Moving Image 7-13-2006

FILM: The Future of MN Film (Wherever You May Find It)

Ali Selim, writer and director of the acclaimed film fest favorite "Sweet Land," MPR's Euan Kerr, and web video creators Cristina Cordova and Juan Antonio del Rosario ("Chasing Windmills") talk about the future of motion pictures, wherever they may be.

Sweet Land poster
Ali Selim, Writer/Director of Sweet Land
Euan  Kerr
Chasing Windmills
Cristina Cordova, creator of CHASING WINDMILLS in character

Originally published on and in access+ENGAGE in July 2006.

WE HAVE BEEN STUNNED BY THE EXPLOSION of talent and innovation
that’s emerged in Minnesota in recent years, whether you’re talking about web video or traditional big-screen filmmaking. But at the same time, the local audiences for film seem to be evolving—some would even say
dwindling. We took our questions about the present and future of homegrown film to some news-making filmmakers and one of our favorite arts broadcasters: Ali Selim, writer and director of the buzz-worthy Sweet Land, a favorite at film festivals
(here and across the country); Cristina Cordova and Juan Antonio del Rosario,
creators of the Web video phenomenon Chasing
; and Euan Kerr, a Minnesota Public Radio news editor and one of
our favorite reporters on the movie beat. The conversation ranged far and wide—from the question of a “Minnesotan” film scene, to how the medium shapes the
story, to the looming concerns over the future of cinema as we know it.

Q: Have you run into
anything else like Chasing Windmills online?

There are some sitcoms, but nothing like what we’re doing, really (a daily, serialized fictional narrative).

Ali (to Antonio and Cristina): How do you make it all happen? How do you pay for it? How do you live?

Well, we’re not really making any money off of this right now. But,
theoretically, something like this could earn money through advertising.
Actually, what we’re leaning toward is product placement, because we already
have products in there. Chasing
because it’s all about this couple’s daily life, is full of

Everybody’s improvising. We’re still figuring out what to do with this new
medium. I see the New York Times multimedia
section changing formats regularly. Everyone’s trying to figure out “How do I
hold the baby?” I think it’ll take a little while for things to settle.

Euan: Do you think it really will settle?

I think a platform will develop eventually. The medium will mature and people
will try various things (and fail) until the Web develops its own conventions,
its own aesthetic.

We’ve been going through this discussion at the radio station for going on ten
years. And we’ve got a much simpler format to deal with than you guys. First,
it was “we’re all going to satellite.” And then, “No, no,
nope. It’s definitely going to be… well, maybe not, the Internet.” [laughing]

Q: Ali, have you been making
use of the Web?

Sweet Land’s website is ultimately for the
film festivals—they need images, press materials. It’s for 75 people really. If
other people come to the site, curious—that’s great, here’s a JPEG, download it
for whatever you want. What I’m really concerned with, though, are getting
butts in seats at the theater. When I dreamed of getting in this business (watching Mary Poppins and Flipper), I was dreaming of getting a
bunch of people in a room—all there to see my movie. That’s what I’m working

Q: Will the movie-going
become a boutique experience only for true cinephiles, with the Web and TV
being the preferred method of watching films?

Not at all… I think the same people who love their iPods will be saying, “You
have to see what’s showing down the block. It’s great…”

I agree. I don’t think people will want to lose that space. I don’t want to lose that space.
Cristina and I were speaking at a conference in San Francisco. We ended up talking about Lawrence of Arabia and screen size. Your
iPod’s great, but you can’t watch Lawrence
of Arabia
on your iPod. Here’s the perfect visual story: you have that
great scene where Omar Sharif is arriving in the desert. On your iPod, when he
arrives you still can’t see him. Between the epic shot and the expanse of the
desert… on a screen that size, it’s just silly. You’re looking at empty space.

And TV has adapted to the screen size, too. Television shows are mostly
dialogue, and they’re mostly close-ups. They figured out that wide shots just
don’t work on TV, and they adapted to the medium 50 years ago. Now we’ve got
these new media formats, and we’ll adapt to these

These different formats offer different experiences—they do different things.

