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Best Spiritual Documentary 2011!

European Film Festival Award for Best Spiritual Documentary 2011

My good friend Kathleen reading my speech.

At the European Spiritual Film Festival in Paris last night we won our first festival prize!  Best Spiritual Documentary 2011.   Here is the speech that was read by my friend Kathleen at the awards ceremony.

"I want to thank the European Spiritual Film Festival for this recognition.  I’m delighted that this story of the people of Zanskar touched your hearts.   They certainly touched mine. 

Please consider yourselves duly appointed ambassadors of Zanskar.  You can go right now to and offer assistance to the monks to complete their school.  You can visit our Facebook page, follow us on Twitter, sign up to receive email updates on our website… Please let your families and friends know about the film.  In these days of media saturation, pummeled by stories of horror and messages of cynicism, please take heart and be of good cheer.  Know that we can follow the lead of the Zanskaris and find peace in the pursuit of simple, worthy ends.   Thank you."


What’s up, movie doc?


What used to be considered a cinematic documentary and what used to be considered a TV documentary have now reversed places in the popular culture.  Due to the abdication of TV journalism nowadays people go to the cinema for news.

When I grew up it was common to find good investigative journalistic documentaries on TV.  I remember “The Selling of the Pentagon” which CBS broadcast in prime time in 1971.   Though its critique of the military-industrial complex was by no means commonplace, the program was absolutely in keeping with TV’s standards and practice of investigative journalism of the time.  Where are you going to find a program like that on TV today?  You don’t.  You go to the movies and watch Michael Moore.

The success of Michael Moore and Davis Guggenheim and Alex Gibney and Robert Greenwald and so many other documentary makers today can be attributed at least partly to the default of TV journalism.  As corporate power over TV networks grew – an ever shrinking number of ever greater sized corporations controlling ever greater numbers of media outlets – the reach of investigative TV journalism shrank.  Their standards shrank and their willingness to confront state and corporate power shrank.  First the major commercial networks stopped.  The non-pay cable channels never had the budgets or gumption to pick up the slack.  The last gasp, PBS, largely stopped investigative journalistic docs in the mid-90s following a previous wave of Republican attacks.  So what you used to see as standard TV has almost exclusively become the province of cinema.

Now when you want to hear an alternative political opinion, when you want to see an investigative report on the possibility of fraud in the 2000 election, on global warming, on electric cars, on medical care, on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on Wall Street… you go to the movies and pay money for the privilege.  I can’t think of a single other country where this same dynamic exists.  Perhaps somewhat in Canada where state-run media has been unfunded in recent years, though not nearly as severely as the U.S.  Certainly not in Europe where these kinds of programs are still considered the exclusive domain of TV.  (For years common logic had it that Europeans won’t even go to the theaters to watch documentaries.  In the past 10-15 years that’s shifted slightly, but not because of the abdication of journalistic TV docs.)

Think about it.  What used to be brought into your home for free now you go out and pay for.  (Or stay home and pay for on Netflix or, occasionally, on HBO.)   Back before the deregulation of media industries, back before corporations were re-affirmed in their “rights” as “individuals” to free speech, back before the erosion of civil liberties protecting free speech for real individuals, when the public ownership of airwaves and bandwith was a commonly acknowledged cultural value necessary to sustain a great democracy, when edification by TV was considered as meaningful a priority as entertainment by TV, it was a popular cultural axiom that TV might actually live up to its advance billing as part of the 4th Estate – the guarantor of informed citizenry.  Were it only so today.

This cultural sea change has also fostered an accompanying set of aesthetic differences.  What used to be considered a journalistic TV aesthetic is now considered cinematic: interviews,  (endless interviews!), experts, narration (especially first person), fast editing, lower production values (poor sound, shaky camera images, flat colors), information, argumentation, charts, graphs, maps, talk, talk, talk…  Were they to form today there’s no one who would get the foundational irony of the name of the band Talking Heads.

