Moderator Kimberley Jones and filmmakers Logan Kibens, Matthew Cherry, and Sudhanshu Saria at SXSW’s “State of Diversity in Independent Film” panel. (Jason Bailey / Flavorwire)
But that expectation can lead to questions of overall representation, particularly in a landscape where there are so few of those voices. “There’s a burden to tell underrepresented stories,” said Logan Kibens, whose debut film Operator is screening at this year’s festival. “And when you’re somebody who has the ability to tell those stories, if an audience member or someone sees themselves reflected in you, they’re gonna be like, ‘Why aren’t you telling my story?’ But it’s because I’m telling my story… The burden of telling everyone’s story is, like, you’re a chef, but you should make airline food that caters to everybody. No, I’m not United Airlines.
“You can find a commonality with anybody, even people who you don’t look like, if you can find a vulnerable connection,” she continued. “I believe in films that are really specific, and art that’s really specific, because I think that becomes more universal. But I do think there’s a burden to create an outward universality, which is a little bit antithetical to art-making.”
Luckily, the tools are in place in the current environment to not only make these films inexpensively, but get them in front of audiences who are hungry for them. I’m old enough to remember a time, barely more than a decade ago, when you couldn’t submit a film shot on video to major film festivals; now, like Cherry, you can shoot a feature on your phone that looks better than 16mm ever did. And between user-generated content sites, an expanded cable landscape, and pretty much every website shopping for “original content,” there are more opportunities than ever. But is there a reverse problem? With so many opportunities, is it now harder to make enough noise to rise about the static?
“It used to be that the technology made that first step harder to get to, so the initial pool was smaller,” Kibens explained. “With the technology of the medium being so much more accessible, the entry is easier but the pool is larger, for that first step… In my millions of moments of frustration, some of them had to do with thinking the pool is so over-saturated.”
So for these three, it’s again a matter of standing out by being unique. “If I had made a regular film with two people in Hollywood falling in love or whatever, in my opinion, it would’ve been a hundred times harder to get this film seen,” Saria said. “It’s because I’ve made this love story, between two men, set in India, etc., etc… We are lucky that we are unique, and that’s the reason why the films we make will be seen.”
And the more they get seen, the more they inspire others to do the same. Or, as Cherry put it, “My thing was, if we can prove we can get name talent, premiere at a major festival, and it actually looks good? Hopefully this young kid who’s int he Midwest somewhere who aspires to be a filmmaker and has an iPhone that his parents bought him, can be like, ‘Oh wow, I can tell my story too.'”