Beer and Pavement

Indie-Craft Interview #7: Paul Sturtz

Posted in Indie-Craft, Interview by SM on May 7, 2012

Paul Sturtz is one-half the brain power (not counting hundreds of volunteers and a handful of employees) behind the establishment and planning for the Ragtag Cinema and the True/False Film Fest. He, al0ng with fellow founder David Wilson, have brought high-brow film to the unlikeliest of places, AKA the middle of Missouri. Additonally, Paul has dabbled in his own filmaking projects as well as a short stint as a city councilman here in Columbia. Like many of the featured individuals in this series, Paul has his hands in many projects that represent the indie-craft ethic well.

Note: Paul didn’t have a picture for me to use. He asked me to have my child draw his portrait. As is my daughter’s prerogative, she turned down the opportunity to draw Paul’s portrait. So I did the next best thing and drew Paul using Microsoft paint. 

Artist rendition of Paul Sturtz’s face.

1. Describe your craft(s).
Helping to organize T/F involves the craft of saying no to a lot of things. Film festivals tend to be self-important, pretentious, empty affairs that are all about congratulating each other about how wonderful everyone is. Based in a small, Midwestern city, we’ve been able to develop our own culture without paying too much attention to what’s “normal.” The atmosphere of Columbia fuels this kind of can-do, grassroots ethos because people here aren’t as cynical about a glut of choices. And the documentary world tends to keep our feet on the ground. Also, our populist, iconoclastic, and sometimes misanthropic tendencies have made us steer clear of some  essential trappings such as award ceremonies, red carpet, and stars.

2. What’s the importance or benefit of remaining indie?
I don’t really know what “indie” means anymore. We said this years ago, but we’re pathetically dependent on all sorts of people and institutions. If we can get folks to buy into our vision of the festival, then we’re all for them coming on board as sponsors and partners. Of course, we’d have to think twice about burnishing the reputation of companies like Exxon/Mobil and WalMart and most multi-national corporations that have more allegiance to shareholders than the common good.

3. How does your craft contribute to society?
We provide a platform for nonfiction filmmakers that has integrity. And we demonstrate that a small town can do big things and have fun at the same time.

4. What other indie-craft products inspire you?
I am really inspired by food trucks that have become a sensation in the last few years. I like that they open up a sense of possibility in the city. There have been loads of places that have inspired me such as the Middle East Restaurant in Cambridge, the X-Ray Cafe in Portland, Oregon (formerly the UFO), the Space Gallery in Portland, Maine and the old Red Vic in San Francisco. I really admire the work that the Rabid Hands collective is doing. I like the Japanese architect Terunobu Fujimori, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Buster Keaton, “Eagle Rock Rag” by Leadbelly, “Obeah Man” by Exuma, SunRay tempeh, Luna & Larry’s coconut cream, Polina Malikin’s raw sauerkraut. I like the idea of micro-distilleries and butteries. I am playing this song by Brigitte Fontaine constantly.  “My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died” by Roger Miller is the greatest song ever. And my son Leo’s drawings the last two weeks have been amazing.

5. What is your dream of success?
To live more and more in an actively creative way. To make silly things just for myself while still working on behalf of the world.

Paul, like previous Indie-Craft subjects, is from Columbia, MO but has a national, even international reach. Check out the other interviews in the series and stay tuned for more.

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Indie-Craft Interview #3: Kim Sherman

Posted in Film, Indie-Craft, Interview by SM on May 2, 2012

Kim Sherman is a really busy person. So busy that I thought for sure she’d never get around to this “interview.” Not only did Kim prove me wrong, but she went above and beyond the call of duty by contributing the many interesting bits of information you find below the picture I lifted from her Facebook profile. There’s indie filmmaking and indie rock-making she does, filling every open slot on her calendar. She used to head the music scheduling at True/False before returning this year with both a film to screen (V/H/S) and busking gigs for her band, Jerusalem and the Starbaskets, to fulfill.

Speaking of True/False, it was suggested that Kim was the real story of this year’s fest. How often does someone go from volunteering/working for a major film festival to a contributing filmmaker? This doesn’t even mention Jerusalem and the Starbaskets’ thrilling set at one of the fest’s showcases following a year where the band found some well-deserved acclaim for their album, Dost. In other words, Kim is a big part of the best thing that happens in Middle Missouri.

