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Guest Post: Ava DuVernay "What Color is Indie?”

By Ted Hope | Hope for Film May 4, 2011 at 3:00AM

Back in January I heard of Ava DuVernay for the first time when the NYTimes ran a story on her new distro initiative. I thought "wow, there's a good idea, that can be replicated in many forms." It lifted my spirits, but then the assault of super-abundance of everything pulled my attention elsewhere. Recently, my attention got pulled back when a Twitter conversation turned it to the overtly white male dominance of the "indie scene". Fortunately, I was put in touch with Ava, and she guest posts today with some of experiences in DIWO distribution.
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Back in January I heard of Ava DuVernay for the first time when the NYTimes ran a story on her new distro initiative. I thought "wow, there's a good idea, that can be replicated in many forms." It lifted my spirits, but then the assault of super-abundance of everything pulled my attention elsewhere. Recently, my attention got pulled back when a Twitter conversation turned it to the overtly white male dominance of the "indie scene". Fortunately, I was put in touch with Ava, and she guest posts today with some of experiences in DIWO distribution.

My name is Ava DuVernay and I just completed a 7-week theatrical release of my film I WILL FOLLOW in 20 major US cities, including NY and LA, without studio or corporate backing and no formal P&A. The release was accomplished through AFFRM, a black film distribution collective that I founded. Have you heard of us?


I may incorrectly assume that most of Ted's readers have never heard of AFFRM, or I WILL FOLLOW, or the excellent black film orgs that make up the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement -- for which AFFRM stands.

Why do I think that? Because we haven’t cracked that American indie establishment circle. You know, the Tribeca-Indiewire-IFP-FilmIndependent-SXSW-Lincoln Center of it all. The gate-keepers to the mainstream indie treasures. We haven’t had their attention. So we might’ve slipped by you.

It’s weird. Some new group pulls off an $11,235 per screen full-run simultaneously in multiple cities with absolutely no formal P&A, no four-walling, no touring, no service deal on their first try, and enterprising filmmakers and film pros don’t want the skinny on how? Maybe you just hadn’t heard. We’ve had full features in NY Times, LA Times, CNN, NPR and USA Today, but not one inquiry from the many DIY, DIWO, new distribution panel programmers or experts? The circle is tight.

With AFFRM, we sought to take the DIWO approach a step further, to give it infrastructure and branding. To align like-minded regional black film organizations and push them to go beyond their existing mission, to a renewed vision with national reach. It worked. Like, really worked. And we’re anxious to share what we learned, and to learn from others. But if you only get your news, views and film picks from the circle, you don’t know about us – and others like us.

My point is… you’re missing stuff. Many lovely films, many talented filmmakers and maybe a new idea to add to the discussion on how to move film distribution forward without corporate permission. I’ve been astonished by how many black filmmakers and film pros have approached us in the last few weeks about how we did what we did. Several dozen. And further astonished by how many of my non-black counterparts have approached. Zero.

Makes me think, what color is indie? I mean, what does it take to be of color and truly considered authentic American indie? To have done something seen as meaningful to the circle of the American independent film establishment, both artistically and as a business model. Like, if I don’t participate in what a good pal calls “white people festivals”… am I indie enough? Do you take my film as seriously because I chose to world premiere at Urbanworld in NY instead of submitting to Tribeca? If I don’t run my film through the labs or diversity initiatives of a recognized institution… do I not have that cool indie cred you need to see my movie with its beautiful black cast? I wonder.

I understand wanting your indie film product of color vetted through the proper channels. I get it. But just be aware that that is what you’re doing. Be aware that your indie is handpicked by a select few. And be clear that your indie is very white boy in view. Not a bad thing. White boys like all kinds of cool stuff – other white boys, white girls and the occasional thing of color that speaks to their sensibilities as white boys. But be real, that’s limited.

It limits you from hearing new marketing and distribution ideas, meeting filmmakers and experiencing films outside of this establishment construct, outside of the circle. You’re missing some good new stuff and ignoring success stories from many folks of color (See: I Will Follow or Mooz-Lum) or are by folks who are just downright colorful (See: Audrey Ewell’s Until The Light Takes Us and Bob Ray’s Total Badass). It’s not progressive. And it isn’t what I feel most people who love, support and live indie film really want. I don’t think its purposeful hateration. I think its just this lull of curation and prestige and, to be quite honest, laziness. Whatever it is… its affecting the whole business. And its far from positive.

If these statements makes you proclaim that I’m trippin’ and “there IS no circle”– then I’m happy that I’m not talking to you. Really am. Thrilled, in fact. And I invite you to see my film about a grieving black woman shot in Topanga Canyon that Roger Ebert called “one of the best films he’s seen about the death of a loved one.” You’re just my kind of audience member.

If on the other hand, these statements coax you to admit that you haven’t gone to a non-establishment fest or seen a film not featured in Filmmaker Magazine in years, then I invite you to step outside and take a look. Be like a couple of folks at Sundance Institute who’ve reached out to us to share and compare notes. Or the folks that head up RiverRun where I was invited to sit on the jury a few weeks back. Those RiverRun people take their mission of inclusion seriously, working to connect with the black community in Winston-Salem by leaping out of theoretical planning meetings and into bold action. They presented a special festival panel at the local historically black college this year, on which I was pleased to participate. I wondered if it was the first foray of a non-ethnic film festival at an HBCU? First I’m aware of. It was super impressive. And its what we all need to be thinking about.

Bottom line: It would benefit us all to be conversing and connecting. It’s not too late to break the boundaries of what you think this thing called indie should be, should look like. For instance, I dig that Indiewire, after years of really poor connection with black independent cinema at large, has wooed the wonderful team at ShadowandAct.com to be part of its blog network. It’s a step in the right direction for iW amidst an ongoing, challenging lack of coverage of black fests and black and brown indies on the main site.

This post is not meant to be a ball buster but a spirited call-to-action. There are new ideas, new paths for distribution, new films and filmmakers you're missing if you only look from inside. There are riches in the niches. Both monetary and cosmic. Heck, you love indie film! You care about its future! So why not step outside and look around? Its nice out.

Here’s the opening weekend video of the thousands and thousands and thousands of people who came out to AFFRM’s inaugural release for I WILL FOLLOW in March. Quite a spectacle that you may not have seen or heard about. But now… you know.

Thanks for the invite, Ted.

-- Ava DuVernay

VIDEO: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOiuV6uYvas

Ava DuVernay is a filmmaker and film distributor from Los Angeles, California.  Her Twitter is @AVADVA. More on AFFRM at www.affrm.com. More on I WILL FOLLOW at www.iwillfollowfilm.com.

This article is related to: Audience, Issues & Actions, Inspiration, Discovery