Up Against It

27 01 2010

“Someone who has sufficient compassion can make a film about anything.” – Howard Suber


This is the Why, Pt. 2

19 01 2010

When we started this we weren’t particularly focused on how many views each episode would get.  Still — as is the case with producing anything — you hope that people will see your work, take something from it and be energized enough by it to recommend it (or in this day and age: embed it, blog it or email it along).  And while we’ve never been focused on the numbers, part of this project is about learning how to build an audience online and seeing if indeed there is an audience for the kind of nonfiction films we’re interested in making.

Right now Episode 3 (Pornstar Karaoke) has been viewed somewhere around 3000 times in ten days. It’s hard to know what to make of that number.  In a world where this video of a kitten being surprised has been viewed millions and millions of times that seems like a very small number.  But, we made a ten-minute documentary called Porn Star Karaoke that offers nothing in the way of titillation and in a lot ways subverts the expectations of the people most likely to want to check it out. In that context, 3000 views feels like a lot.  (Also: Have you seen the kitten surprise video? Even his feet are surprised!)

Here’s another way of looking at it:  Last weekend while talking with some filmmaking friends about Sparrow Songs we talked about what the avenue for these films would be were we not releasing them online.   My guess is that the films would follow the path short documentaries have always followed: we’d spend money and time submitting the film to festivals, we’d be patient during the lag time and if lucky and well-received (not guaranteed) the film would play at ten to twenty festivals over seven or eight months.  Even if you had 250 people at each screening – which for short documentaries would be unheard of – it would take months and months before 3000 people had seen your film.

Nothing can replace the festival experience.  It validates the film, it validates you as a filmmaker, you get to meet other people going through the same joys and struggles as yourself and you get to watch your work with an audience.  And, the audience comes because they have a relationship with the festival. Essentially they trust the festival, if nothing else they trust that the festival will program good films.

Still, in order to be involved the filmmaker must submit: they must write a check to someone for the explicit purpose of having that unknown person watch their work and judge it. Every submission is asking a ‘yes or no’ question: In your eyes, is this worthy or unworthy of being seen?

Still, in order to be involved the filmmaker must submit: they must write a check to someone for the explicit purpose of having that unknown person watch their work and judge it. Every submission is asking a ‘yes or no’ question: In your eyes, is this worthy or unworthy of being seen?

When you believe in the work you’ve done and you’re happy with the film you’ve made asking that question again and again begins to pose a number of problems.  My experience (and it should be stated that my experience is only with shorts, but my suspicion is that this problem occurs with features too) is that you’ll have your film play at a top tier festival only to be rejected by much smaller festivals.  Often you’ll get into smaller festivals, but won’t be able to attend and won’t get much feedback from the screening either.  It’s a crapshoot.  But filmmakers continue with it , we continue to submit and to ask the question again and again.  Why? Because right now there doesn’t seem to be any better way of getting your work out there.

What we’re doing with Sparrow Songs is – in part – trying to find a different way.  Instead of asking the question, “Is this worthy of being seen?” We’re giving ourselves a directive, “Make this worth seeing,” and we’re doing it each month.

And so far, each month different blogs and news sites embed our films or write short pieces about the project, but from all these different sources the result remains the same: people see the films.

The hope then is that over time some percentage of that initial audience – no matter how they came to the films or to the site — will come to believe that the work of this project is worth seeing – both the successes and the failures. Moreover, after a time they won’t need the imprint of a festival to trust that the work is worth watching, they’ll have come to know it themselves.  With that the viewership grows and the audience itself becomes the validating force.

Or at least that’s the hope.

Episode 3 – Reactions

13 01 2010

Here are some of the reactions we’ve been getting to the last piece.  I’ve gotten a lot of emailed reactions as well, but won’t put those up without permission.  Thanks again to everyone for watching the films and being a part of this project.

“Jablonski and Totten’s third short documentary functions as an almost
perfect microcosm of pornography, encompassing nearly all sides of an
industry whose existence remains more, shall we say, problematic than
most. It is a subject so rife with moral, emotional, and intellectual
landmines that I fear even treading near it.” — Coilhouse.net

“One male fan in the (vaguely NSFW-ish) clip below says that by singing good, he hopes to make the girls feel good about themselves.  Well, by the clip’s end, I don’t think Bowie himself could make that happen.” — Dangerous Minds

“a beautiful, moving, and riveting must-see short documentary” — Susannah Breslin

“God, nothing is more demeaning than karaoke” – poster in comments section

Episode 3

4 01 2010

I’m beginning to understand that all of these films are going to be tough, but that they’ll each be tough in a different way.

Episode 2 was difficult because of a lack of planning and clear vision that left us feeling as though we didn’t execute the film to the best of our abilities.  This film – about a weekly karaoke night attended by pornography fans and performers – proved difficult not because of our approach, but because of the material.  We expected that we’d find misplaced desire; we expected that there’d be lonely fans and we expected that some of the women might seem troubled.  Still, we weren’t prepared for the darkness and the sadness that we would find.  At least I know that I wasn’t.

Reading this — having watched the film – you might find yourself thinking that it didn’t seem that dark, that there must be something you’re missing, or there must be something that was deliberately missing from the film.  You’re right.  Follow that assumption.  Go further, follow other assumptions – watch the film again and this time —  in the ellipses between cuts — make further assumptions about what was discarded or lied about or undisclosed.  Let those assumptions become darker, think the worst, tell yourself the saddest story and you still won’t come close.

There’s an entire day of shooting that was not included in the film.  Several days after the initial shoot myself and a cinematographer went to the apartment of one of the performers we interviewed.  It was a spare, poorly furnished ground-floor studio in an anonymous complex in the Valley: vertical blinds, nothing in the fridge, no photos, no television. There was only a bed, a wobbly kitchen table and a beat-up laptop.

Within five minutes of stepping inside – before the interview even began – the woman explained that the real reason she did pornography was because she was brutally sexually assaulted as a child.  She said it flatly, the way that you might explain that you went to Law School because in your twenties you weren’t sure where to go.  She said it as if her life would make more sense to us now and sadly, it did.   Things got worse from there.

Why didn’t you include this?

My sense — particularly after walking out of that apartment — is that none of the women involved in pornography are in it because they have healthy boundaries.  The most intimate pieces of your corpus and the emotions tied to that – your fears, your self-worth and your traumas – are put on public display and profited from, they are downloaded, used and forgotten.  Why then would it matter to you if the same were done with your interior emotional life?  It may not matter to you, and if that’s the case then you’re vulnerable and the hope is that someone won’t try and take advantage of that vulnerability, that they won’t use your broken boundaries for their own means.   When I thought about it I knew that in some way that’s what I would be doing.

During that interview – the interview we didn’t use – the woman in question did say something that stuck with me and shaped the piece.  I asked her, “When you look back, how will you remember Porn Star Karaoke?”

She thought for a moment, and then said flatly, “It’s a masquerade.”

Lastly: in making this piece and thinking about this material for the last month I am deeply indebted to Susannah Breslin and her writing.  Her essay “They Shoot Porn Stars, Don’t They?” is as illuminating as it is disturbing.  We’ve never met but we spoke, particularly memorable was this exchange:

Me: I think I’m actually suffering trauma from this whole experience.

SB: Laughs.

Me: I’m not joking.

SB: I know, it’s just, “Welcome to the club.”  That’s what happens when functioning people step into dysfunctional worlds.