My girlfriend and I managed to attend eight films at AFI this year over the course of the seven-day festival: Amour; Rust and Bone; Clip; Caesar Must Die; Starlet; Beyond the Hills; Leviathan; and Antiviral. This means, of course, that we missed the lions share of the films on the slate (there were 128, by the way), including, somehow, all of the award winners. But what we did see was so consistently innovative that I feel watching any block of films at AFI is tantamount political polling: You might not get everyone’s opinion, but as long as your sample size is big enough, you can extend your limited observations to the whole. Jacqueline Lyanga and her team cherry pick their program from the entire international festival season, so the lineup should be stellar. And this year it was.
Full disclosure, MovieMaker is an affiliate media sponsor of AFI. However I attended the festival in 2010 and 2011 as an independent, and loved the program both those years, too. This year was different, though, because the programmers pushed limits in 2012 that they couldn’t in previous years—in no small part because Maja Milos’ Clip premiered at Rotterdam in 2012. I’ll explain why this is important in a moment.
In the run-up to the festival, I had the opportunity to watch Sean Baker’s Starlet, a film that starts on a gorgeous, underwear-clad blonde girl with a cute dog, and then pretends to be a hands-off, neo-realist portrait of an un-ambitious, entitled 20-something white kid until, 45 minutes later, it transforms into an unsentimental—and non-judgmental—examination of the porn industry’s lost souls. After seeing Starlet, I felt certain that Mr. Baker was a shining beacon in the post-mumblecore, micro-budget American independent scene. I still feel that way.
But after seeing Clip at AFI—the directorial debut of Serbian director Maja Milos chronicling the hyper-sexual, hyper-violent lives of high school kids in the former Yugoslavia—I was reminded that American filmmakers, either because of our lingering puritanical morals or budget restrictions (or both), rarely glimpse the limits of cinema, let alone transgress them. I don’t mean this as a wholesale condemnation. Context is vitally important. The US doesn’t fund groundbreaking cinema. European countries do. Serbia put up all the money for Clip—which is completely flabbergasting. If the NEA had backed Starlet, for example, Obama would’ve been impeached. If the NEA had funded Clip, he would’ve been assassinated.
American filmmakers must work within the confines of private investment, where ROI reigns supreme. Therefore we can’t judge American independent productions with the same rubric we apply to the Europeans. That’s a travesty we need to fix, but for the time being it’s also a fact.
Earlier this year, Craig Zobel’s Compliance caused an uproar when it debuted at SXSW. And Compliance is undoubtedly an ethically complex film that succeeds in making its audience do something American films rarely do: Sympathize with the victims and feel repulsed by their behavior. But Milos’ Clip so far exceeds the directorial bravery of any English language film in recent memory—it shames Shame, and even makes Kids look like a Disney picture—that I feel it’s imperative viewing for every young filmmaker working in the realist vein. You’ll never again shoot two, young semi-lovers eating cereal in bed.
As I write in the editors note for our forthcoming Guide, independent film is the antidote to the “cancer of commercial cinema,” but to be an effective therapy, filmmakers working outside of the Hollywood system really need to push against the barriers of acceptability as hard as they can to remind—even shock—American audiences into remembering that film is a vital and transformational artistic medium. There are moments in Baker’s Starlet that will offend even some adventurous moviegoers. But the first minute of Clip alone feels more vital, dangerous, and honest than the totality of American cinema right now.
American independents are shaking off the shackles of mumblecore, but European cinema still feels more progressive and challenging by a mile (or a kilometer, more accurately). AFI proved that again this year, but there remains serious opportunity for Americans to recapture the throne if, as Lyanga pointed out to me when I interviewed her, we look to our European brethren for strength. They have the backing of their governments, and we have to go it alone. In the Sundance issue of MovieMaker, I’ll be introducing a “Limit Pushers” article, where I’ll be profiling the boldest and most inventive moviemakers currently working—and how they’re able to do the work they do. Until then, go see Clip, Starlet, Amour, Beyond the Hills, and Caesar Must Die. We’ll chat soon.