Editor's Note: This essay is a bit longer than our usual, but it is also about something larger than you, me, or movies. It is about lives lost without recompense, the power of art to heal or create change, and one filmmaker who aims with his first feature to achieve something willfully political. Adam Kritzer's energy, verve, and spirit recall mavericks like Sam Fuller, a man who made harrowing, sumptuous movies about race, identity, and taboo subjects before anyone gave him - or anyone else - permission. Get ready. It's about to get damned polemical.
- Samuel B. Prime, Founder
Murder after murder, in plain sight, executed and protected by the law. Human bodies assigned uneven worths - shackled, handcuffed, deprived of agency and oxygen - piling counts of failures to indict despite irrefutable evidence. An infrastructural dismantling and reconstruction is coming, peacefully or otherwise. The language and tools to articulate and deconstruct systemic discrimination and inequity are entering (have entered) the public conscience. Cell phone videos like Eric Garner’s render in simple, horrifying detail how deep-rooted prejudice and inequality inform the American power structure and contaminate its enforcers. A revolution is required.
Film is a battleground in the war for equality and structural reconstitution, in ways ranging from on-screen representation and employee diversity to financing and exhibition. If we are in the midst of righteous nationwide dissent – which no thoughtful person can deny – then makers and consumers of culture can either engage with the protests or ignore the injustice and perpetuate a crooked system. There is no third option. Turning away is negative peace, a political act that reinforces complicity with the problem. Writes Michael B. McDonald, "Capitalism is no longer simply operations of production that occur on the marketplace and factory floor, it is the production of capitalist society, a social factory." He continues, "Capitalism is not simply, or not only, the distribution of capital for profit [sic] it is a productive and semiotic operator that creates resources, producers and consumers as much as products." John Steppling, in his essay "The Melancholy Society", explains how culture is exploited as a tool of control in a capitalist society: "capitalism manufactures a narrative and grammar that affirms itself. Any art that participates in this manufactured reality, without at the very least raising the issue of its negation, let alone negating it, is just kitsch. It is the erasing of the unconscious. The history of community and tradition is what is denied, and hence it disenchants, it denies the mimetic cycle, and by extension it denies the audience, the viewer." He concludes, "under today's hegemonic mass culture sublimation is in service to an adaptation of self erasure." All culture is controlling or resisting, oppressing or dismantling. The decision to tell one story is the decision to erase others. In the media we consume, we digest the limitations and possibilities of ourselves and those around us. We project our lives onto culture and in exchange our own narratives are assigned context, meaning and significance. Explains bell hooks: “Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hhan tells students that putting images inside our heads is just like eating. And if “you are what you eat” it is equally true that to a grave extent we are what we see.” We must ceaselessly ask who is representing who – in turn, who is rendering who invisible or without agency. Our larger objective is to challenge and dismantle the systems that enable cultural exploitation and replace them with more equitable and socially-beneficial infrastructures.
I wrote, produced, and directed a narrative feature, Good Funk, about the obligations and expectations of children and (prospective) parents in a Brooklyn neighborhood on the verge of gentrification. The four lead characters are first and second generation Afro-Caribbean immigrants; one of them is a single mother who works at McDonald's. I am of Polish and Russian descent, the son of a doctor, cis, straight, white, a product of the American south and a liberal arts graduate. I live in Brooklyn – in Red Hook, where Good Funk is set – but it is not my home. I am an intruder, an outsider, a Stranger with a Camera. I hoped to make a movie - my first - not just about the community in which I lived, but also somehow by the community and for the community.
It took eight months to research the film and another four months to write it. When I was nearing a script ready for pre-production, I began developing a free film apprenticeship program for young people living in Brooklyn. In my research, I had established relationships with several local non-profits and community allies. The organization Pioneer Works provided class space and materials free of charge. Another neighborhood non-profit, the Red Hook Initiative, treated the program as a job and paid one young adult to participate. To recruit additional apprentices, I printed out five-hundred flyers and distributed them in bodegas, laundromats, the projects, at free concerts and community events, on the bus, you name it. I had about twenty inquiries, ten of whom came in for interviews, and seven of whom were invited to join the program. One of these seven dropped out for unknown reasons, and thus there were six apprentices, ages nineteen to twenty-five, with varying levels of knowledge and experience, from Red Hook and neighboring communities, all united by a desire and capacity to learn.
The apprenticeship program held three classes each week for six weeks, leading up to the first day of principal photography on Good Funk. These classes consisted in equal measure of screenings, dialogues, exercises, and workshops. Through watching and discussing films like Killer of Sheep, the apprentices developed the foundational skills and language to process and engage with cinema. Additionally, department heads from the Good Funk crew taught interactive classes where the apprentices became familiar with the equipment and vocabulary they would encounter on set. The knowledge acquired was continually and directly applied to the collaborative further development of the film's script and mise-en-scène. Apprentices ran cameras and lines for casting sessions, scouted locations, built props and sets with our production designer, shot b-roll footage with our cinematographer and participated in rehearsals and production meetings. One apprentice came to me with the worry that a scene in the script didn't feel authentic; I agreed with him. We workshopped the scene as a class and then ended up rewriting it together. The apprentices were not drone production assistants providing labor without voices; they were collaborators. They engaged with my vision, challenged it, made the story their own.