I actually have all of Sweet Land
on my cell phone screen. Let me get it. [Pulling out the phone and bringing up
the film on its screen.] There you go. All you need is a headset. It goes on
for two hours like that.

Euan:[big laugh] Have you watched it on there yet?

No, I haven’t. But I gave it to someone at a film festival and he disappeared
with my phone, came back two hours later, and said he loved it. So, I guess he
didn’t mind the screen size.

Q: But don’t you think he
had a different experience, watching it on the phone, than you’d intended?

A totally different experience. But I
think watching it on a screener at home is a totally different experience. We’ve
played the movie to sold-out houses (God bless) across the country, and there’s
such an energy in the room when you watch the movie that way. People play off each other in a theater; they know it’s okay to laugh from the others’ responses. It’s a very different experience.

We have to exploit something completely different than that for Chasing Windmills. For one thing, we have to deal with what people think of when they think of a “vlog,” which is
really me with my camera, showing you, “Hey, this is me eating breakfast.” That’s
what’s out there. We have to work with that. And why are viewers interested in watching
someone eat breakfast? Because it’s real people. The reason people go to these vlogs and read all this personal stuff is that they’re reaching out, sometimes in weird and
desperate ways for sure, but reaching out all the same for an experience of real people.

giving you that. You can sit there, by yourself, and look through a peephole
into my apartment. It’s fictitious, but we’re creating that
illusion for you. On that small screen of your computer, you want something
intimate. You want to be alone. It’s
not a joint experience, it’s a private one. It’s almost dirty. You’re looking
in on someone’s raw life—on the toilet, having sex, having arguments, personal
conversations. What we show people is really kind of ugly. It’s pretty dark
stuff. [laughing]

I were making something for the big screen, I would never make that. You need
to think about the medium you’re using. You can’t just take content intended
for TV or movies and throw it on the Web. It’s demeaning to the content. We had
a showing a while back, where a few of episodes of Chasing Windmills were shown on the big screen. I wanted to run and
hide under a table. It was horrible… it
was just awful. The images were never meant to occupy such a large space. Chasing Windmills is Web video—we’re not
intending to create a big-screen film.

You can shoot a film with your hand-held camera and not follow any rules of the
medium. And you can project it onto a wall. You can even call it a “film.” But
you’re not going to be using the aesthetics that work in that medium. And that does affect the story. On the Web, each
of our episodes needs to be self-contained. They need to exist by
themselves—with a beginning, middle, and end. There has to be some sort of
closure to each one. It’s a series, and each part needs to move the story
forward, but the Web requires instant gratification. There’s got to be some
sort of gag, something that holds it

I’m really intrigued by the question of where the audience is going. I’m
concerned about cultural literacy. You can fit lots of references into your
work, but if the audience doesn’t get it… when it’s for naught… If nobody’s
reading Moby Dick anymore, and if
they haven’t seen Gregory Peck, is it just going to be lost? [pause] I went to see Pirates
of the Caribbean
with my son this week, and was infuriated by it. First of
all, it seemed to just lift things from other movies—for two and a half
hours—and there was a gimmick where the guy’s face moved around like an
octopus, but there was no story.

It’s nice that it could infuriate you. I slept. [laughing]

I keep hearing that people love it, but there’s no story there. And when you make it to the end, you find out it’s
not even really the end. “By the way, come back next Memorial Day for the rest
of the story.” The fact that people aren’t furious about that worries me.

Q: Ali,
now that Sweet Land has been received
so well, and you’re thinking of making more movies, does Euan’s concern about
audience expectations worry you, too? Do you worry that the audience for
thoughtful films is dwindling?

[pause] From where I sit, my job is really to focus on
the story I want to tell and how to tell it well. Then I have to trust the
story—and that it will resonate with people, find its audience. If I start
worrying too much about making what people will like … I’d probably just end up making… Pirates of the Caribbean. [Everyone laughs] People ultimately want a good
story, well told. But, I think Alex and Malcolm [Ali’s son and Euan’s son respectively] might
think Pirates of the Caribbean is a
good story—the standards for that, the expectations of what that is, are based
around something different [more visual excitement.]