All of this makes Kim Sherman an ideal subject for the Indie-Craft Interview series… 

1. Describe your craft(s).
I am an independent filmmaker and the drummer for Jerusalem and the Starbaskets. My day job is producing for feature films. In independent cinema, this usually involves being pretty hands on in all aspects of the creation of a film. My role and job shape shift a bit, depending on the project and my relationship with the project’s director. For some director’s, I deal more with the practical aspects of the project. Things like hiring cast and crew, working with unions, securing permission for locations. Really, the things no one likes to do on a film set. For other director’s, I work in a more collaborative sense, and help guide the story with them. In either case, I work very hard to make sure the director has everything they need to tell the story, and that they have the space and freedom to insert their voice in that story. If the audience takes something away from the film, hopefully a strong emotional or academic response, and the director feels like people really understand what they were trying to convey, I feel like I did a good job. Though, it helps when the film sells and everyone involved makes money.

2. What’s the importance or benefit of remaining indie?
Choosing Independent Filmmaking was really easy for me, being from the Midwest. I wasn’t exposed to studios, early on, and I never really dreamed of working for a studio. Though, I respect that the industry needs both halves to survive. Some of my favorite films came out of studios. I know that “independent film” meant something different in the 90’s, when that meant a film cost less than $3 million. Now there is a much wider range for independent financing, so films are made for under 10K pretty regularly and with great success. Technology and talent are available in abundance at all levels of that financial spectrum. So for me, the biggest reason for staying in the Independent realm, is simply being able to work on stories that I find interesting, that I feel are important, and that maybe break the rules a bit.

I still want all the world to see my work, and that is certainly easier to achieve in the studio system. But the more overhead a film is associated with, the more money it has to make just to break even. The more money a film has to make, the more creative decisions are made solely on that point. The more a film compromises just to make money, the more contained the vision becomes. Its hard to do something different when you are only thinking about the people that are happy to see the same story over and over again. As a filmmaker and an audience member, I want to see stories that are maybe dirtier, darker, and that challenge the way life is portrayed on television and in theaters.

3. How does your craft contribute to society?
Independent Filmmaking, as I stated, can allow for more freedom of storytelling. The actual filmmaking process has become more accessible to more people, which opens the medium up for interpretations by various cultures. The idea is that independent film and audiences will gravitate towards stories that haven’t been told and recycled a million times over.

Until recently, I had been working mostly in horror films. I was fortunate to work with a few friends that know the genre very deeply, and wanted to see the old conventions given new life. They developed stories with a woman as the central protagonists. The women in these films survive where others would break. I really loved this element. I recognize that Horror is an inherently sexist genre, but I do see more and more audiences growing tired of watching women mercilessly tortured. There is a trend towards women overcoming the demons, serial killers, mutant rapists, and abusive spouses from another planet, and not just because they are pure and virginal. Horror, like sci-fi and other genre work, is a great way to point out the evils of society and hopefully make a path to the solution of these evils.

More recently, I have been involved with dramas that feature women on the verge of falling out of society. Caught between their crimes and the reality of the punishment, I ran towards these stories for their polarizing central characters. This is an idea that had been reserved for male characters, with women playing sidekick and savior. I love being a part of something that provides strong and challenging roles for women.

Beyond just women too, I hope to always work on films that push forward groups that would otherwise be marginalized in film, on and off the screen. Hopefully these stories won’t seem so fringe, in the very near future. In this way, I feel like my craft contributes to society.

4. What other indie-craft products inspire you?
Several times a year, I record and tour with my bandmates, Jeremy Freeze and John Garland, as the drummer for Jerusalem and the Starbaskets. My bandmates are like family, and I very sincerely love the music we make. I’ll sometimes blush when I hear it playing in Uprise or other public spaces, but I really do love listening to our albums always. Jeremy Freeze is one of my favorite songwriters, and I never get sick of listening to his voice and lyrics.

When I work on films, I spend a lot of time on my computer. I have a hard time concentrating if I’m not listening to music. It’s better for my brain than coffee even.

Recently, Jeremy and John contributed music to a film I produced. For me, it was the start of something I have been working up to. I want to combine my two loves, film and music. I am currently co-writing a film with Jeremy, that we are hoping to make late in 2013.

