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The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Industry Outsider: The Culture Schlub attends a Documentary Film Festival…and Pretends to Belong

Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer


ImageFor the past four years, Washington D.C., has hosted the Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival. This event attracts filmmakers and industry bigwigs from all over the world, and I’m proud to say that the company I work for has been a major sponsor of the event from its inception.

Because of our work, each year we are given a handful of special passes that allow us full access to the entire festival, both screenings and sessions. However, because of MY specific work within the company, I have never been allowed to get away long enough to attend any part of any day of this festival. Some years, this was because I was just simply too damn low on the totem pole for anyone to consider asking me. Other years, I actually had too much work, and one memorable year, I had way too LITTLE work, and couldn’t go lest I tip everyone off that this was the case.

In years past, I heard managers and vice presidents walk the halls in the beginning of June, pretending to be upset that they had to be off-site for the week attending this conference. They would complain vociferously about how it cramped their schedule, and they were incredibly apologetic when they revealed that this was the reason why they were not available when I needed them. I nodded that I understood, and made them think that I believed them, but deep down they were happy and I was jealous that they were spending their week (on the payroll) schmoozing, drinking, and watching movies.

This year … everything changed.

Maybe it’s because I recently got promoted, maybe it’s because by certain very liberal and extreme stretches of the imagination, I could perhaps maybe be considered a fledgling documentarian, and MAYBE it had something to do with the fact that this year we had more passes than we had people to use them. Whatever the reason, this year my bosses offered me the chance to attend Silverdocs. On Saturday. As a guy named Emil.

However, as that reality set in, a second (much scarier) reality presented itself. That Saturday was, according to my wife, the day that we were to celebrate one of our various anniversaries. (There’s one for the first meeting, another for the first date, another “official wedding anniversary, etc.). With essentially the entire summer already booked up with film shoots, graduate school projects, and weddings, skipping that day to go to a work function, even if it’s actually a film festival, would be akin to turning in my divorce papers. With some crafty negotiations (with a manager who is also a recently married man), my day at Silverdocs was changed to Friday. Like the managers, I too would be spending a workday at the festival. I had arrived.

My elation at this turn of events lasted at least a full four minutes after I arrived.

Almost as soon as I arrived, it became clear to me not only why I didn’t really belong here, but also why the managers at my company at least sound convincing when they pretend to be upset about taking a work week to attend.

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Anyone who has ever attended a conference, in any field, will attest to the fact that the activities and events that are arranged represent only a fraction of the reason why everyone goes to these things. These things are set up so people in the same field can network with each other, and this fact sets up one of the classic Catch-22s of our culture: you need to network to know people, and you need to know people to network. In other words, until you are in the documentary filmmaker community, either as a filmmaker or an executive, you aren’t going to be able successfully to meet and converse with those people who could best help you.

In other words, conferences can’t help you, until you get to the point where you don’t need help.

I attended an early morning session at the eager request of a co-worker who couldn’t make it, and I have not yet gotten up the courage to tell him what a waste of time it was. The session was supposed to discuss the future of documentaries in Public Media, and how the changing landscape of information dissemination was going to change how films are made and distributed. Instead, the first 80 minutes of the event consisted of the panel of experts introducing themselves and their work, and attempting to discredit each other VERY politely. The remaining ten minutes were left for questions.

I noticed with a bit of excitement that a subsequent session was going to discuss ways to get a project funded through non-profit organizations. I was very excited about this, both for professional and personal reasons, so I made a beeline for that venue. Once I got there, all I had to do was survive thirty minutes of “networking time.”

For those of you who don’t know the lingo, “networking time” are built in breaks in a conference day where people can meet up with people they know, and keep the wheels of their respective industries moving. If you’re a player in the field, then these breaks are the most important parts of your time. However, if you’re a young punk with no contacts and someone else’s name on your chest, then this time is just like a middle school dance, where you stand as far off in the corner as you can, and yet still try to act as though you belong. In my case, I spent this half hour trying to get up the nerve to speak to an important industry woman who I had met – once – a few days before, and scrawling notes in my notebook. (A quick look back at my chicken scratches reveals only one legible phrase: “alone in a crowd.” That pretty much sums up everything.)

When that second session turned out to be something of a dud (three good bits of advice, surrounded by 85 minutes of independent filmmakers trying to get noticed by the panel), I decided to use my afternoon finding a documentary to screen. If all conferences are the same to this point, film festivals do stand apart in the fact that watching movies is encouraged and even required. Unintentionally, and as a paid professional, the Culture Schlub was back.

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Mick Jagger, at THE party of the century. In 1965. In Malmo, Sweden.

The film I settled on was the North American premiere of a Swedish documentary called Rolling Like a Stone. It was basically the story of a party that occurred over forty years ago in Malmo, Sweden, where two huge Swedish bands (the Gonks and the Namelosers) and a slew of local jetsetters spent three days or so with the Rolling Stones. The filmmakers built their story around local legend (this party has been spoken about in Malmo constantly ever since) and a small reel of 8mm film of the event, and basically crafted a movie around two snapshots in time: that party, and present day. One of the former bandmembers listens to his old records, reflects on when his band was considered to be “the Rolling Stones of Sweden,” and dreams of reuniting the band forty years later, even as his family and his life slip away from him. One woman holds her husband’s hand and smiles, and then wonders aloud how her life would be different if she had traveled with Brian Jones as he requested of her on a whim at the party’s end (she also speculates if she could have kept him alive). A third character lovingly sifts through the stacks of love letters he once received (all in perfect condition), and then shows us with even more reverence the display case of his teenage son’s track and field medals. With no information of the intervening years, the end result was a fascinating and ultimately mysterious look into the nature of fame, how it touches those who possess it, and how it affects those who are touched by those who possess it. When the film ended, we gave the filmmakers a standing ovation, and tried (and failed) to get them to tell us some of the omitted information about the characters we had just met. Someone also asked when the film would be distributed in the US, and they told us that not only had none of their movies EVER had US distribution, but this one had as of yet attracted none either.

This fact brings up another cultural question: can there be said to be a relationship between a film’s value or success, and the number of people who see it? The obvious answer here is no, that to judge a movie’s overall merit based on its box office (or, in this digital age, number of hits) is to place its critical value solely in the hands of distribution companies and mass media. However, Rolling Like a Stone complicates this issue. I think this is a great movie, but without distribution, there stands a good chance that no one I ever know will see it. I think that this must mean, at some level, that this diminishes the piece to the level of a legendary party that happened in one city years ago. Those who witnessed it can testify to its greatness, and those who hear those stories can have some appreciation as well, but without something tangible to reference, the entire thing fades over time. And, since the very definition of a thing’s greatness (or at least one definition) is its ability NOT to fade over time, then this question becomes a very real one.

It seems that films, much like industry outsiders, sometimes need to be known before they get noticed. And as I’m learning more every day, this fact is counterintuitive in theory alone.

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Author: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer

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