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in Filmmaking
on Aug 5, 2011

A while back filmmaker Courtney Fathom Sell (pictured, below right) sent me his and Billy Feldman’s short documentary film, The Hole, about a strange neighborhood on the Brooklyn/Queens border that’s actually below sea level. It’s a beautiful and fascinating exploration, detailing the people, infrastructure, and social economics of an urban space that is often on the verge of flooding. The film screens Sunday night at Rooftop Films at the Brooklyn Grange. After watching the film I invited Sell to send me a guest blog post on his own brand of independent filmmaking. (And for those who aren’t able to attend the screening, I’ve embedded the film below.) — Scott Macaulay

Living the High Life Through the Cracked Lens of a Hi-8
My name is Courtney Fathom Sell. I don’t expect any of you to know who I am simply because I reside at the bottom of the cinematic totem poll. However, I would like to take this time to introduce myself. I am a musical composer, writer, artist, and most importantly, a no-budget filmmaker, which brings me to the point of this article. For years, approximately nine at the time of writing this, I have been ignored, rejected, denied, kicked-out, shunned, and left out to dry by nearly every venue, festival, and large scale event an independent filmmaker can imagine as a platform to present his or her work. Sure it doesn’t help that I create most of my work with the same Hi8 video camera that I received as a Christmas present from my parents when I was a freshman in high school, especially in a time where HD & 3D have become so prominent in the medium of film. However, I simply figured that my undying ambition, drive, and passion for making films would override any issues of technical advancement which I could never afford upgrading to; boy was I wrong. However, it’s all I got, and as I believe I would be a lost soul, a shell of a man, without being able to make films, decided to just accept my grainy, out-of-focus fate and press on. Fifty pounds lighter, delusional from drink, and suffering from constant shakes due to withdrawals from your fair share of assorted drugs, I am here to tell you that the world of real ‘independent’ filmmaking is in fact worth every second!

Yet, my reason for writing this article is not to complain about my lack of budget holding me back from being able to upgrade to better equipment, or share war stories about fighting pharmacists and sleazy dealers for more pills to help ease the anxiety of being a real ‘independent’ artist subside. I however, felt that by explaining my choice of equipment and reckless lifestyle in order to create my films would help round me out as an artist and give you a better idea as to how I work. In fact, believe it or not, I actually enjoy working on my trusty Hi8 video camera, even if it does occasionally go out of focus, break upon loading tapes, and make a strange hissing noise that unfortunately becomes the final soundtrack to each film I shoot, as it has become a part of me at this point, and has allowed me the opportunity to witness and observe the world through its dirty, cracked lens.

Rufus in "The Hole"

In nine years, I have visited nearly all 50 states documenting my travels, the inspiring people I have come across while wandering the states like an aimless drifter of the Beat Generation, and experienced things I never knew existed all because of this camera. I already know what you’re thinking, and you can rest assured that this article isn’t an advertisement for Hi8 video cameras either. Nope, the main reason for this article, as crazy as it may sound at first, is to finally set the score straight on true “independent” filmmaking. I would like to take a few minutes to simply remind people what “independent” film really means, at least to me. If I still have your attention, I’d like to proceed. Trust me, though I may have been driven to the brink of insanity after years of heavy drinking and hard drugs in order to help fill the void in my heart that has been caused by many years of rejection like a wounded lover, I promise you I know what I’m talking about. Hell, maybe you’ll even learn a thing or two or be driven to such inspirational extremes that you’ll feel it necessary to head on down to your local Salvation Army, find a broken camcorder and begin making your own no-budget masterpiece! Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves now, and simply move on responsibly.

Now I won’t bore you with a cinematic history lesson as to when or how the term or idea of ‘Independent’ filmmaking came about, as I’m sure if you are reading this, you are already familiar with Cassavettes and the like, as well as knowledge of the earliest pioneers of independent cinema, but instead, would like to point out that the idea of “independent” filmmaking has became blurred and misinterpreted lately, and while this much is obvious to any knowledgeable filmmaker or film buff, is something that I believe should be addressed before such a watered-down, grossly false interpretation continues to grow and contaminate the masses with horrifically poor examples as to what real “independent” filmmaking actually is. I feel it necessary to point out such differences, while being an actual no-budget “independent” filmmaker is something that is so close to my heart, so dear to my soul, and so much apart of who I am, that it makes me shiver when work such as mine could be sloppily grouped alongside other apparent “independent” works such as, oh shall we say Good Will Hunting or dare I even say Reservoir Dogs? Now please don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoyed Good Will Hunting and will never use this platform as a way to criticize other talented filmmakers work, but to simply regain a division point as to better describe the difference between real “independent” filmmaking and Hollywood parading around in sheep’s clothing to claim it’s “independent” in order to seem more credible, cooler, and perhaps to improve ticket sales as everyone seems to want to help out the little guy. Slap the title “Independent” on it, and maybe you’ll have yourself the next Blair Witch! Are you getting it yet?