The program culminated with the apprentices working for pay on the set of Good Funk. One apprentice - a communications graduate from Penn State - signed on full-time to do hair for the film's young lead. Another - a recent high-school graduate in the Army Reserve - served part-time as our key make-up artist. A third - a member of a Haitian dance community and a screenwriting student at Brooklyn College - ran slate and provided half of the twenty performers for an important outdoor dance sequence. The apprentices were (mostly) present for first call - autonomously figuring out how best to fit in - and didn't leave until everybody did. The production would not have been what it was without any one of them. Each and every apprentice had the opportunity to claim a personal stake in Good Funk. And they own a percentage of the film's back-end, so if it makes money, they make money.
So what? These are trying times and we must ask ourselves how we can each contribute most effectively. How can a film prevent the next murder? It already hasn't. To the contrary, isn't the privilege I am afforded to make a feature at age twenty-six a consequence of the very system under necessary revolutionary reconstruction? Who ultimately serves to gain the most from the potential success of Good Funk? Did the community where they shot Beasts of the Southern Wild benefit from the film's achievements? How could I have executed the film and production model to greater communal benefit? Our infrastructure appeared and vanished; our solutions - classes, jobs - were temporary. How could we have built a more long-term, self-sustaining system? The apprentices and I had a symbiotic relationship that maybe rendered the neighborhood itself without agency. We should have spent more time investigating the practical possibilities of art as an instrument of organization, engagement and action. I could have helped the apprentices develop and execute screening events at alternative venues in their own neighborhoods. It is not too late, as we are just now beginning to formulate the distribution strategy for Good Funk. Perhaps community-level exhibition provides the best opportunity to explore with the apprentices the possibilities of consciousness-raising economies and self-sustaining infrastructures.
The most forward-thinking artists and collectives of our time are hard at work creating and building alternative systems and networks that operate without the support or approval of the antiquated American cultural hegemony. Consider the New Negress Film Society: a core collective of black, genderqueer, and women filmmakers "whose priority is to create community and spaces for support, exhibition and consciousness-raising" in real life and online. The collective is currently crowd-sourcing $3000 to consolidate their web presence, launch a Summer Artists' Retreat and finance a screening exhibition in Brooklyn on February 28th entitled "I Cried Power: On the Limits and Possibilities of Black Life". "We need to have a clear definition of what success means to us as artists and individuals," explains society co-founder Nev Nnaji in a vlog post entitled Black Women Filmmaker's Advantage. "A lot of us value our level of success based on what the dominant industry tells us success means… How many awards you've won at Sundance, whether or not your film received a grant from the Ford Foundation, whether or not your film made it into major theaters." She continues, "I personally don't think we should rely on those people to change their minds about us and our work. [It] reinforces this idea that their opinions matter the most, and that continues to privilege their opinion of our stuff which means that they continue to be the most important aspect of our career. And they don't have to be." I urge you to watch the entirely of Ms. Nnaji's piece, as it complicates what I am saying in a very insightful way. I know the NNFS is not for me and does not want/need my approval; I support them anyway. They are building an alternative, self-sustaining infrastructure that will produce and in turn be nurtured by consciousness-raising culture. These economies and collectives like NNFS will produce the most transformative work of the next century. It's get on board or get out of the way.
I am aware my actions in making Good Funk may appear oppositional to my vision and philosophy. I am advocating a choice I have not entirely made in my own life. This film and model is my perhaps antithetical challenge to the boundaries placed on making culture in the modern moment. It can and should be pushed further. I'm not sure I'm the person to do it. I have impulses; what right is that? Maybe the more politically progressive choice is to have the opportunity to make a movie and decline. If I or someone like me is clogging up the airwaves - taking away mic-time from more necessary voices - is there ever a reason or story worthy enough? What would happen if all the filmmakers and critics of my demographic took ten years off and joined the workforce? What sort of story might Wes Anderson tell after a decade working as a prison guard? What new shapes would the American cultural landscape assume more freely if my demographic stopped showing up?
The role of the artist is under a potential renovation; we are in the midst of reconstituting the capabilities of culture as an instrument of civic engagement and socio-political action. We are plumbing the depths of a fractal in unending pursuit of consequential and positive insight. I have my first film in the can but I am not sure of its worth. I will finish and share it in the hope that it finds someone who can use it as a tool to further investigate both the system that we are dismantling and the new one that we are now building.
- Adam Kritzer