5. What is your dream of success?
I have more immediate goals for success, that include sustainability. It’s hard for people in my profession to balance time and money. It’s especially hard when you work in micro-budget independent films. Long term, I am starting to get back to directing, and it is my hope that I can find a successful balance between directing, producing, and drumming. If I can do this, live comfortably off of the things I have dedicated my life to, and still be there for my friends and community, I will feel like a huge success.

If you get a chance, check out Kim’s work. V/H/S hits On Demand and theaters this fall. Dost is available in exchange for your dollars. And I’m sure Kim has something else up her sleeve in the meantime.

[Full disclosure: Kim is the only person to ever call me a journalist. This can be both good and bad. Make of it what you will.]


Celebrating Voyeurs

Posted in Film, Live by SM on March 4, 2010

There’s a documentary film festival in this town. The people here love it. Folks either attend or they volunteer1.

True/False is that festival. It’s an eclectic gathering of filmmakers, musicians2, and film-lovers for one weekend near the end of February. Featured are some of the best and brightest of independent, nonfiction film3. Despite the global essence of the films, the feel of the festival is completely local as the citizens of Columbia, Missouri come out and do their part to make a pretty spectacular festival happen.

Documentary/nonfiction films are stories which reveal some truths about the subjects they cover, but what do they reveal about the audience who flock to central Missouri every year? What’s the motivation to see ten or so films historically reserved for PBS or the classroom over the course of a weekend? Why all the fuss?

Nonfiction films take the audience to places they’ve never been, in the company of people they may never know. Not only do they take us to another place, but these films connect us through commonalities only apparent after 90 minutes of film4. Plus, the artistic expression from the filmmakers can be breathtaking5, humorous6, or horrifically disturbing7; all touching our inner-most emotions.

Nonfiction film does all of that and it satisfies the voyeur8 in all of us. The filmmaker is the lead voyeur who takes us in with her camera. We willingly follow just to gain a peak into an existence we might not otherwise witness. Documentaries are a vehicle for voyeurism to flourish.

True/False celebrates the voyeur in all of us. The filmmakers are our vehicles and they receive heroes’ welcomes in the form of parades9 and standing ovations. Bravo! You widened that keyhole and took a snap shot so that my voyeuristic needs could be met! Thank you, filmmakers and festival organizers. I needed to know about that man and his inventions or those boys at their snooty private school.

Whenever truth is revealed through voyeuristic or other means, various perspectives of a subject or argument are revealed. Nonfiction films are rarely all good or all bad. There is a little of both spread throughout the films at T/F. Just like the festival itself.

After living in Columbia for a few years and getting to know how the community conducts itself, I have learned of some of the ugliness associated with the fest not usually apparent to many festival goers10. There are grudges and political maneuvers. A select few opinions are considered in piecing together the festival lineup, limiting the scope of films represented. Folks scream and yell and quit over passes, perks, etc. Of course, the organizers put on a pretty amazing event despite these bruises and black eyes. The festival represents both the best and worst of our Midwestern college town, much the same way the films do for their subjects.

And what do we voyeurs see in these films?

We see the odd11, the strange12, the unimaginable13. We also see a mirror. Nonfiction films reveal the connections we have with people in completely different circumstances. These films are real. They have heart14.

Speaking of mirrors, The Mirror was the first film I saw over the weekend. It told the story of an ambitious mayor of an Italian village located between mountain ranges in the Alps. Viganella goes without sunlight for 83 days a year until an architect comes up with an idea to construct a giant mirror on the face of a mountain overlooking the village15. As mentioned before, there is the mayor who is the optimist, trying to improve life in his town and its residents. Through conversations in taverns, following local hermits through mountainous trails, and sitting with local clergy, the viewer is exposed to the doubt and beliefs of the town’s people. Is man-made progress always good? What does it mean to live in isolation? Can one ever enjoy peace with the ever-encroaching modern world? What are the consequences of man playing God?

The festival’s opening night film was Smash His Camera. The doc follows one Ron Galella, the godfather of modern paparazzi, and his never-ending quest to take the most revealing photos of celebrities at their most vulnerable16. If ever there was an example of our obsession with the lives of others, it can be found in the pages of the tabloids who pay handsomely for Galella’s photographs. Ethical or not, the fruits of voyeurism fills some sort of void in our lives. If we can’t be rich and famous, we can at least know how the rich and famous live. Galella’s photos and the legacy he’s shaped allows us to do that.

