Having just returned from the 20th Austin Film Festival (my 6th), I can sum up this year’s theme with this: tenacity.
For those that don’t know the film festival in Austin, Texas, every October is a celebration of writers – something very rare when it comes to film festivals (or just plain films or festivals for that matter). Every year there seems to be something in the air that sums up what all of the panels and bar stool chats hit on the most, and this year it was that word that means keep on keeping on. Everyone from Shane Black, Rian Johnson, Vince Gilligan and Jonathan Demme and many more, shared their individual and non-traditional journeys and the bottom line was… it’s not easy for anyone – but if you love to write you just don’t give up. Mind you, they were all very quick to point out that writing is very difficult and it does not get any easier even after achieving the levels of success they have. I highly suggest checking out AFF’s On Story podcasts – they will eventually have the panels from this year’s festival up.
So now that you’re feeling tenacious let’s talk about other things people don’t like to discuss that’s causing waves at the multiplex (or not).
In part two of the small world of today’s storytelling reality, we’re talking race and gender…
I have 3 feature projects in various stages that deal with racism, 4 if you want to just count judgment based on being different. The 3 I’ve been hired to do, so it’s not like I chose these because of the likes of Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ The Butler or 12 Years a Slave.
The quandary is not whether they are well told stories worthy of being seen and read, but it is how to convey the message / theme in a way that is genuine and not pandering to the common denominator. My ship steering check writers each have brought me unique projects against different settings and premises and to look at the influx at the box office you’d think they were trying to cash in – at least on the surface. Lately there has been a lot of talk about not wanting to see 12 Years a Slave because of its unflinching depiction of human torture – but I argue how can otherwise do the material justice?
One of my projects is about a massive race riot from decades ago that was buried in history until very recently. When I learned about it I was astounded how I never had, and come to find out very few have. So when I was asked to not focus on the historic injustice, the documentarian in me insisted it couldn’t be ignored (tenacious is not a word that is new to me).
Each one of my projects started with a mandate that they didn’t want to focus on the tragedies that occurred highlighting racial and discriminatory acts – rather they want to showcase the people, their love, and their lives as opposed to their deaths. I respect that, and ultimately I think and dream we will get to a place where all cast members of a film are created equal, much like this excellent article in HUFFPO about leveling the playing field of good character roles. Please come back after you read it, I’m not done.
To give you some framework, I’m white as can be so I have no reference to speak about discrimination based on the color of my skin. But I am a determined, focused woman who likes to have fun so you can connect those gossip-laden dots. Which brings up a major component of the tenacity we talked about at AFF. I had the privilege of sitting in on panels with Susan Sarandon, Callie Khouri and Jenji Kohan where they were prodded into speaking about roles for women and how a determined, focused woman is called a be-otch and a determined focused man is called a leader. How happy was I when the consensus was they don’t look at female roles as such, they just try to tell good stories about flawed people. Much like the HUFFPO writer demands, it’s not about the color, gender or other unique attribute — it’s about the character.
When a male writer in the audience asked the ladies how he could write females without coming across stereotypical – the female to my left and I just shook out heads thinking – if he has to ask, he’ll never get it.
There was a review out last week about the stage adaptation of A TIME TO KILL. The reviewer was upset that it was boiled down to the courtroom drama for the stage, losing all of the charm and personality of the region that influenced the story. It’s true, most great stories get that way when the writer can successfully make the town or setting a personality in and of itself.
It would be nice and easy to say, lets get all of the stories of inequalities of the American South, Middle East, Nazi Germany, Corporate Board Rooms, Urban street corners etc., out of our system so we can focus on stories that can be filled with great characters that can be played by talented actors of any race or gender. But that will never happen.
Clearly the most underserved representations in mainstream cinema (in front and behind the camera) are Minorities, Women and Disabled in any genre (and we all know what the most over-served genres are). But we as creators are always told to write what we know – this is how we are able to bring personality to the settings and this is what makes another story about racism or gender bias or even unrequited love, unique and worthy of the spotlight.
The answer is not to preach. Erin Brockovich didn’t preach about men staring at her boobs but she didn’t hide the fact either. Cecil Gaines didn’t preach about civil rights but his story of being a black butler certainly revolved around it (among other universal themes). This is why these stories work – they bring to light what makes the characters the way they are without screaming at the audience about their injustices – they just get on with life.
They are in a word tenacious.
Up next: Transmedia, marketing and maybe crowdfunding. Stay tooned.