by Peter Morrin
On October 4th, the Center for Arts and Culture Partnerships of the College of Arts and Sciences hosted an all-day symposium on Film and Filmmaking in Kentucky.
Funded by the Liberal Studies Project, the Kentucky Arts Council, Department of Fine Arts, the Commonwealth Center for Humanities and Society, and Eleanor Bingham Miller, the conference drew 84 attendees. The audience was made up of students, faculty, film and video workers, investors and interested members of the general public. The University Club hosted the gathering.
John Ferré, Interim Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, opened the conference, asserting that “the College of Arts and Sciences wants to help create a stronger regional cinema culture, and this is only one of many endeavors to that end.” He was followed by Kentucky’s First Lady, Jane Beshear, who encouraged attendees to lobby legislators to extend Kentucky’s incentives for filmmakers that expire in 2014. (Initiated in 2009, the incentive for filmmaking in Kentucky provides reimbursement for 20% of production expenditures with budgets over $500,000). Ms. Beshear stressed the warmth of Kentucky’s welcome to film projects, stressing the Commonweath’s hospitable willingness to accommodate the needs of movie makers.
Panel discussions during the day covered “Making Feature Films in Kentucky,” “Teaching and Writing About Film,” “The Business of Film,” and “Documentary Film in Kentucky.” The keynote address by Stephen Prince, professor of Cinema Studies at Virginia Tech, was on “Realism and Cinema in the Digital Age.” Prince explicated ways in which digital and analog film differed, and how the sense of “perceptual realism” evolves with shifts in technology. Prince concluded that the evidential authority of all kinds of photography was ultimately more a matter of ethics than of technique or technicality.
In the session on feature films, Jane Beshear’s stress on Kentuckians’ eagerness to work with filmmakers was echoed by former Louisvillian, Kimberly Levin. Her feature, “Cantuckee,” is now in post-production. She praised Henry County administrators and volunteers who assisted with a scene demanding the use of emergency vehicles. Levin opined, “in Kentucky the community becomes part of the film.” Producer Milan Chakraborty also cited Kentucky’s friendliness as a positive factor, but thought the state needed to do more to brand itself as a location.
The panel discussion on teaching and writing about film was moderated by Lawrence Cooper, the first tenure-track faculty member at the University who is solely a teacher of cinema studies. The panel reflected a wide variety of perspectives: film critic Anthony Kaufman stressed the challenges of getting his readers to think about film as an art form – and go to see screenings of serious works. Matthieu Dalle, professor in the French Section of the Department of Classical and Modern Languages, recounted his success in getting funding from the French government for a French film festival, and his belief that film studies are a crucial component of language and cultural studies. Gregory Waller, professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, characterized his remarks as “the strongest possible pitch for the academic discipline of film studies,” noting that film was “a primary way to think about American life in the 20th and 21st centuries.” Kaufman, Dalle, Waller and moderator Cooper all deplored the rise of individual film viewing on portable media devices, noting that film, like other performance media, helped build community as a shared experience, one heightened if the film director is in attendance to explain his or her creative art.
The discussion on the business of film brought very different perspectives. Chaired by Steven Schardt, a Louisville-based producer, the discussants included Mike Fitzer, also a Louisville-based producer, Kent Sevener with Showtime Networks in New York, and Michael Mangeot, Commissioner, Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism (which oversees the promotion of film in Kentucky). An emerging key issue was how scattered information is at present on film activities in Kentucky. There is no central clearing house to register film projects in the Commonwealth, no active directory of skilled film and video crew members, no easy access to incentive program information, potential film investors, or a directory of sources for facilities and equipment. Mike Fitzer remarked, “it’s important to connect all the pieces. It’s pretty disjunctive at present.” Steven Schardt pointed to the Northwest Film Alliance as a model of active collaboration between filmmakers and other segments of the film industry in Seattle, resulting in a healthy and vibrant industry.
The final session of the day brought together two legendary Kentucky documentarians, Mimi Pickering of Appalshop in Whitesburg, and Tom Thurman of KET. Pickering’s 1975 documentary, The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man, was named to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry of 25 “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant motion pictures.” Pickering observed that Appalshop had been making films for forty years, and that “when you start building the film community you create a succession of generations of talented people.” Pickering noted that community screenings, especially in localities in which the film had been made, was a key part of the Appalshop program. She also observed that documentary film was one of the most effective means to combat the stereotyping of Appalachian people.
Pickering was followed by KET’s Tom Thurman, whose body of work includes several movies about actors, writers and directors including writers Harry Crews and Hunter S. Thompson; actors Nick Nolte and Ben Johnson; and, directors John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, and Tod Browning. Thurman’s discussion of his “movies about movies” brought the discussion back full circle to Dean Ferré’s introductory assertion that “concerns of art and aesthetics, narration and all of our academic tools of analysis come into play when considering the cinema.” Evaluation is now underway to assess whether there is sufficient interest to make a conference on filmmaking an annual fixture in the Center for Arts and Culture Partnerships’ calendar of activities.