Defining independent films is an odd task; simple enough, just odd. Basically put, any film produced outside of a major film company can wear its indie hat (presumably a tattered beanie) with pride,but it’s only in a commercially motivated industry like film that such a concept requires a classification of its own. The independence of an artist is implicit within other media; the work of a writer or painter isn’t assumed to be born of cupidity, but the passion of the creator. Film, the difficult child that it is, manages to differ from most art forms in so much as it makes art a business, and so any film not associated with a production company is divided from the ranks.
Considering the level of work that goes into filmmaking, financial concern is only a natural progression, but the problem here is that businesses like to minimise risk, and would preferably cast a line from solid ground than push the boat out to unknown waters. Art only advances when new ideas are introduced, so commercialising film damages its development. The indie film might suffer from stunted budgets but they’re also liberated by them because there are no ties to corporations that expect to see healthy returns. Independent cinema is empowered by the freedom to fail, and fail it will.
Independent cinema is empowered by the freedom to fail, and fail it will.
If graffiti has taught us anything it’s that complete artistic freedom doesn’t necessarily refine a medium; you’re bound to come across an ocean of cartoon genitals and swastikas for every Basquiat you’re likely to find, and failure is equally abundant with independent films, tumbling down the usual pitfalls of pretentious self-indulgence, bad performances, or just plain unoriginality, but with this torrent come gems that could not have been realised within a corporate system. Eraserhead couldn’t have been made with any kind of respectable budget because all the takes would have been ruined by the deafening screams of executive producers, trying to bargain with deities and experiencing stress-induced brain haemorrhaging.
Far be it for me to suggest that big-budget cinema is without originality, there are plenty of filmmakers doing their bit to bring something new to the table: currently one of the biggest names in cinema is everyone’s favourite auteur Christopher Nolan, equipped with a back catalogue of mind-bending work that included Inception, one of 2010’s biggest films and incomparable with anything else at the time.
But Nolan’s talent as a writer and director only came to prominence through his independent work; there is no Inception without Doodlebug, just as there is no Black Swan without Pi, no The Departed without Mean Streets, no Gravity without Y TuMamáTambién, no… you get the idea. An auteur has to develop a recognisable style to be considered a bankable commodity, and even then their work can suffer from compromise aimed to appease the bill-payers.
While it’s easy enough to blame production companies for titles that fail to break new ground, the general public is just as much a problem. An audience’s fixed notions of what to expect from cinema gives studios a reliable target, and once you know that blowing something up every five minutes causes a certain percentage of the population to involuntarily throw money in your general direction it must be difficult to find the strength to stop. One would hope that a repetitive diet would inspire a hunger for something more substantial, but it appears that we have developed a taste for the drip feed.We have come to expect certain conventions in our films, as well as a level of production value that outshines the feats capable from most indie flicks.
With the development of affordable technology and social-media-based crowd funding, independent cinema is busier than ever, with more and more filmmakers able to create work unimpeded by budget issues that can follow the uncontaminated vision of a small group, but without the funding for distribution and advertising the vast majority of it just gets lost under the radar.
At the end of the day there’s no getting around the fact that mainstream media are defined by the audience, and so anything avant-garde will only be filtered through at a rate deemed tolerable by the general population, but independent film is free to not care what the audience thinks, to challenge what is orthodox and throw moderation to the wind. They might not be plastered across every other double-decker, but they’re there to be found and appreciated if you’re willing to give them the time, and considering all they’ve done for us, I think it’s only fair that we do.