Recap: Sundance ShortsLab 2013 at BAM

While the event itself took place last weekend, I wanted to take some time this week to recap the great experience I had at the Sundance ShortsLab at BAM in Brooklyn.

Some of you may have seen me tweeting about it here and there while the lab was proceeding. I had planned to do more of that but ended up just listening. It seemed counter-intuitive to obsess over pulling quotes (though there were plenty to pull) and risk looking the next great piece of information coming from the programmers and industry panelists.

And that’s really what I want to talk about, in case any of you out there might be interested in attending either the LA session of the ShortsLab on August 10th, or another session, wherever, next year. The Lab, more than anything else, provided me and others with a glut of very useful information. And a bit more of something else, that is arguably even more crucial in the long struggle to make it as an indie filmmaker.

I’m going to be up front about this – when I heard Sundance was going to be in my backyard in Brooklyn, I was interested but unsure as to whether the Lab itself was going to be for me. The reason was simple, if flimsy. I’ve made, or helped to make, four shorts (technically three, since Multiverse is still in post) and have produced countless other short form projects that aren’t quite the same thing and yet not completely different either. The entrance fee seemed reasonable, insofar as any monetary amount can seem reasonable to an indie filmmaker, but I (like a few others, probably) still didn’t just have the money laying around.

I’m so glad I went anyway.

First, it was a little arrogant of me (and I’ll briefly continue the pattern of self-absorption by patting myself on the back for knowing I was wrong) to assume that years of making shorts qualified me to say that I didn’t need Sundance. That’s not exactly what was happening – I just didn’t want to waste money that could go towards plugging other holes – but at the end of the day a decision not to attend might as well have been based on this fallacy. As it turned out, it would have been a mistake to pass up on the opportunity.

Enter reason number one why any filmmaker, who hasn’t already made his or her first feature (and this may even still apply to a few who have – I’ve made half a feature), should attend the ShortsLab in the future. The program wasn’t just money well-spent. It was money incredibly well-spent. Further, it wasn’t even about money or time. Not fundamentally.

It’s easy to forget, when we are always struggling for funds, for opportunities – when we are simply always struggling – that there is a reason for the struggle. That there is passion beneath this compulsion towards “success” that becomes a leech on the remainder of our lives.

More than any other film-related event I can remember attending (though my festival attendance to this point has been limited), the ShortsLab felt abuzz with a genuine passion for the medium of film and a distinct and pure hunger for information and access.

A lot of the time, you walk into an “industry event” – any industry event, really – and the experience is a mix of opportunism and genuine interest. This is, of course, understandable. However, invariably, even in the arena of the arts, programmers and crowds seem to lose sight of the natural order of these two factors. To be clearer: more people are there, more specifically, to get what they need and that only. The urgency of, and the desire for, the “prize”…it overcomes and outstrips the reason for the journey.

Quite simply: the Sundance Shorts Lab programmers put the more appropriate and more crucial reverse relationship into practice – from the start. Passion for art first, business of film second. The day started, smartly, with an hour of Q&A, which allowed Sundance to dispense with the anxious “need to know” on the part of the crowd  — which can be boiled down to: how do I get my film into the festival. Then they got to the important stuff.

What was the important stuff?

While I am tempted to go into further detail on what I believe was an expertly planned and executed program (especially considering it took place over one long day), the crux of it is this: we were there to learn. To absorb the information that the festival, mostly via its invited industry guests, was delivering.

After the initial talk about the ins and outs of the shorts program itself, the majority of the rest of the day was about an opportunity to discuss the ins and outs of getting films made and made well, and positioning yourself for future (artistic and career) success. This information came from people who knew what they were talking about, and were actively interested in “paying it forward”. Which is what made it the right decision for me to go.

I learned quite a bit. I did come out of the day feeling good about how Multiverse is going. I also feel, after talking with some of the panelists, that I am on the right track with Sophia. These were admittedly priority hopes of mine for the day. But, more than anything else, I gained valuable insight into the professional process that I have not always been able to gain working on my own and teaching myself.

A few films does not an expert make. I’ve known this for a few years. Still, I wanted to provide a record of this mistake so that others might realize it as well. The ShortsLab was about shorts, yes. But it also took a long-view about filmmaking and a career in independent film. Maybe that seems an obvious natural progression out of the arena of shorts – few filmmakers make shorts with the idea of doing it perpetually – but, in my naiveté, I wasn’t completely expecting to get quite as much out of the experience as I did.

Sometimes I worry that, for an increasing number of us, who are stubborn, who are afraid, who are sensitive, who are limited and intimidated by a lack of resources and time – I worry that the struggle to learn to make films, and to excel at making them, forces us to retreat into ourselves. We condition ourselves (with a great degree of help from an increasingly callous world) to believe that the pursuit of our passion must be an impossible and solitary endeavor.

A single day on set, when it comes around to production time, always lays waste to this flimsy belief, perhaps.

But what of the intervening time and space?

At the end of the day, we are all artists – if we are at all doing it right. I don’t care what you do, what you want to do, what you are forced to do. We as humans are fundamentally creative beings. We create as a compulsion of our condition, regardless of whether we do this towards a positive end or with awareness.

And specific to those of us who pursue a more directly artistic calling – we live largely in our minds, a fact that can be a danger as much as it is an inherent necessity as we go about pursuing our particular compulsion in our medium of choice.

But film – film in particular – is about community. We, as filmmakers, cannot succeed without our mentors, our peers, and most importantly our supporters and audience. This is part of the mysterious bargain of art.

What impressed me most about the Shorts Lab was my sense that everyone there, from the programmers and the guest panelists to the majority of the audience, was there to celebrate the creation of film.

Perhaps that shouldn’t have been surprising. I understand that Sundance, being Sundance, can afford to maintain a hold on this more correctly ordered dichotomy between art and careerism more easily than most. But in my experience in this industry so far, more people are more interested in credit and careerism and attention than the purity of film narrative. Perhaps this is a result of our over-capitalized society. Probably it’s more complicated than that (though perhaps not much more complicated). Either way, it’s refreshing to see an organization with the recognition and the power to keep things ordered as they should be, exert their influence in support of storytelling first, in an arena (short films) where the overwhelming majority of us get our start.

I’ve been working hard, perhaps too hard, to simply “learn the ropes” – for a very long time. Again, my festival experience as an attendee has been limited. I also didn’t go to film school. Honestly, this has mostly been because of a dearth of time and resources. When you are truly fighting the fight, few opportunities arrive, in the current economic climate, to put yourself physically in the same place as “the business”. I can’t go out to Sundance. I’m too broke and too busy making films. But I could spend a Sunday in Brooklyn doing the next best thing.

What I’m trying to say is that I was grateful to have an opportunity, despite these facts, to get together with like-minded people, to learn, and to feel at least in some small way that I was where I belonged.

Other filmmakers in a similar position as me, in any of the above terms, would do well to attend a session in the future.

michaeldibiasio

Writer and Filmmaker

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