How the Newest Generation Of Filmmakers Is Hacking It As Storytellers
In a series of interviews from the 9th annual Middlebury New Filmmaker’s Festival, filmmakers share how they're making history by way of motion pictures.
In Vermont, it has been a wet summer. Just as the mosquitos flock to the wet fields and hills of the state, filmmakers come from around the world to the small college town of Middlebury where the 9th annual Middlebury New Filmmaker’s Festival is taking place. Lloyd Komesar knows everyone, it seems, as he flies up and down main street. He knows names, he knows logistics, he shakes hands, he slips into theaters. He’s a producer of the MNFF. Formerly a VP at Disney, Lloyd retired to Middlebury and created the only film festival in the world that focuses solely on first and second-time filmmakers.
“They need a break,” Lloyd tells me as I sit beside him in the front seat of his bright blue Volkswagon driving back into town from the Middlebury Campus to run an errand and then back to the campus again for a screening. “Many larger festivals will include new filmmakers, but they never focus exclusively on the first and second-time filmmakers. We do. They know that they’re going to get some kind of exposure and showcasing that they might not find anywhere else.”
This year’s festival honored a group of film veterans including director Alexander Payne, experimental filmmaker Su Friedrich, actor and director John Slattery, producer and director Beth Levison, documentarian Yoni Brook, and casting director Risa Bramon Garcia. To survive in film is not an easy thing. Ask any of this year’s honorees, and they would agree. And in one way or another, they have “made it.” Or, at least, they’ve made it to the stage of the Middlebury New Filmmaker’s Festival.
Macdaleine St Remy has also made it to the Middlebury New Filmmaker’s Festival. So has Alexis Neophytides and Andres “Jay” Molina (though Molina was not able to attend in person), and so have approximately 120 other filmmakers. It is difficult to get to Middlebury but perhaps even more difficult than getting to Middlebury is getting to film itself.
The desire to tell stories often serves as a counterbalance to the difficulty of surviving as a filmmaker. Financial stability is something that Macdaleine strives for and often worries about as she pursues her dream of becoming a filmmaker. “I have no interest in being a broke artist,” Macdaleine told me, “there's an aspect of the struggling artist that is glorified, and that is not what I am not aiming for.”
Macdaleine is in her thesis year of the NYU Grad Film Program and spent the early years of her career in Silicon Valley working in tech. In her childhood, film was a portal to the world beyond her Haitian-American household, but a career in film never seemed viable. Macdaleine was aware of her avid media consumption, but it wasn’t until she encountered filmmakers, actors, and directors who resembled her such as Spike Lee, Kasi Lemmons, and Julie Dash among others, that Macdaleine considered that she, too, could create and produce media.
Macdaleine chose to attend film school rather than jumping into a freelance career because of the structure it provided along with invaluable connections and access to resources. Her short film dis•chord which was screened at MNFF tells the story of a mother and daughter’s relationship that becomes strained as the realities of finances clash with artistic aspirations. It was crucial for Macdaleine to tell a story featuring the complexities of a Haitian mother-daughter relationship and to explore the ways in which both film and music could meld to create a rich, audio-visual portrait of two unique women who are bound by their identities, class, gender, and questions of citizenship.
Alexis was also drawn away from the perceived stability of a career in STEM by the draw of storytelling. A pre-med in college, Alexis was always fascinated by stories and spent her childhood acting in community theater productions. Alexis tried to build a career in acting but “finding work was difficult, and I had been watching a lot of documentaries at that time, so I went to school for documentary making.” To fund her documentary-making career, Alexis also worked as an educator, a job that she views as an “entry to the arts” both for herself as an emerging documentarian and for a younger generation exploring their creativity and looking for ways to gain media literacy. Alexis explained that “you sort of have to figure out your hustle to be able to make films.” For years Alexis also bartended because “I knew I was only going to make a certain amount of money through my projects and then I started making more money from my projects.”
It was through grant money that Alexis met Jay and that the two were able to make Fire Through Dry Grass, one of two documentaries of Alexis’s that showed at MNFF. The film follows the Reality Poets, a group of gun violence survivors living in a nursing home on Roosevelt Island during the Covid-19 Pandemic. The story was one Alexis and Jay felt an urgency to tell because it gave a platform to a group of storytellers who had few other ways of being heard beyond their immediate circles as the City fell into early Pandemic chaos. “We thought we were making a short film, that people would find out what was happening in the nursing home, and it would stop. We got some grant money, and we realized we had a longer story to tell,” Alexis explained.
