When audience members at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival were reported to have fainted over the graphic imagery of one of the films being screened, controversy ballooned fast.
At the helm of this drama was a little-known French film called Raw, directed by Julia Ducournau. In an interview with Ducournau after a screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, one audience member angrily demanded to know the purpose of such a grotesque film before storming off in a passionate huff. Ducournau shrugged it off – “maybe you had a very strong reaction to the movie, which is good,” she said. “I’ve kind of gotten used to this.”
But Ducournau hadn’t set out to make some gross-out jumpscare fest. Raw is a harrowing coming-of-age tale that paints the familiar transformation from girl into woman as a repulsive horror story – an intriguing perspective unique to Ducournau, leaving the audience’s minds buzzing with thoughts and reflections on their own experiences. Art has a funny way of doing that – burying itself within the viewer’s brain and turning it into a home, demanding to be remembered and acknowledged as the viewer mulls over what exactly the particular art piece is supposed to mean. Strong reactions of all kinds are to be had from the exposure to an unsettling and strange new observation about life. The kind of reactions that elicit praise from analytical film critics and audience members who looked past Raw’s horror elements to stay attuned to the message of the film. The kind of reactions you don’t usually get out of the newest summer blockbuster.
That being said, the only true responsibility filmmakers have is to entertain. It’s why a trip to your local chain theatre means you’ll be treated to spectacle in the form of enormous action sequences and electrifying musical numbers, relatability through comedies and love stories, the sequels, prequels, reboots of the classic stories you already know and love. Nothing new, nothing to faint or throw a fit over. There’s nothing wrong with this familiarity – Marvel films almost give themselves a reason to exist, as every sequel and reboot feels like reuniting with an old childhood friend. And, most importantly, at the end of the day, it’s all entertaining and the filmmakers behind these movies can say they’ve done their job.
Looking at the lineup at your local chain theatre is a far cry from the independent films being offered at Sundance or Cannes. Yet, these are the ones that earn reactions and get people talking – these are the ones that get the award nominations, the star-making roles and most importantly, the diversity and depth of the human experience. The only responsibility filmmakers have is to entertain, but some – like the aforementioned Julia Ducournau – choose to take it a step further. While whatever insanity Seth and Evan’s cohort are getting up to this year is ushered into cinemas immediately with the knowledge it’ll fill theatre seats, it’s a shame to not see smaller names getting the same kind of treatment for films that offer something new.
In a world where the weight of big summer blockbusters being thrown at audiences feels crushing, independent films are a breath of fresh air to spring viewers back to life. Sometimes misunderstood as a genre, independent film should be seen as an umbrella term more than anything else. An umbrella term that manages to fit far more than imaginable underneath it – let’s break down some of the most talked about indie flicks of this year so far: a slice-of-life look at a 13-year-old’s final week of middle school, a dreadful psychological horror that’ll make you think twice about driving at night, whatever Sorry To Bother You can be summed up as (it’s something that needs to be experienced firsthand, but it’s worth it) and an intriguing exploration into a priest’s crisis of faith. With such an astounding variety to it, “independent” can’t simply be understood just as a genre. The fact is, whether an indie film is a festival hit headed for award season or a small scale short somebody stumbled across online, there’s a good chance it’s something that’s never been seen before. Without the need to surrender a filmmaker’s intent to a Hollywood marketing department, independent film owes nothing to anyone. For the creators behind these movies, this is both a blessing and a curse.
Traditionally, the term ‘independent film’ only refers to films that are produced outside of the major film studio system, capable of encompassing anything from no-budget student films to desperately funded passion projects. Overall, the ‘independent film’ label consistently seems to refer to cinema made for the sake of cinema. As indie films rose to prominence, suddenly being seen as a welcome alternative to the fun but somewhat sterile blockbusters regularly churned out by Hollywood’s studio system, companies began to take on films that seemed to capture the indie spirit they were beginning to lose audiences to. Naturally, this didn’t work, because they were too on-the-nose with the fact there was something at the heart of these films that required recreation – this mystical ‘indie spirit’, something only pulled off organically, floating from poignant coming-of-age story to ambiguously abstract art house flick and back again. There is no promise of money pouring in let alone interested audiences upon the creation of independent films; they’re born out of pure love of the craft of filmmaking, out of the need to share a unique story with the world.
Without the promise of money and audiences though, making these films seems fruitless. Indie films are hard to secure funding for, hard to put together and oftentimes, at what may be the toughest point in the process of all, hard to find distribution for. It’s for the very same reason that many up-and-coming independent filmmakers have had it drilled into their heads that pursuing film is a waste of time – at their heart, indie films consist largely of stories that demand to be told and yet, at times, it seems no one is listening.
This is where film festivals come in – a collection of the year’s very best out of the independent crowd, bringing creators and enthusiasts together. The biggest ones, like Ontario’s very own Toronto International Film Festival, take in submissions from all over the world, exposing their audiences to a wealth of diversity. At its core, a film festival lineup can be looked at as an exploration into places previously unknown, offering insightful and sometimes strange new perspectives for filmgoers, capable of doing anything from educating them to taking them completely out of their element.
