(Host) Commentator Jay Craven reflects on the role film plays in the vitality of a regional culture.
(Craven) Vermont is unique in the United States for its rich film culture. Vermont filmmakers now play in the eighteen towns that have movie theaters – and we can all tell tales about carting projectors down dirt roads to improvised screenings in more than 100 towns that don’t.
Art house cinemas thrive here, far beyond what you’d find in most parts of rural America. You can see independent films at Montpelier’s Savoy Theater, St. Johnsbury’s Catamount Arts, The Latchis in Brattleboro, the Roxie in Burlington, the Hardwick Town House, and others. Vermont video outlets house extraordinary collections. And we have the Vermont International Film Festival, the Vermont Women’s Film Festival, and the Green Mountain Film Festival that turned hundreds of people away last spring. All show films by Vermonters.
Despite all this, Vermont filmmakers work against the odds in an industry dominated by hyper-commercialized Hollywood studios.
Filmmakers in other countries face similar challenges. Worldwide, Hollywood generates more than 80% of the box office. And it would be more, if it weren’t for work in those countries to build what they call a “cultural cinema” that is rooted locally and emphasizes character and story over spectacle and sensation.
Europeans, Australians, Canadians, and others have sustained these national cinemas through substantial grants and tax-incentives. The National Endowment for the Arts last year spent $2.5 million in combined support for cultural media production, distribution, exhibition, and preservation. The French Government, with one-tenth our population, spent $350 million.
The French support a network of “town hall” cinemas for smaller films and they don’t allow movie ads on television. This gives native filmmakers a chance to generate word of mouth. They require theaters to program European films 20% of the time and they mandate the screening of short films before features, so that new filmmakers can emerge. For every dollar that Canadian filmmakers gross in theaters, they get 50 cents toward their next picture.
Hollywood lobbyists argue against these policies, but without them Europeans and Canadians fear that they will lose contact with their own stories – and will simply become passive consumers of commercial Hollywood entertainment. They argue that every country needs to have its own voice, create its own images, and depict itself. Their public funding programs have produced films like Whale Rider, Fast Runner, Bend It Like Beckham, Y Tu Mama Tanbien, My Left Foot, The Full Monty, The Sweet Hereafter, Jean de Florette, and hundreds more.
With so much commercial media around, it makes sense to explore the many treasures that can be found in world cinema, including our own Vermont-made films. They constitute a growing and inexpensive resource for schools, libraries, hotels, and ad hoc film clubs looking for fresh, diverse and entertaining program ideas.
Vermont’s Humanities Council offers specialized film selections to communities and might add more. Kingdom County Productions can also help people wanting to start a series.
Independent and indigenous films are vital cultural products. They are rooted locally but resonate universally.
This is Jay Craven from Peacham.
Jay Craven is a filmmaker and teaches film studies at Marlboro College.