Jennie Livingston on her Documentary "Earth Camp One" Part 1

PART 1. PHILOSOPHY. INTRODUCING MY FILM CURRENTLY ON KICKSTARTER, ALONG WITH SOME THOUGHTS ON SPEAKING IN THE FIRST PERSON
 
Earth Camp One is a work of creative nonfiction about how I lost four family members in five years. The film is also about a hippie summer camp in the 70s in Northern California, the connection between those two things being that when you’re young, you want to break away from your family, find different cultural markers. What happens when they leave you? The film also has animation about different conceptions of the afterlife. Earth Camp One  is about my experience of grief and loss and about a broader understanding, or exploration, of how our society’s denial of mortality leads to everything from people feeling isolated and alienated when they’re going through something which is THE universal human experience. To national policies (wars) that, in not just my opinion, are predicated on a core belief that  no soldiers and no civilians can die because, actually no one dies. 

Right now I’m nearing the end (Friday night at 8!)  of a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to get to a rough cut on the film. I’ve applied for a billion grants where people I don’t know go into a room and look at my project and come out and tell me “yes” or “no,” (usually no, and by email) so it’s incredible to build a web page, put a video on it and have 400+  people say “yes!” by backing the project. It’s pretty mind-blowing, that “yes.” All the endless reservations, differences in taste, politics, and sensibility that kept various granting organizations or corporations from supporting my project are absent. Of course they may be hundreds of people viewing my video and reading my text who loathe it, but fortunately Kickstarter and Indiegogo have no guestbook for people who looked and left. Whomever might’ve rejected my project and moved on, I’m blissfully unaware, checking my email and racking up the next 15 backers who write me messages about how much they love the excerpt, and the idea of the film, and can’t wait to see it!

 
There are a lot of precedents for the kind of first-person documentary I’m making: just about anything by Ross McElwee, Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I, Thomas Allen Harris’s That’s My Face, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, and films by Alan Berliner, Jem Cohen, Doug Block, Su Friedrich, and others. I am not inventing a genre, just finding an authentic voice and structure within it. But finding money to make it is another story. Earth Camp One has been turned down by just about every place you could go to for documentary funding, but it’s GOTTEN funding from The Guggenheim Foundation, Netflix, Chicken & Egg, The French American Charitable Trust, and like most nonfiction projects that aren’t works for hire, it’s produce-as-you-go. This one is tricky because there really is some kind of aversion, amongst funders, to work in the first person. I’m not fond of the term “personal doc” as it implies you’re telling the story as therapy or for a small group of friends. No one called Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking or Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius “personal books.” Films in the first person can be self-indulgent, but so can the majority of Hollywood blockbusters. What could be more self-indulgent than the studio exec, whose main purpose in life is to keep his job, so  that he green-lights a series of movies whose primary quality is that it looks like every film that came before them?  
 
I think at least some of the discomfort that people have with films in the first person goes back to a time when men controlled printing presses and universities, and women were barred from running presses or getting an education. Women had one form of writing: the letter. Their language was personal, it was domestic, and they took their “I-statements” very seriously because the personal realm was their realm . They might dare to think about literature or politics or industry, but they didn’t speak about them: they were allowed to reflect on one thing and one thing only: their own experience. 
 

I can’t help but think that the extent to which first person speech, in film, is considered too personal, or not appropriate to fund goes back to the sense that someone speaking in the first person speaks with a small voice, with a domestic voice, as opposed to with the authority of the state, the church, the university. Whether the filmmaker is Alan Berliner or Agnes Varda, there’s still a sense that if you are talking about yourself, it must be personal, and if it’s personal, it can’t be universal. Or, as a woman in the audience at a recent screening of Tiffany Shlain’s Connected, one of my favorite films of 2011, said, when I pressed her to tell me what she thought, “I think films like this one are self-indulgent because documentaries should be about something important, and if you’re talking about yourself, it means you think you’re important.” I appreciated this woman’s candor, but I think her views are not only unconsciously sexist, I think there’s an unfortunate sense that what’s important must be outside ourselves! And I would argue that what’s universal is not always what’s rubber-stamped by experts or confirmed by mass appeal,  but is always a good story well-told: and that Joan Didion is no less universal than Toni Morrison: and that Tiffany Shlain is no less universal than Steven Spielberg: the difference is the form, not the authority of the speaker nor the weight of the story.
 
 
Jennie Livingston works in both fiction and nonfiction. Her films include Paris is Burning, Who's the Top? and Through the Ice. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. This summer she directed a video for Elton John's Las Vegas stage show, a series of portraits of New Yorkers to accompany the song "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters."

 

Jennie Livingston on her Documentary "Earth Camp One" Part 2

PART 2: COMEDY IN WHICH MY KICKSTARTER CAMPAIGN INSPIRES ME TO SEEK AN ENDORSEMENT FROM WERNER HERZOG

So, speaking of filmmakers who combine first person speech with observations of the world, I was (and still am as I write this) deep into my Kickstarter campaign for Earth Camp one, and thought I’d go to the opening of  DocNYC  last Tuesday night not only to see the new Werner Herzog film Into the Abyss but to ask Herzog if he would endorse my film Earth Camp One’s Kickstarter campaign.    