This is not to say that these films are often not very well made and very important.  Given the dearth of journalistic docs on TV and the general supplanting of real news with infotainment, with pundits yelling at each other and bullies and comics ruling political discourse, they’re perhaps more important today than TV docs were 40 years ago.  They’re oases in political deserts.  And many of them are supremely inventive.  One of my favorites, and an early benchmark in this genre, is Manufacturing Consent.  For me the film revolutionized how complex intellectual arguments could be made suspenseful and visually arresting.

But with the ascendency of journalistic docs in theaters cinematic docs are hardly given a place anymore.   What do I mean by cinematic?  Lingering long shots - like landscapes – slower paced editing, complex sound layering, subtleties, even contradictions, of story and character, and above all narrative.   Even the best documentaries in theaters today are polemics.  They’re arguments for a specific position, often political or ideological.  Rare are the ones that simply want to tell an interesting story.  Much rarer is it to find the ones leaving you to decide what the story means.    

Look at Werner Herzog.  If ever a filmmaker deserved the big movie screen canvas it’s him.  Yet even his films live theatrically for the briefest of times, if at all, before heading to TV. 

This has also been true for my most recent film Journey from Zanskar.  One Canadian film critic called it “shockingly old-fashioned,” seemingly due to the” problems” of 3rd person narration and the strong but simple story.  One programmer for a prominent NYC art house thought the film “too TV” to book in their theater.  In fact, the thesis of this entire blog was born out to me the week after she turned the film down when she instead booked Inside Job.  (Please – no need to write in and defend the Charles Fergusons, et al.  Again, I’m passing judgment on the style and trendiness of the films they make, not their quality or importance.) 

Given today’s inverted values I can’t help but think that were Hoop Dreams released today it would never be given a chance in theaters.


Kickstarter Campaign launches Boys Become Men

At noon on Christmas Eve we embarked on a journey to raise $25,000 in 30 days for my new film Boys Become Men.

The film is a subject I’ve been passionate about for 15 years.  It started with Hoop Dreams, and the questions that lived in my mind following that film – how are teen boys making it into adulthood these days?  Who is there to actually support them along the way, 100% devoted to their well-being, as opposed to using them to serve their own interests?

That interest took a major leap forward in October 1995 when I experienced what I consider to be my own initiation into manhood – the New Warrior Training Adventure.  That weekend workshop offered by the ManKind Project changed my life.  For the first time as an adult man I had the vision, the tools, and the template for becoming the man I always wanted to be.

I began to study and ruminate on initiation and mentorship – how much I needed it growing up, how much all children need it.  Those questions began to shape the screenplay I co-wrote with Steven Ivcich, the film I eventually made called The Unspoken.  There was one “through-line,” one underlying question I had: “If it were possible to initiate a boy into manhood completely outside the realm of traditional culture, what would that look like?”  Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible.  But these are the kinds of questions artists like to ponder. 

Then the Mathew Shepherd murder and the Columbine shootings occurred.  The question wasn’t theoretical for me anymore; it had become dangerously literal.  I felt I had to take a look at teen boys.  I had to find what was going on with them.  How bad is it for them to grow up in a culture devoid of initiation, barely cognizant of mentorship?  How isolated and alone are they?  How cut off from the fruits of initiation  - that sense of connection to others, the awareness that life can be full of purpose and meaning?

What resulted was the TV mini-series Boys to Men?  The answer, in short, is bad.  Real bad. That series became one long statement about just how bad the situation for teen boys in this country actually is. But halfway through making it I realized I was attempting the impossible: I was trying to record an absence, a vacuum.  How do I show something that is missing in someone’s life?  It was then I knew I needed to tackle this subject one more time in a new film – this one about solutions.

So in 2002 I began working on the film that would become Boys Become Men.  I read some more.  Did more research.  Met with wonderful youth advocates like Michael Meade and Louise Mahdi.  I met Luis Rodriguez and Frank Blazquez, founder and director (respectively) of Youth Struggling for Survival – a Chicago based group assisting Latino and Asian teens on Vision Quests – working with Lakota elders on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to teach them the ancient ways. 

I did some filming of Craig Glass in Colorado Springs doing marvelous work with teen boys and their fathers in a Christian weekend workshop called Passage to Manhood.  He uses stories and parables from Jesus’ life to guide the youngsters through their transformation into mature men.  I talked with Rabbi Goldie Milgram in Philadelphia who is reinvigorating Bar and Bat Mitzvah practice with true initiatory intent.  There’s SWET, YMUW, there’s the secular Boys to Men weekend workshop, welcoming boys of all faiths and non-faiths, started in San Diego, now spreading around the world.  There are Hawaiians keeping their native traditions alive, Buddhists, Muslims, and so many more.

We succeeded with our fundraising campaign. Now begins the next stage of work.  It’s time to reconnect with these leaders, to see who’s still doing what.  It’s also time to experience some of the inspiring new work being done by others.   

The aim of the film is to highlight the best initiatory practices I can find, across all faiths and non-faiths.  To film at least ten boys going through five different rites of passage.  To film them no matter where they are in the country and no matter how long it takes to capture the transformative impact these rituals have on their lives.  I estimate it will take about one year for each boy.  A year of their lives in which month two or three they’ll experience their rite of passage.  Then we’ll see the real work begin – translating that transformation into the everyday.  That is where the rubber meets the road.  

We’ll experience exactly when and how each boy’s primary conflict shifts.  If drugs were his problem before his passage is he now resisting their lure?   If he was irresponsible on the job or acting out with a girlfriend is he now being accountable and behaving with integrity?  If he was misbehaving in school is he now getting along better with teachers and fellow students?  Are his grades picking up?  If he was shrinking from addressing a painful issue is he now stepping into his fear and asserting himself around adults?  Perhaps most importantly, we will see if these boys can now tough out difficult situations without denying their feelings.

To film all this will take much more than $25,000.  But we now have what we need to start.   We will pick up the different cloths from these amazing rites of passage weavers and bind them into one story – the story of hope for future generations, for all the sons and daughters to come - that of realizing their greatest potential in this lifetime, of finding their deepest purpose and greatest fulfillment through service to each other and our mother Earth. 


Beware of bottom-feeders, Part 2

What’s prompted these reflections on bottom-feeders?  I just got off the phone with one of them. 

I met this woman recently at a festival.  She told me right away she was a service distributor so I wasn’t much interested in doing business with her.  But it was a party and she was sweet-talking me about my film.  Finally, I thought “well, I can’t really lose anything by giving her a screener.”  I thought she’d look at it and tell me what services they might provide to distribute my film and at what cost.   Standard business practice, right?  “Here’s what we can do for you.  Here’s what it’ll cost.”  That’s what I thought…

Two weeks later I sent a follow up email.  No response.  Three weeks after that I called her.  I reached her on her cell on a Friday night. 

First she didn’t remember me.  Then she didn’t remember getting the DVD.  She also didn’t remember getting the email.  Not encouraging.  But all that is reasonably standard across this business.  What happened next however wasn’t.

She found the email in her spam folder.  She found the DVD in another film’s press kit.  Great.  But then she started blaming me for the fact that she had misplaced the DVD.  How exactly was I responsible?  I had not given her a nicely boxed DVD with a printed label.   Instead I had given her a homemade DVD with a hand-written label in a paper sleeve.  I told her I do not give out any of the fancy, unwatermarked (and more expensive) copies during Stage One of the “getting to know you” process with distributors. 

Let me digress.  In Sept. 1994 I got an email from a friend of mine in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  He told me that VHS copies of HOOP DREAMS were available on the streets there for $2.  Nothing hugely remarkable there – piracy is a huge problem worldwide, especially in Asia.  What was noteworthy about it was the timing: this was a full two months before the film had been released publicly in theaters in the U.S.!  The film had its world premiere only eight months earlier at the Sundance Film Festival.  Since then it had only been shown publicly in a handful of film festivals.  It was still a full year and a half before the film would be released on VHS to U.S. consumers! 

It told me that someone had duplicated, sold, or given away copies that one of us filmmakers had originally sent on VHS as a screener to a festival, a distributor, or a Hollywood agent.   There were only a few possible explanations.  Worst case scenario: someone had directly pirated their original VHS copy and sold it to Malaysians to make money.  Best case scenario: someone shared their VHS copy with someone else who in turn pirated it to make money.  