This is because independent filmmakers have the ability to take risks with the stories they want to tell. Indie films are a tool for allowing their creators the platform to share the thoughts that weigh on their minds, with the goal of fostering agreement – a thankfulness from viewers that someone has finally said what they’ve been thinking all along – or careful consideration, forcing the audience to leave the film now considering things from a new perspective. It’s why Yorgos Lanthimos was able to use The Lobster to break down the ugly truths of dating culture in modern times; why Jordan Peele wasn’t afraid to offer white audiences a black perspective on a recent trend of “not racist” racism in Get Out. Even the turbulent surreality of Sorry To Bother You’s absurdist dreamscape is built on the distressing realities of Boots Riley’s thoughts on capitalism and the suppression of black voices in society. Good art is something that sticks with you, whether it be because you know the feelings behind it or you’re willing to get to know them. Time and time again, indie films offer this possibility of expanding your thoughts and it’s continually worth experiencing.
For those reasons, it’s a shame that not everyone has the chance to experience the magic of a film festival. Not for the celebrities and reporters and other larger-than-life qualities that come with them, but for the chance to get a glimpse at previously untapped perspectives of the world. Mainstream audiences deserve the opportunity to be exposed to these works of art too and waiting for digital distribution after the hype has faded won’t always cut it. Even aside from the films that sweep the awards and enjoy mass amounts of mainstream recognition, there is far more to be discovered in the independent sector if you have somewhere to find it.
Here in Niagara, we have a way around this – the Brock University Film Society (BUFS), offering a yearly lineup of critically-acclaimed independent films curated from festivals with the intent of fostering a rich film culture within an area where you wouldn’t expect it. Instead of having to wait for the digital drop of some of the year’s greatest indie films, BUFS offers a chance to see them on the big screen like how they were intended from their inception. For 40 years now, BUFS has gifted the community with the best of the best in international, independent and Canadian cinema, ensuring Niagara gets a well-balanced look at different views of the world.
“I think it’s important to have such an opportunity within Niagara, not just for the students, but the community as a whole,” said third year media and communications student, Jill Skoblenick, while speaking to me about the substance BUFS brings to Niagara through their film selection. Skoblenick has worked assisting BUFS with signing attendees up for a membership with The Film House – where BUFS screenings are held – which she told me sends regular emails about upcoming films and enables entry into pre-screening drawings for various prizes on top of cheaper ticket prices and other similar benefits.
Skoblenick spoke highly of her work with BUFS, saying about the society, “there are many films we have screened that movie-goers don’t have a chance to see otherwise, and offer a selection of more thought-provoking and insightful films beyond what Hollywood often provides. In a way, it serves as a reminder that film is more than mass media and entertainment but a form of art as well.”
The group of curators behind the BUFS lineup certainly go out of their way to offer films both filled with insight and reasons to legitimize the medium as an art form. Scattered amongst thoughtful reflections of our world through lenses of everything from satire to drama, highlights of last year’s BUFS lineup included Academy Award winning romantic coming-of-age Call Me By Your Name, a follow-up question and answer session with Valerie Fulford, one of the artists behind Loving Vincent, the world’s first fully painted feature film and a showing of all of the 2017’s Best Live Action Short nominees preceding the Academy Awards. This year alone, we’ve seen romantic French cinema, an updated version of a film from 1973, Ethan Hawke as both a troubled priest and a rockstar love interest – and there’s still a few more films to go. BUFS offers a good mix of festival favorites soon to sweep the Oscars and relatively unknown smaller scale films audiences may have not had the opportunity to hear of otherwise. “We hope that our viewers will encounter films that will provoke discussion, and that on some occasions they might actually come away from one of our screenings with an expanded notion of what cinema is, and what it might be in the future,” Kinik stated about the goals of BUFS screenings. When asked for any specifics of what to expect from BUFS in the upcoming months, he mentioned Jennifer Baichwal and St Catharines native Edward Burtynsky’s Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, which he described as dealing with “humankind’s relationship with the environment and impact on it.” He also offered a preview of what to expect next semester: to kick things off, Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman. “Lee’s film is essentially about racism and race relations inside Boulder, Colorado’s police department – as well as in the surrounding community – in the 1970s, but in many ways the story could not be more relevant to the present situation in Trump’s America.” Needless to say, not only does BUFS have something for everybody to enjoy, it has something for everybody to learn from, to discover, to relate to.
The creative freedom independent filmmakers allot themselves solely through having an idea for a new film is astounding. From that point forward, there’s no boundaries; the limits are endless. It’s the foundation film was built on before theatres began to overflow with the same star-studded action flicks that have already proven themselves worthy of the big screen – these films had to start from somewhere, too. “There’s more of a willingness among independent filmmakers to expand the language of cinema and to redefine it, and such films can not only be thought-provoking, but they can help us to understand the world around us in entirely new ways, which can be a very positive, even liberating, experience,” said Kinik when discussing the ways independent cinema challenges audiences. Supporting independent filmmakers and their ability to express themselves through film is essential in order to keep film as an art form alive.
Not only that, but when a group of people are able to come together for the sake of thought-provoking art like in the scenario a BUFS screening allows, it encourages the creation of a community. “We have a filmgoing audience that has been coming to BUFS for years. There’s something social about BUFS screenings, and it’s always a joy to have conversations with people after a particularly powerful or interesting film,” Kinik said. Films offer common ground for audiences to connect over; things to ponder and work through together, even the possibility of garnering further insight into topics the filmmakers touched on. Sure, it’s nice to go online and find discussions of Netflix’s newest releases waiting for you, but BUFS brings that sense of community right to your doorstep.
Independent film is something to be celebrated. Its unique free thought delivered to you in an immersive manner. It’s a place to get lost in, call home for the course of two hours and allow them to weigh heavily on your mind for days after you see it. There is nothing else quite like the experience of discovering a new film that connects deeply with you. For those of us in the Niagara region, it’s a blessing that we have somewhere to go to experience this.