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Make It Scrappy, Keep It Real: Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund Supports Filmmakers During COVID-19

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Back in March when this pandemic got very real and movie theaters closed and film festivals were cancelled, I wrote about Baltimore filmmaker Marnie Ellen Hertzler’s Crestone because that small, brilliant movie, about a bunch of Soundcloud rappers growing weed and making beats in Colorado during what might be the end of the world, was suddenly a lot harder to see or even read about. 

Following a premiere at True/False Film Festival in early March, Crestone was set to screen at the South by Southwest Film Festival, and then that was cancelled. Normally, interest in and awareness of a movie builds by word of mouth at festivals and, for those of us not in Austin watching movies all day, via tweets or festival roundups, and there would be less of that without SXSW happening.  

Then last month, local filmmaking felt this when the Maryland Film Festival, at least as we have understood it for more than 20 years, was cancelled (there will be a “virtual” festival showing a more limited slate of movies). Crestone was supposed to screen at MdFF as well and so was TT The Artist’s Dark City: Beneath The Beat which was also supposed to screen at South by Southwest and MdFF. So these two cancellations (for very good reasons, mind you, because people’s lives are more important than people’s movies) severely limited how two thrilling Baltimore movies could be seen—and hyped—nationally and locally.

Another movie that was supposed to screen at MdFF this year was Kevin Abrams’ I Got A Monster, an adaptation of the upcoming book I co-wrote with Baynard Woods, about the Gun Trace Task Force. I Got A Monster was made while we were writing the book, and Baynard and I helped form the story, do research, and conduct many of the interviews. Premiering it at MdFF would have been great. It’s a movie about Baltimore that is, first and foremost, for Baltimore. I hope you’ll be able to see it at some point. 

I bring all of this up as a disclosure but also because this experience gave me a different kind of insight into the challenges filmmakers experience during COVID-19. These cancellations don’t just deprive filmmakers of a chance to show their movies to audiences, but it’s at festivals where movies end up being purchased for distribution. This is how filmmakers dogged by debt are likely able to climb out of it and also get their movie into the world beyond a couple hundred festival-goers at a time.

Annette Porter, via Twitter

To get a better sense of what these industry disruptions mean for independent filmmakers here in Baltimore, I reached out to Annette Porter, a filmmaker and director of the Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund.

“Sometimes people outside the industry don’t realize festivals are industry trade shows. Those are our selling places,” Porter told me over the phone. “And you’re also there making connections and raising money for the next project.”

For filmmakers who are understandably fretting about how to make work right now, Porter said she has been recommending The Five Obstructions and This Is Not A Film, two movies that are fueled by limitations.

Directed by Lars von Trier and one of his mentors, Jørgen Leth, The Five Obstructions shows Leth making different versions of his 1967 short The Perfect Human, based on five different challenges cooked up by von Trier that will inevitably be a huge pain in the ass (for example: Remake the movie in Cuba and each shot cannot last more than twelve frames). It is a kind of arthouse reality show—Cutthroat Kitchen for film buffs—with all of the goofy melodrama and cruelty that reality TV enables. But it is also, Porter argued, inspiring.

The Five Obstructions is the best film about the creative process and finding your creativity I have ever seen,” Porter said. “It’s about taking those challenges in and making something new every time. I think limitations make things.”

This Is Not A Film, directed by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, was shot on an iPhone in Panahi’s home and eventually smuggled out of Iran and into the Cannes Film Festival. That’s  because Panahi was on house arrest, banned from making films for 20 years, charged with “propaganda against the Islamic Republic” for working on a documentary about the 2009 Green Revolution and commenting on Iran’s then president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This Is Not A Film is a sort of cinematic piece of autofiction: a documentary about house arrest, a document of house arrest, an essay about not making movies inside of a movie that doesn’t feel much like a movie. There is nothing really like it.

“It is about that creative urge. He just had to make a film, he didn’t he?” Porter said. “We are under voluntary quarantine—sort of—which is a little different, but he made an optimistic film under dire circumstances. It is a reminder of what you can do.”

The Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund is open to Baltimore filmmakers, and filmmakers who apply are chosen to attend workshops which connect them with resources both creative and practical, such as lessons on navigating legal issues or tips on distribution. Those fellows who go through the workshops can then apply for the grant. 

Last month, the Fund’s 2020 Development and Production Grant winners were announced. Many of this year’s grantees, whose upcoming projects are described in the press release (and quoted here), should be familiar to BmoreArt readers. Stephanie Williams, a Sondheim finalist last year, is working on Hospes, a stop-motion short that is “a choreography of resistance” in which “a scaffolded amalgam of body pieces [that] tries to remain whole in an environment to disassemble it.”

Diary by Gillian Waldo (one of the people behind QuaranTV) is about three siblings who “spend a summer reflecting on where they grew up, learning to navigate the city.” Margie Soudek’s Salt & Peppers by Meredith Moore—whose music video for Ami Dang’s “Love liesse” was included in my 2019 roundup of great local movies—is a short documentary about a director who “attempts to make a documentary about her grandmother’s massive salt and pepper shaker collection while busy adjuncting a special effects class.” And there is Marnie Ellen Hertzler’s Eternity One, a “hybriddocumentary” set in 2070 about an island sinking into the Chesapeake Bay and the quest to save it and send the residents to outer space.

Porter explained that the Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund grantees are reimagining their works, “tweaking scripts, tweaking story ideas for the moment,” to respond to COVID-19 and work around the restrictions the pandemic has put on moviemaking. 

For example, fellow Gabriel Goodenough’s Local Hero, a documentary about the Baltimore mayoral election and how COVID-19 has affected it, is shooting right now while using safe practices. Long lenses, for example, allow a director to maintain a distance and still create compelling shots. And it just requires more planning especially for a vérité documentary where the raw and immediate access that comes with following and even confronting people on the campaign trail is now, well, a potentially harmful social-distancing violation.

Director Gabriel Goodenough making Local Hero. Image courtesy Gabriel Goodenough

BmoreArt contributor Angela Carroll’s Legacies, a 10-episode docuseries about Black artists working between 1960-1990, has led to discussions about how to interview the series’ subjects (who are older and therefore especially susceptible to COVID) during the time of social distancing. 

Porter has been thinking hard about these issues and trying to offer some solutions or stopgap fixes. “What kind of mics can we use? Can we sterilize them?” Porter said. “Can we talk to them on Zoom? Can we throw a drone up and interview them that way? Or interview them on their porch and use a long-lens camera from the sidewalk?”

For narrative filmmaking, it’s going to be “trickier,” Porter explained, and might involve “quarantining the whole cast and crew,” which would be especially trying and demanding on small, independent productions. Still, she sees this terrifying and generally uninspiring moment for everybody—including people who make movies—as potentially motivating.

“We want to capture people during this period. We don’t want to stop storytelling,” Porter said. “It is about making it scrappy and keeping it real, and we’ve never really had the resources here—so our Baltimore filmmakers know how to do that.”

 

Below is the complete list of grantees.

In documentary, there is Local Hero by Gabriel Goodenough, Meredith Moore’s Margie Soudek’s Salt & Peppers, Catherine Rentz’s Open Secrets, Marnie Ellen Hertzler’s Eternity One, Myron Higgins’ Lead Money, Angela Carroll’s Legacies, and JaMar Jones’ ACND.

In narrative, there is Elissa Moorhead and Ericka Blount’s fiftyTwo, Kamesha Brinson’s Blend, Chung-Wei Huang’s Squeegee Boy, Stephen Schuyler and Marley Hernandez’s Like You Think You Know Me, Dameon Gibbs and Tonyette Hall’s Jailed On the Inside, and Scott Patterson’s Cloud Nebula.

In animation, there is Stephanie Williams’ Hospes, and in New Media (Extended Reality/Virtual Reality), there is Nadia Hironaka and Tanya Garcia’s Las Ruinas Circulares, Liz Cazabon’s Losing Winter, Lisa Moren’s Stories Under the Bay, Avery Griffin’s Blue Light, and Gillian Waldo’s Diary.

Header Image: Film still from TT The Artist's Dark City Beneath The Beat

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