So today, with digital piracy even more commonplace, you can be sure I consciously limit who I give what to in the early stages of any film’s release.  Will it wholly prevent piracy?  Of course not.  But I like to think it slows it down.

So it was my fault she lost the DVD because I hadn’t given her a quality, boxed screener.  Many people when feeling defensive will attack.  This is true universally but perhaps nowhere moreso than New York City.  And attack she did.  She started pressing me for details on where the film had shown to date: which theaters, when, for how long?  Then she pressed me on how much money I had to spend.  “We’ve done P&A for as little as $30,000 but we’ve done releases for many hundreds of thousands.  I need to know your budget.”  I told her I didn’t have a budget.  I told her I paid $3500 for a service release in Canada.  I told her I thought it made more sense for her to watch the film and give me a price breakdown of what services she thought she might be able to provide.

She kept pressing me to tell her how much money I had to spend.  At that point I said, “This is far more trouble than it’s worth.  Have a nice evening.”  I hung up. 

Yech.  I felt like I had bat guano dropped on me.  By a vampire.

What’s instructive about this encounter to me is how emblematic it is.  Not only of the bottom feeding film distribution business, but of the economic culture as a whole.  Vampire service distributors like these, because they wrongly believe they control the distribution capacity of films, feel like YOU are in THEIR service.  Yup, you’re there to serve them.  You serve them your money and your film and they “pay you” with audiences.  

This inversion of economic logic reminds me of an article I read once about WalMart.  Walmart has also effectively inverted traditional market logic.  Because they are such a huge retailer of products – accounting, if I remember correctly, for about half of all things sold in the U.S. today – they can dictate prices to the producers who sell their products to them.  “You either deliver this product to us at this price point or forget it.”  In non-monopoly environments of course the equation is reversed:  the seller usually sets the price.  If the buyer doesn’t want it at that price too bad – the seller will sell to other buyers.  But in today’s retail environment there are no other buyers, not with the reach and clout of WalMart.  They put such downward pressure on prices that they singlehandedly are much to blame for the sweatshop pay and conditions of many Chinese laborers.

Hmmm, bottom feeders… Maybe not a bad name for WalMart either.


Beware of bottom-feeders 

It used to be that when you made a good film you took it to market and sold it to the highest bidder.   Now when you have a good film you have to fight off the people who want to charge you money to sell it.

They go by many names these people.  They call themselves consultants, producer’s representatives, service distributors, sometimes even PR companies.  They all share one goal – making you pay them for the opportunity to have your film seen by others. 

The worst ones will charge you a retainer up to $15,000 for the privilege of selling your work.  They will not guarantee you one sale.  You may never recoup one dollar of your investment from them.  If they do sell your work, then they will sometimes also help themselves to a nice percentage of each sale.  I call these people the bottom feeders.

They’re bottom feeders because they live off the people with the least money and the most exploitable hopes - independent producers.   How can they get away with this? 

Once independent producers have pulled off the miracle of finishing a film they are usually desperate to sell it.  They’re usually way in debt and they’re starved for income and recognition.  You’d think being in debt would be reason enough not to go into further debt, to raise still more money in order to pay someone to help sell your movie.  But you’d be wrong.  Welcome to the fevered dream of indie filmmakers.  Heroin’s got nothing on this dream.

Bottom feeders will tell you you can’t hope to get your film seen in theaters, sold to TV, distributed widely, even seen in festivals, without their expertise and contacts.  Many of these people used to have nice jobs at distribution companies.  They used to be paid to seek and acquire and sell good independent films.  Their salaries were paid by those distribution companies out of the profits the company made selling films.  That was before the bottom dropped out of the distribution business.

Now, partly in a last desperate effort to stay in the business since so many of them have been fired, or their companies have closed altogether, they turn around and try to make a living charging producers for their services.  

I would love to name names.  But they are everywhere.  You can recognize them by their hard pitch, by their “you can’t do this without me” attitude, and by their unwillingness to guarantee you anything in writing.  Most of all you can recognize them because you will pay them.  Bottom feeders.  Beware.

(to be continued)