New York is a vibrant city for independent filmmakers, and it is no surprise that both Macdaleine and Alexis are based in the city. Joji Baratelli, also in the sphere of New York, comes from Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, a film career is synonymous with commercialism. Growing up, Joji was exposed to friends’ parents who worked in film and who viewed film as a viable and even lucrative career path.
Joji is drawn to New York because the independent film scene is, in Joji’s words, “a kind of microcosm of “‘national tradition.’” New York has a hard-core cinephile community that frequents the city’s independent theaters and maintains an exciting buzz about the types of work coming from emerging artists, the types of work that might make it to MNFF but not Sundance or the Hollywood circuit.
His draw to the New York scene might seem in contrast with the Hollywood hegemony from which he comes, but to Joji, commercialism and independent film rely on one another. All films regardless of size and budget require technical skills and “the film set is sort of like a glorified construction site.” If you have the technical skills needed to operate a camera or edit sound levels, you can make money in film. During the Pandemic, Joji found himself on the set of several music videos and advertisements, and he sees these types of sets as a form of stable income. Joji understands that movies are not going away, the industry has an ability to endure even in the face of the SAG-AFTRA strikes. Since its inception, the film industry has endured hardships, and people have continued to go one after another, generation after generation, to the cinema.
The promise of commercialism is both a blessing and a curse. Dina Amer chose to move away from commercial distribution for her feature narrative film You Resemble Me, which tells the story of Hasna Aitbouhlacen, a French woman falsely accused of being the first female ISIS suicide bomber. Dina received a deal from Amazon to distribute her film but, “they wanted the film to be a documentary series and the fictional aspects to be atmospheric B roll.” Because of this, Dina turned the offer down.
In 2015, Dina flew to Paris using her savings after the November 13th terrorist attacks in the city. A former journalist, Dina had contacts with Vice enabling her to report on the story, and she was one of the journalists to share the fake news that Hasna was a suicide bomber. In Dina’s recount of making You Resemble Me, Hasna’s mother turned away every other journalist and reporter except for Dina because she believed Dina resembled her daughter. The film that was created as a result was a labor of love. Dina partnered with her friends to make the film on a minuscule budget.
Receiving the deal from Amazon was like a breath of fresh air until the conditions of the distribution were made clear and Dina decided to independently distribute the film. “I was living with my sister, afterward,” Dina told me, “I had no money, but my biggest advice to any filmmaker is to tell your story no matter what you do, you don’t need a lot of money to achieve a compelling narrative. I made my movie with a small documentary camera and a few people on set. I learned the hard way that money isn’t the answer to making a better film.”
Dina found independent producers who believed in her vision along with crowdsourcing and screenings to promote and fund her film. The road to You Resemble Me was, as Dina describes it, “a fraught one with a lot of sacrifices. It felt like martyrdom, almost. I didn’t have any money, I was putting my entire life into telling this one story of this one woman, Hasna, who I felt a deep connection with.”
Like Macdaleine, like most of us who are creative and striving to tell stories and give platforms to voices nagging us in the back of our heads, Dina is resolute on monetizing her passion. As artists, it is easy to scoff at the systems in place that enable us to monetize our work. Often these systems exploit us, as is happening today while we watch Hollywood strike. We all do what we need to do to survive. I live paycheck to paycheck organizing legal documents and managing calendars. It is not sexy, and it is not a position in which I imagined myself situated at twenty-three. It pays the bills, and it enables me to write. I am happiest when I write, and so I will write until writing is all I need to do, and then I am sure I will find the practice of needing to create writing for money to be mundane – what a lucky position that will be.
Lloyd told me many things that rainy weekend in Vermont, and I will tell you one more of those many things that he told me. With his papers gathered in his arms, and the doors opening to the afternoon screening, his eyes cocked already towards the screen illuminated by the projector, he nodded: “yes, funding is an issue. You have to stay with it. Start with your friends, your family, keep going, do crowdsourcing, anything you can do to get the film made so that it mirrors your vision for it. Do not compromise on that. And then, after, keep networking with other filmmakers.
There are great filmmaking communities all across the country starting with Brooklyn or Boston or LA or San Francisco or Seattle. So, wherever you are, find a network of filmmakers and present yourself. Make friends. Stay with it. Work on somebody else’s film. And, eventually, you become a part of it. You are inside of it as opposed to always looking in from the outside.”