Q: Do you think the answer
will lie in niche filmmaking?

That’s happening already. There are all kinds of different cinematic
experiences to be had, depending on what you’re looking for. And, really,
fragmentation of the market is the best thing that can happen to writers. Fewer
multi-million dollar payouts, but more writers will be able to live
comfortable, middle-class lives making a living at it. The best thing about the
Web is that you can harness an audience internationally who, collectively,
could ultimately mean a significant market for your work. All of a sudden, lots
of filmmakers who couldn’t make it in the current system, actually have a shot
at doing something profitable. You’re talking about a whole new medium, where
filmmaking becomes like painting.

The downside of this though, is that with a lot of people making movies, a lot
of them are going to be just terrible. It’s tough for the consumer to wade
through them. I wonder if it really would be easier to break in and get
noticed. You can make movies, but will anyone watch them?

I think there’s a tight, pretty incestuous group of people on the Web who
really check out what people are coming out with. When they saw Chasing Windmills, they loved it and
wrote about it on their pages, and linked to it. I think our audience found us
that way, by turning to those people as a way of wading through the traffic. It
got around in ripples like that—and since there’s really nothing else like it,
people have been all the more enthusiastic about what we’re doing. I’m not sure
about all the reasons why, but Chasing
got attention.

Q: When it all shakes out,
do you think people will still go out and see movies in a theater?

I don’t like going to the movies. I end up uncomfortable. I’ll undoubtedly have
to pee in the fourth act, so I’m always missing a chunk of the important part
of the film. I find it an increasingly unpleasant experience. And, God forbid, I
get someone laughing in the wrong place, or talking. Then I’m just miserable.
Most of the time, I’m more comfortable watching movies at home, and with bigger
and bigger TV sets and better sound and all these things that can simulate the
theatrical experience… I’m not a teenager and I don’t need to get away from my
parents. I’d just rather watch from home—going to the theater loses out to that
most of the time.

There’s something else going on, too. When I go to the movies and after sitting
through that discomfort, I’m mostly disappointed. I end up just frustrated.
Most of the movies that I see that I really like, I end up renting, either
because I didn’t make it to the theater in time or didn’t know to look for it.
I’m sure if I’d made it to the theater to see Munich or Syriana
I would have gone home pleased. Unfortunately, the last movies I made it to
the theater to see were big Hollywood
pictures. And afterwards, I just ask myself, “Why do I still do this? I have
problems with my lower back, and it’s painful.” [aughing]
Maybe if I just picked the right movies
to see in the theater… But how do you know?

Cristina makes a good point. If the last ten films people saw in the theater
changed their lives—if the movies really mattered to them—they’ll keep going to
the movies. If they make the effort to go out to a theater and they’re
consistently disappointed, they’ll stop coming. I think there are lots of
things to do besides go to the movies—it really comes down to the story.
Filmmakers need to do their jobs well, focus on telling their stories the best
they can. If they do that, I believe the audience will be there. But it has to
be worth it.

Q: What do you make of the
troubles the Oak Street Cinema’s been having? Beyond sentimentality, is there a
real film community ready to actively support cinema in town?

I wonder if there really is a Minnesotan film scene. I think there may have
seemed to be some kind of cohesive scene in the past,
because people would get together to make a movie (even if it was Jingle All the Way or some monstrosity
like that) and they’d meet and talk about what they were doing. Then they’d
make enough money to go off for three months and make something worthwhile. Now,
I don’t know if there really is a film community here…

I think it’s great that people arguing for it and trying to save it, but at the
end of the day, they’re not really showing up to watch movies there. Nostalgia
comes cheap.

I think it goes beyond just nostalgia. It’s about wanting
to preserve something—even if you’re not really using it—because it is important. I followed the whole
situation online and in print, but I didn’t show up to watch films or go to the
meetings. Antonio, I don’t think we’ve been to the Oak Street once to see a movie since last
August. And film is important to us. But even though we’ve not really done our
part to support it, it’s valuable to me to know that it exists.