 
What, are you nuts? you’re asking. Well maybe in general, yes, but not in this case: when I was 22 I wrote Werner Herzog saying I wanted to make films and I wanted to work for him, and he answered my letter. 
 
He wrote: so you want to be a filmmaker? Have you robbed a bank? Can you hold the attention of a group of 2 year olds? Have you climbed a mountain? A whole series of riddle-of-the Sphinx-like questions written out by hand on blue onionskin air mail paper.  I wrote back (using a typewriter: this was two years before I got my first Mac Classic with a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts!), sending him some of my "street" photographs and telling him about  the film idea that would eventually become Paris is Burning. He wrote back: I’m coming to New York, let’s have dinner! And we did! He took me to Hop Kee in Chinatown and told me to make my film, to steal a camera if need be. And we've crossed paths and gotten together a couple of times since.
 
I thought  last Tuesday, he might, in the spirit of that dinner long ago, say something into my friend the filmmaker Hima B's camera, something I could post right here, like “give money to Jennie’s film now” or “I’m Werner Herzog and I endorse this Kickstarter campaign.”
 
So Hima and I go into the Skirball Center and the first person we see is Werner.  I also see the crowd and realize this is a pretty big premiere. The wrong time to ask for anything. We say hello. Then everyone goes into the theater. Forget the endorsement, enjoy the film.
 
Well I did enjoy the film. The subject, death row in Texas, was compelling enough. There was an amazing interview with a retired executioner and a surprise ending having to do with smuggling some very unusual contraband OUT of a prison.  It was, for Werner Herzog, an uncharacteristically emotional film. At the film’s center wa s father-son relationship, not something you see much of in Herzog!
 
At the reception afterwards, the Poland Springs was flowing and I was feeling very free. I thought, what the heck?  I met Werner's daughter, a photographer who had a gracious and bemused air towards the people pressing in to talk to a man who'd earned cult status for 40 years and 60 films. I told Werner about this campaign and about Kickstarter, how and why crowd-sourcing works. He said, “I barely look at the Internet.  I don’t even have a phone.” He said that  raising money that way is asking for a handout and I shouldn’t do it.  “Well, how should I raise the money to edit my film?” I asked? “You should be a bouncer in a sex club!” he told me. ( If you think I’m making this up to be colorful, go here, 4 paragraphs down.) 
 
Bouncer in a sex club? I flexed my muscles in a bouncerly way. FYI I’m 5’5” and 120 pounds. “Werner, you think they’d hire me?” He saw my point. “You should work in a brothel!” (I hoped he meant as a decorator or pornographer.) He advised “you should work out in the real world, earn money, and make your film for $10,000. You should be self-reliant!”
 
Now I don’t disagree that it’s honorable to earn money with the sweat of your brow and put that money back into your art. But the film we saw at DocNYC was funded by The Discovery Channel. No doubt Herzog was paid, the editor was paid, the producers were paid, the composer and the musicians were paid. The budget was not $10K.
 
Am I begrudging a filmmaker whose work I hugely admire the status he's earned? Certainly not. Look, there are a lot of ways to flex muscles. It’s like the difference between third and first person. By supporting my film my backers on Kickstarter are acknowledging we can’t depend only on corporations or on artists’ savings to get good culture made. And from my point of view, their pledging is a great reason to wake up in the morning and feel I’ve got a shot at finishing a film I’ve been working on, on and off, for 10 years.  And I know that even if a veteran filmmaker like Werner Herzog hasn’t heard of Kickstarter yet, I choose to believe that, in the deeper recesses of his own heart, he would endorse any filmmaker who's doing what it takes to make a film.  I might feel shameful for a filmmaker of Herzog’s generation to write everyone he knows and ask for $10 or $1000 to get in the editing room, and although I didn’t grow up on the Internet (I grew up on the telephone!)  I’m glad I’m flexible enough to do what needs to be done to make a film, and if crowd-sourcing is one tool in the toolbag right now, I’m happy to use it. Plus, there’s something amazing about the people for whom you intend the film giving it props before it’s even done. It’s very satisfying. It’s radical and democratic and actually makes you realize that you are making your work for people. Actual people. 
 
A final word on Herzog. Into the Abyss contains a remarkable portrait of a woman whose brother and mother were murdered. Then a few other family members died and she didn't leave the house for four years. Got rid of her phone, afraid of the news that could come with each ring. I told Werner that my film was about that kind of loss in my own life [though fortunately not that kind of depression]  and he said “well make the film, but get it over with!”   I completely agree. 
 
As of writing this I have 2 days left in the Kickstarter campaign. It ends Friday night and 8 and I hope it works, so I don’t have to work as a bouncer in a sex club.

Jennie Livingston works in both fiction and nonfiction. Her films include Paris is Burning, Who's the Top? and Through the Ice. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. This summer she directed a video for Elton John's Las Vegas stage show, a series of portraits of New Yorkers to accompany the song "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters."