Wednesday, April 8, 2009

In Review: LDSFF'09 Part 5: Christian Vuissa

I apologize that these posts are not more consistent. Being now months from the end of the festival, one would think that I would have finished already. But life is such that I write them when I can, not knowing whether they are even being read any more for their sparseness - hoping, though, that they are.

One of the most interesting presentations to me was made by Christian Vuissa, founder of the festival and an influential figure in LDS filmmaking. His most recent film, Father in Israel, premiered there and is now coming more to the public. But this film was not his main topic of interest to me.

Vuissa made some observations about the state of LDS filmmaking, which I will try to summarize here, along with describing an economic model for producing films that he believes to be sustainable. Those familiar with the financial end of the film industry will know that such a model has never yet been found - or if it has, it has not been widely accepted. I'll deal with that model as thoroughly as I can, but not until the end of this post.

Among other things, Vuissa noted that traditional carreer expectations of new filmmakers have reversed themselves. Instead of working their way to bigger and better productions, many new entrants desire to have the "big one" be their first one. Indeed, some seem to judge filmmakers more strictly by their early works than their later ones. If a first film (particularly a first film after the maker's schooling is completed) is not exemplary or incredibly successful, its creator is clearly not cut out for filmmaking and should go back to whatever he or she did previously. I have seen this attitude reflected in the reviews of several critics, aimed quite harshly at actors who try their hands at directing. While the critic's role, as discussed in Fellini's Otto e mezzo, may well be in part to prevent the creation of films that ought not to be, such a role should be played in a way that it fosters, rather than destroys, personal and professional development.

Audiences also, said Vuissa, are more critical now that the novelty of LDS cinema has passed. Additionally, their expectations are trained by Hollywood, the low budget films of which are more expensive than the least thrifty LDS films. In the popular mind, the amount of money spent on a film often seems to be a predictor of its quality.

Yet money is an essential part of filmmaking, observes Vuissa. "If you're afraid of money, you can't be in film," he said. Nevertheless, he argues that a quality film can be made for $200,000 - an amount that allows the possibility of profitability - and can be shot in about 15 days with a 10-12 person crew. Because of the "first-timer" status of many LDS filmmakers, Vuissa proposed the formation of a foundation to support their work and development. A $20 million fund, said he, would produce enough interest to produce four or five films each year so long as they remained within the constraints he described. Not every film would have to be successful for the fund to continue, which would allow growing filmmakers to make mistakes without being driven out of the industry. The goal would be to groom these artists with a mind towards creating excellence in the LDS filmmaking community. An attitude that is not self-serving, but seeks cultural preservation and productivity would be essential to the success of this venture.

Vuissa's proposal, while it may have been received as largely hypothetical, was not, to my mind, intended that way. That this is the ultimate answer to the growth of LDS cinema I doubt. No single organization, individual, or fund could or should be looked to as the source life for the movement. Improvement must (will, I think) come from many places, both assumed and unexpected, or else stagnation will not be far behind any innovation, no matter how revolutionary. But I feel that Vuissa's idea put into action would be a step in the right direction. So I ask these questions in closing: what can we do to make this fund a reality? And perhaps more importantly, what else, apart from this foundation, can be done?