It’s unfortunate, but there it is. I love that there has been someplace where I
can go and see Birth of a Nation on
the big screen. It’s a hell of a luxury, and I want it. But are there enough
people who are going to show up for enough pictures there to pay for keeping it

When we first moved here, we went straight to IFP Minnesota. We paid our dues,
joined up, and offered to volunteer our time… But it’s amounted to nothing
really. On the other hand, when our work was shown at the Bryant Lake Bowl and as
word has spread about it online, all kinds of people came out of the woodwork.
There has been an incredibly supportive community of people to emerge, even offering
the use of equipment. But it’s not organized through anything like IFP. The support we’ve gotten has developed out of
relationships from people who’ve seen the series and spread the word. I do
think there are people looking to create a community—they’ve just not organized

I do really appreciate the fact that here, instead of talking about creating something, I get the feeling that all kinds
of people are just quietly doing it.
A ton of really talented people in Minnesota are devoting themselves seriously to telling stories. There is far more respect
and encouragement for the independent voice here—an encouragement to find your
own voice and your own rhythm and to do that. And that’s unique about the
creative environment here. Nobody’s looking at you, you don’t need to posture
or talk about it—just shut up and find a quiet corner to work. Do something.

Special Features Section:
Media Recommendations from Euan, Ali, Cristina, and Juan Antonio

I was handed a copy of A Sunday in Hell, I’d never
heard of it. It’s about a bike race, a foreign film from the ’70s. Beautiful,
French agricultural trails—it’s an amazing story. It’s not even really about
bike racing—it’s much more than that. I loved it.

It’s one of my favorite movies. It’s scored with a mournful cello throughout… amazing. Just a wonderful film.

Also, Road to Guantanamo. It’s just come out, and I think people should see it
just so they can talk about it. The movie centers around interviews with three
British guys who did some really stupid things and ended up in Afghanistan on
a lark. They were arrested, almost got themselves killed, and finally were
shipped to Guantanamo. Michael
Winterbottom, the director, intersperses those interviews with recreations and
actual footage shot from what was going on in Kandahar. The film’s manipulative and really,
really effective. [laughing] I finally saw Jules et
which is out on DVD. That’s also an incredible piece of
film, and the extras on the DVD are really good.

I keep rereading The
Art of War

He’s trying to internalize it. [laughing]

It’s true, I am. But I’m finding that as I read it, it calms me down. So
there’s that. And here’s a film that’s affected me lately—but it’s not good. I
watched Spielberg’s Munich recently, and I
became enraged. Spielberg is really a master of his craft now, and it’s cool to
see his mature work. But I came out of the film feeling almost like I had
watched something as bad as a Nazi propaganda film. It’s very effective, but
under the surface the message is horrible. In Munichthe Jewish people get the luxury of a
guilty conscience, and the Palestinians don’t. So, what am I walking away from
here? The Jew is human dealing with real internal conflict, and the Palestinian
is an animal without a conscience.

I don’t think I would have had such a violent reaction, but I watched Spielberg’s
introduction to the DVD (which in itself is a pretty pompous thing to include)
and that killed it for me. He said something I think all of us as filmmakers
can agree with, “The only tool you have as a filmmaker is empathy.” He said
that he was really just trying to empathize with what it’s like to do something
and have to live with the consequences, to understand. So, I’m with him at the
beginning, my hopes are up. And then I saw the film. What happened? What a

pontificating in my head, I’m chain smoking, and I can’t stop thinking about
it. But there were all these things I
really liked about the film too, so it’s not that simple. It’s been a long time
since a movie has really gotten under my skin this way, so that’s something. As
a viewer, I felt cheated. Some day, I’ll tell you about my reaction to Saving Private Ryan

L’Avventura. It’s the most
beautiful use of silence that I’ve ever seen anywhere. There’s a vlog called 90
Seconds of Dave
. He did a narrative series,
15 episodes
, and I think it’s absolutely beautiful, it’s art. I love the
way he mixes media—video, images, text. It’s just beautifully done.

I really liked Man Push Cart. And
I liked The Syrian Bridethey took
this horrible Middle Eastern crisis and made something really human out of it.
I appreciated that.