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Stateside with Rosalea: What You Lookin' At?

The last book I bought before moving to the States two years ago was John O'Shea's collection of memories and documents 'Don't Let it Get You'. I figured that if the living ever got too un-easy here I could open it up, put on the soundtrack album of his film of the same name, and transport myself in time and space to the antipodean sixties. A couple of weekends ago I did just that - treating myself to a booster shot against the hawkish, mawkish media environment in which I find myself here.

This weekend I took a more local antidote by attending the Film Arts Festival of Independent Cinema. The Film Arts Foundation has been a driving force in the independent film world for 25 years and this is its 17th festival. On Saturday - umbrella at hand for the first winter rains - I BARTed beneath the Bay to San Francisco and walked the six blocks to the SomArts Gallery for some seminars and viewings, then BARTed back to the Fine Arts Cinema in Berkeley for the evening films. Here is some of what I saw and heard.

The aqua blue paint job of the Bayshore Viaduct, the traffic overhead beating out a steady th-dock, th-dock as tyres hit the edges of the concrete slabs of the roadway. Behind the pillars, the tents and trolley-and-tarp shelters of the homeless, who are still in "bed" as I make my early morning way south of Market Street. The SomArts Gallery is in an old, two-storey corrugated iron building, tucked in under the viaduct, its hippy paint job and rap graffitti both faded into a welcome matte finish. The windows on the second storey are covered with black polythene, and when I see that corrugated iron roof, I can't wait for the rain to start!

The rain tickles and teases with a swift passing ran-tan during the first seminar, and in the break afterwards the air out in the car park, amid the old props and raw materials, smells like the wet dusty ashphalt of a school playground. The seminar was given by Jon Moritsugu, who's featured on the flyer promoting membership in the Film Arts Foundation filming himself while shaving. "It's not about awards. It's not about fame. It's not about money. Definitely not about money", says the flyer. "Jon Moritsugu - 13 films, 9 lost jobs, 5 maxed out credit cards."

I like this guy. He self-distributes his own videos by asking anyone he meets which video stores in their city carry independent films and he phones them up and sells himself. Since video stores want to have full-colour boxes he buys clamshells (empty plastic video covers) makes black and white copies of artwork, then handcolours some small aspect of it. Voila - full-colour at b&w prices. That's how he got his early work out, and it still works today.

Coming out of the 1980's punk scene he made shorts with titles like 'Mommy, Mommy, Where's my Brain?', 'Der Elvis', and 'Sleazy Rider' (even a 1 minute-long 'Braindead'), before moving into features like 'Hippy Porn' in the nineties. His 'Fame Whore', which inspired an admirer's website of the same name and ethos, was released in an industry standard commercially printed full-colour box complete with barcode he managed to get for $10 through an arrangement with a music company he deals with, instead of paying $500 to the monopoly that issues barcodes in the States.

"The term 'independent film maker' has lost its meaning these days," he said. "I'm a no budget/low budget film maker." His latest film, 'Scum Rock', was shot on Hi8 video - "DV makes everything look like a car commercial" - and is being edited on analog VHS equipment "not because I hate the world", but because he's aiming for an aesthetic of cruddy visuals and hi-end sound - for which he used DAT. Why Hi8 and not Super8? Because he could light with desk lamps and not have to hire expensive lighting equipment. Rent a dolly? Hell no - use a wheelchair.

"I'm here to tell you NOT to believe the hype," he said, referring to the plethora of mainstream industry-dominated workshops on film making. "There are no easy ways of making movies." He rehearses his actors for months - including prop and dress rehearsals - and is still rehearsing them while the set-up is being done. He rehearses lighting changes. He keeps his shooting ratio down that way, and is rigorous about asking himself what he DOESN'T need in the way of equipment, as well as in doing a script breakdown that will ensure he maximises the benefits of the time and money spent on night shoots and location and equipment hire.

And he's learned to move on when shooting a scene that hasn't come out as perfectly as he planned, even against the objections of the actors and technicians who might insist they'll get it right next take. If you get three brilliant scenes and the rest are OK, he says, then you've done well.

Jon was also on the panel discussion "What You Lookin' At? The Search for Content in New Media" along with a variety of critics, distributors, film makers and writers, some with astonishing anecdotes. Ron Merk, who makes and distributes mainstream children's movies, recounted a conversation he recently had with a marketing executive at a major distribution house who said it would be too hard to market his animated "Marc Polo: Return to Xanadu" because it wasn't based on a famous book, a famous character, or an historical figure. Merk, who's been in the film industry since the sixties told of meeting Frederico Fellini and commenting how wonderful it must be to be able to do what he wanted with his films. "I spend most of my time begging for money," Fellini replied.

Chris Brown - actor, director, writer - said he made his acclaimed move 'Metal' "for a black audience in a certain way", and that for him content isn't driven by the medium or by the desire for widespread distribution. Because 'Metal' is about an ordinary family dealing with day-to-day issues and has no drugs, no guns and no rap music distributors didn't know how to handle it. At the premiere of his first movie 'Minor' 700 of the 1000 people in the audience walked out, yet a year later people who stayed said they were still thinking about the film. That's the reward.

The critic Michael Fox thought everyone else on the panel was being too nice. Films should be divisive and stir up emotions, and he quoted the director of 'The Rapture', which people either loved or hated: "The last thing I want to do is make a movie where the audience is fused into a mob at the end."

Lea Barker
Veterans Day
Sunday, 11 October 2001

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