Colony gave the festival audience an insider’s perspective of beekeeping, including the disappearance of bees all over the country. Of course, as voyeurs, we the audience focused on the characters featured, not so much the issues surrounding disappearing bee colonies. One particular family of small-time beekeepers drew additional attention. They were a conservative Christian family, trying to get by in tough economic times as their colony of bees suffered17.

The dark side of voyeurism happens when we judge our subjects. One audience member not only judged this family rather harshly, but she threw the filmmaker under the bus as well. The audience member, who may or may not be an art history professor at the University of Missouri, caused the audience to groan as she berated the filmmaker for including the Christian conservatives and even caused one Twitter user to proclaim her “question” to be the worst in True/False history18.

That is not good voyeurism, Ma’am. A good voyeur simply watches19. She never participates or interferes.

I sort of think the audience member was taken aback by the things one of the “characters” had said. She was then nervous to stand in front of so many people and proceeded to spew way more verbal diarrhea than originally intended. It’s OK, she’s gathered her thoughts and has responded to her critics.

Of course, the weekend was primarily filled with the good kind of voyeurism. We were all lost in the moment as we sat in dark theaters while winter finally relented to the oncoming spring outside20. I saw mostly good-to-great films and heard mostly thoughtful commentary from festival audiences.

For a weekend, 10,000 or so folks got to catch a glimpse into the lives of others while safely sitting in theaters, chapels, and rock clubs of their Midwestern college town.

Were we really voyeurs21? Well, technically no. Voyeurism has more to do with watching sexual acts or naked bodies or even everyday things and gaining some sort of arousal from the act. Most of the films don’t exactly titillate on the levels of true voyeurism, but we do arrive at some level of excitement due to the reality and heart these films demonstrate. For some of us, this is the best thing that happens in Middle Missouri every year. So, that alone causes some excitement.

Even if it’s not voyeurism that I’m describing, it’s still rather enthralling to be a part of such an event. There’s a community built around this festival. Intellectual discussions over difficult issues is commonplace for three or four days. There’s an energy in the air. Is it as much a turn-on to watch a good documentary film as it is for a voyeur to watch a woman change her clothes through a peephole? Doubtful, but it’s close.

(Forgot to mention that my review of The Red Chapel is up at MyMissourian’s T/F blog.)

1Well, not everyone. There are those that don’t even know there’s a film festival going on, which is hard to believe considering that Columbia, MO has more journalists per capita than any other city in the country. Others who do not attend do not like the pretentiousness of documentary film nor hipsters.
2Although, I have never really gotten into the music aspect. Sure, I love the acts serenading us between films and that Brody Douglas comes back every year, but I’m not shelling out money for a pass to see bands. I come for the stories.
3Sans my friends over at Carnivalesque Films who have done some amazing work since their last T/F appearances. Seriously, check out their docs.
4Which was more the rule, not the exception this year. The one thing I hate about the film festival is the number of unedited, 250-minute documentaries about some dude (usually the filmmaker himself) on heroin while he tries to save his dying father’s pig farm from bankruptcy despite a long history of incest and veganism.
5See Manufactured Landscapes.
6See The Third Monday in October.
7See Food, Inc.
8Don’t worry. I will address this misuse of the word later.
9Seriously. There’s a March March held every year to open the fest.
10None of which I will go into here. I am not interested in spreading rumors. I’m just making a point that no matter how wonderful I or others think the festival is, it still has its faults. While bothersome, these problems won’t keep me from attending.
11See The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
12See I Think We’re Alone Now.
13See Forbidden Lies.
14See Heart of the Game.
15An idea I thought I would work on the buildings running along Ninth Street that would have kept me warm while walking in the shade. No one else thought this was a good idea.
16He was famously or infamously sued by Jaquelin Onassis for getting a bit too close to his subject. She was the one who suggested the secret service smash his camera.
17They rank somewhere in my top-5 characters at True/Fasle ever.
18And that’s saying something. Right before that, at the screening for Kick in Iran, an audience member asked why there was English written below the Arabic on the uniforms and street signs. Really? Are a you third grader on a field trip to an exhibit on Iran? Nope. You’re an old white guy who asks dumb questions of a really phenomenal filmmaker.
19Well, a good voyeur does a lot of things not worth mentioning here. I realize this, but bear with me. I’ll get to that.
20Really. Spring comes to Middle Missouri around the end of February. It was chilly, but the sun made it almost spring-like.
21Here it is.

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