one arm to acknowledge us. When I left the theatre I found some new friends and postured that “It was amazing, so difficult to watch, but worth it.”

In the video taken later that day at the press conference Akerman looks pained. Sweaty, like she may need a cigarette, like she doesn’t want to be there. I can’t understand what she says, because I don’t speak French and when the camera angle changes to the audience, there is, again, hardly anybody there. Nobody asks any questions and often the moderator waits in silence. Behind the rows of empty seats stand film festival goers, snacking and chatting and planning the itineraries of the rest of their days, not caring of who or what is happening in the presser. If you watch the video closely you can see me. I am standing among the people who do not care. Drinking a white wine and gabbing to some new friend, maybe 50 feet from Akerman. Now I can’t believe this is what I did, but the video does not lie.

When I returned home from the festival I had momentum. People were curious about what I was going to do next, and what feature film I wanted to make. I found myself having meetings, doing interviews, and having articles written about me. It was suggested then, and many times since, that I get together a group of my friends and make a feature film that was crowd funded, or made with my own savings. Often times these suggestions came from older men, well established in the film industry, who also seemed to be flirting with me. I didn’t have the heart to tell any of them I already had made a film, so I just flirted back.

I haven’t read Chantal Akerman’s autobiography Ma mer rit, but just the other day someone told me that in it she says she will kill herself once her mother dies. I think.

Beginning in 2011 I set out to make my first feature film. I wrote a 30-page script and over the course of 12 months assembled different friends and family members to shoot various scenes and told them, “You can have whatever credit you want if you just show up for a few days during production.” Once the film was shot and edited I began to research what festivals to apply to. I knew nothing about programming and had no real vision or guidance to get the film into festivals so I applied to nearly 40 I found on a list entitled “50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee.” I was working as a nanny by that point and it was an expensive undertaking. I would often email festivals at their [email protected] address asking for a fee waiver only to be declined. One very well known director of a very well-known festival emailed me back and suggested if the fee was too much to pay I might want to reconsider submitting, since the festival was so expensive to attend. I told her I would be happy to sleep in my car like the main character in my film. I paid the fee but quickly received a form letter telling me the film did not get in.

It’s so easy to conflate a film being rejected by a festival, an audience, an industry, with a personal rejection. Or maybe films and their creators are inextricably tangled?

Fellow artist Jillian Mayer once told me the act making a film which nobody sees is actually just theater.

In June of 2015 I shot a short entitled My Last Film. It’s a diptych I made with money from nannying. In the second half of the short, Rosanna Arquette, playing a starlet-of-a-certain-age, rejected by the film industry, compares herself to an abused dog. At the end of the film she puts a gun in her mouth and pulls the trigger. The monologue had been formed over the course of many years during manic phases of mine where, distressed by rejection letters and a disillusionment with the very industry I was trying to be accepted by, I thought it might be poetic to make one last film in which I blew my brains out.

After applying to many festivals with my short film I Remember Nothing, and getting many rejections, I was finally accepted to one, and in those few months after, I forgot all the pain that had accumulated from years of rejection. I sat down and wrote out the monologue so that it was about actors facing industry rejection and then dying, not myself. Then I imitated the same grandiosity I had seen in so many successful filmmakers, and sent out a bunch of dramatic emails securing the best actors I could think of to be in it.

My Last Film premiered at New York Film Festival at the end of September of 2015. I just shrugged and half-smiled when asked, “Well, is this your last film?” during a Q and A.

Less than a week later, while still schmoozing my way through NYFF, I found out that Chantal Akerman had committed suicide in Paris. At a late night party some man told me the reception of No Home Movie, married with the struggles with finding financing throughout her entire career, had driven her into a deep depression. I didn’t question this gossip. Even if it wasn’t true for her, it was true for me. Then, I thought about all of the famous men who she influenced, and if it had been easy for them to get their films financed. How had they navigated these painful situations differently than she? Or did they not have to? I knew the answer to this.

I wonder: In an industry where the personal and economic are impossible to untangle, would it ever be possible to make anything, do anything, release anything, even attend a festival, on one’s own terms? Or are we all just performing this ability, until we decide not to?

Presently, My Last Film is the last film I made.