FreeFail: Indie Film Game-Changer Outs Herself as a Failure (Despite Evidence to the Contrary

Paris is Burning

Jennie Livingston

On Monday, January 20, with #FreeFail, the Sundance Film Festival will dedicate a day to exploring a vital aspect of the creative process: Failure. To kick off the festivities, filmmaker Jennie Livingston (Paris is Burning) reflects on the challenges she has faced as the self-proclaimed World’s Slowest Filmmaker.

While investigating links for a website for the film I’m making, Earth Camp One, I came across a blog that described me as someone who’d made an important film and then failed to follow it up with a career.

Kind of like when I was at the Berlinale in 2005 with a film and a fellow filmmaker came up to me, and said (insert tipsy German accent), “Jennie, what happened?!” Worried I was bleeding from the forehead or bathed in a green radioactive haze, I asked what he meant. “You know, what happened, after Paris is Burning?”

I handed him a post card for my film Who’s the Top? with screening times and an image of a provocative dance number. “Oh a short,” he said, arching an eyebrow. 

For sure I’d like my output to be closer to that of a Woody Allen or an Ang Lee, or like that of my late uncle Alan J. Pakula. Which is to say, I’d like to finish a film that expands my particular vision of what cinema is, and do it every year or two. In mid-career and middle age, having created 1 feature, 3 shorts, original scripts, and having directed other pieces, including a video in Elton John’s current stage show, I’m working on it. 

Like anyone who says, aspirationally, “I’m raising my children to be happy and healthy,” or “I’m working to reduce the effects of global warming,” or “I’m gonna sit in this prison on Robben Island ‘til they let me out and make me President!” I may sound delusional. But who said dreaming, especially dreams that are about everyday commitments, is just for kids?

Could I qualify for World’s Slowest Filmmaker? Yes. Or, I could compare myself to that patient of neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks; this man spent hours with his arm frozen in the air, and when the doctor asked him about it, he said “I’m wiping my nose!” After doing time-lapse photography, the doctor saw it was the truth; it’s just that the patient’s gestures and brain ran at a different speed. Isn’t filmmaking itself a kind of odd neurological condition? My warm and brilliant uncle who made All the President’s Men and Sophie’s Choice begged me (I was 22, and starting my first film) to find an easier path. Did I listen?

Paris is Burning was that film, and after seven years of failing to successfully fundraise and convince people it deserved to be made, the failures finally generated small successes. Once the film was done, it was a hit. That was a surprise, but I had another thing coming when I thought its success would make it easier to get new projects off the ground. Had I a time machine (maybe Dr. Sacks’s patient knows where I could get one?) there are things I’d do differently. 

It would also be wrong to ignore the stats: 94% of films in commercial release, 90% of TV episodes, and 70% of indie films are directed by men. For more on this, see this 2012 Sundance Institute study and this IndieWire piece. How does the world change? In 1970, 5% of U.S. doctors were women; today, it’s 34%. The medical establishment did not unanimously welcome the change.

Film is power, and changing film, like changing every other corner of the power structure, must be about changing consciousness. People make films that explore social issues; social issues also permeate our industry, and people are trying to understand this and make changes. We need to keep the process moving ahead.

Sundance is one of the places where this happens. In 1991, Paris is Burning, about a queer black and Latino fashion subculture, won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. Exactly 20 years later, the festival programmed Circumstance, Pariah, Gun Hill Road, and Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, all of which introduced original queer characters and stories, most of them of-color or off-planet. 

Speaking of space aliens, some of us wish we had additional pairs of eyes to roll when we hear people talk about how digital media now makes it possible for anyone to tell any story. Obviously, digital photography takes audiences places we never would’ve gone, from Tiny Furniture to 5 Broken Cameras to F to 7th. But suggesting that telling stories digitally requires significantly fewer resources than film did is a bit like when George W. Bush said education is really about hard work, not about teacher salaries, books, technology, and buildings. Even the teenagers I know making media have great taste. They want immersive. They learn their craft. And that takes decent equipment, and time. 

On finance and media, the last word goes to Hunter Thompson, and I’ve taken the liberty of substituting “film” for “music.” “The [film] business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” 

Fortunately there are some other hallways in the house of culture. The only way I’m able to keep at it is because there are people, (happily not pimps, not thieves) who’ve seen my ongoing work, who relate to it, and who support it. I love these people. 

And I love my colleagues, many of them at this Festival now, who are making their way through multi-year projects; their tenacity and depth remind me I’m not alone in the slog. They remind me that it’s human nature to recall one slight more easily than to remember a stack of compliments. Which is why it’s possible to feel you’ve failed whether or not it’s the case. So is there even such a thing as failure? Hell yeah, look at me, edging towards completing my second feature more than 20 years after my first! (Whoa, coming out as a failure is so much more shocking and outré than coming out as a homo!) And you, Dear Reader, have your own unique struggles with the uses of failure. 

Directing and producing are about cultivating a confidence that’s nourishing and realistic, and about keeping negative voices at bay. Like my uncle, I really don’t recommend making films. But if you can live with the occasional stare when your arm’s in the air, you’re on your way.

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