Courtney Fathom Sell at work

As I stated before, I am a filmmaker who you are probably not familiar with at this point, and that is alright with me. As a truly “independent” filmmaker, I have grown accustomed to being ignored and under-appreciated, and understand it is simply apart of the lifestyle. As my cinematic resume includes titles such as The Bitches of Bowery, Satan’s Bitches, and most recently Werewolf Bitches from Outer Space, it is no shocker to me that my name isn’t being plastered over every billboard & Loews movieplex in New York City. However, I would be lying by saying that this wasn’t disheartening upon realization, as mainstream fame was always something which I found appealing and wished upon myself as a child. Don’t ask me where I went wrong. Hell, I even tried to get a degree at Film School when I was eighteen but decided to leave the Institute after my Professor refused to show my short film Wet Day Dream in class. Yes, you read it right, the project was called Wet Day Dream. I guess I was always a punk at heart, and as much as I felt the idea of being apart of a big production to be romantic and exciting, was always filled with to much eagerness and drive to sit around and wait for the others to get their act together. Who needs a crew, lights, and professional equipment when you have a six pack of beer, a few close friends willing to act crazy and perform for an audience, and a broken video camera that was most likely used previously by a mother to film her children’s soccer games? Therefore, with such an attitude, I decided to hit the road and begin my career of shooting films on whatever money I had in my pocket at the time, making ends meat by working odd jobs that included scraping barnacles off of the bottom of boats, trying to get you to invest ten dollars a month to help starving children in Africa on the side of the street, and occasionally indulging in small petty crimes just to afford a sandwich and a new cassette once the one I had been shooting hours on became filled with footage of my travels. As you can probably tell at this point, filmmaking is apart of my life and for one to try and find the difference between my personal life and professional life, they would most likely go crazy. So it does cause me much aggrivation and annoyance when I notice hundreds upon thousands of festivals, organizations, companies, and promoters preaching their support for “independent film,” when the same organizations and individuals have constantly shut me and other filmmakers like me out in the cold for more glossy work. Sometimes, festivals wont even consider accepting my work simply because of the format in which it was shot on! To rake up submission fees, friends will most likely receive a telephone call from me late at night to which I’ll pitch them the film and then proceed to beg for some change. Most of the time, they’re kind enough to help out, even when they understand that they will probably never see that money again. When it comes down to promoting, I’ll hunker down at the closest Kinko’s and hog the Xerox machine for hours on end, printing black-and-white flyers in which to plaster the streets, bars, and local video stores with, once again, with the understanding that the five dollars it may have taken to print out such flyers will be lost and gone forever. Sometimes, I’ll even record my work upon taped-over VHS cassettes (Mrs. Doubtfire being my favorite) and hide them amongst the other tapes in thrift stores just in hopes that someone will come around, purchase it for fifty cents excited to watch Robin Williams in old-lady drag, and instead, be blown away by what they’ve discovered, The Bitches of Bowery! When I find myself at upscale events, don’t ask me how, and introduce myself as a filmmaker, I will most likely be asked, “Yeah, but what do you really do?”, to which I have trouble responding without hiding the aggression and annoyance in my voice. With my fists clenched and my teeth grinding like Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, I will just walk away. If they don’t get it now, they never will. When you spend every waking hour working on films that most likely will never see the light of day, yet you feel so compelled to continue on, living off of food stamps, sleeping on friends couches, and getting by on tall boys and peanut butter sandwiches, it is a sure sign that you’re in it for the long run, so to be doubted or not taken seriously by your peers always stings a bit. Ah, the spirit of true independent filmmaking. I hope this doesn’t come off as sounding bitter, as it is simply the hard facts of my personal experiences, because one thing is certain, I wouldn’t give this life up for anything!

It would be useless to write about how unfair Sundance and other festivals of that nature, who work to promote apparent “independent film,” can be when choosing films to push at their festival each year because it is a tiresome and overplayed argument that I choose to stray away from. Instead, I always enjoy taking a step back and remembering the real “independent” filmmakers who inspired me to no end when I was an innocent, eager, and overtly ambitious filmmaking child. People like Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, and Stan Brakhage, who managed to create their work as outlaws from mainstream cinema and worked to bring their visions up to the screen, even when the world wasn’t looking in their direction. This, my friends is the true spirit of “independent filmmaking.” Therefore, it always burns me to hear a festival speak about their support for real “independent” films when in fact, they are simply screening Hollywood in disguise. Sometimes this is obvious, however, we have to give the studios some credit where credit is due, as there have been many occasions that they have so secretly put out work that fools most moviegoers seeking a real “independent” production to get behind. And once again, I just have to reiderate the fact that this article is in no way an opportunity to preach against the studios, as Hollywood has put out a whole slew of wonderful motion pictures, The Philadelphia Story actually being my favorite film of all time, yet they are businessmen, and unlike artists such as me, work for the dollar. Well, let me correct myself. I do work for the dollar, just not the same amount of dollars! A beer and a loaf of bread doesn’t quite add up to the same figure that the bigwigs of Hollywoodland U.S.A. work for.

I think what it all boils down to is the chance to use this platform and outlet as a way to inspire other aspiring filmmakers to pick up their cameras, whether they be a 7D, RED, or simply an iPhone, and make the movies they want to make. After all, we’ve been doing it all along! We need to remind readers and those same aspiring filmmakers that their dreams of making movies should never lie in ticket sales, but bringing their visions, as crooked, scary, beautiful, frightening, sleazy, or sad as they may be, to the big screen without any hesitation about whether or not they may be accepted into mainstream cinema or at that matter, the mainstream idea of “independent cinema.” I understand it has been said before, and said a million more times since, but I fear that the message may be getting lost or mixed up and would like to continue to push it, as there is no better feeling for me than being able to present my own work alongside another true “independent” filmmaking renegades, whose blood, sweat, and tears can be noticed within each frame of their work.

By deciding to follow the path of real “independent” filmmaking and giving up your beliefs on what Hollywood may have taught you was “independent” filmmaking, I assure you, you will be setting yourself up for a lifelong venture filled with heartache, heartbreak, high anxiety, deep depression and perhaps, if you’re lucky enough, a hard drug habit, as the constant rejection is sure to get you down at one time or another. This however, should never cause you to give up your goals of making films. Just as Bergman once stated that the idea of rejecting God gave him the comfort and courage to live life to its fullest, true ‘independent’ filmmakers must reject the stereotypical ideas of society and their beliefs of what films, especially within the genre of ‘independent’ should entail. If it’s actually Independent, there are no restrictions! As we live in a time where the term “independent film” has become so overused, so misinterpreted, and so misunderstood, it is now the perfect chance to begin changing things, and showing the world that real “independent cinema” still exists. Luckily, there are in fact many platforms, festivals, and individuals who, though you have to look close and hard for them, who are willing to promote and support work so outside the box, that you should have no problem finding a venue and audience for your work. For the more unruly Filmmaker, a brick wall and a portable projector works just as well too!

The way I see it, the subject in front of the camera is ALWAYS more important than the camera itself, therefore, it should never be an issue as to what you are filming on, as long as your story, images, and vision can be produced. With this article, I simply wanted to remind readers that “independent film” does not necessary mean “independent film” anymore. Not to say that some of the ‘Hollywood Independent’ films being produced aren’t beautifully shot and entertaining, one just must realize the differences when it comes down to “independent film.” Therefore, it is the job of as many dreamers and artists as possible, to change the way the world perceives “independent film,” saving it from its glossy, stereotypical, melodramatic distant cousin and bringing it back to its roots. And just remember, you’ve got nothing to lose. I mean honestly, when you’re living off of $25 royalty checks a month and pity donations from friends, just to afford another drink, some illegal prescription drugs and a pack of smokes in order to keep your focus clear while editing your work on a busted laptop in a crack den, you REALLY have nothing to lose, so just keep going! As an experienced “no-budget” filmmaker, I don’t expect to change the world with my work, as the world has rarely ever cared about such films. However, with each project, I hope to work to a greater good in the world of so-called “independent cinema” and help return it to where it rightfully belongs. Even if that means upon the brick walls of a local bar, crack den, or strip club. This my friends, is the true spirit and essence of “Independent Filmmaking.” So please, keep dreaming, making films the way you see fit, and don’t let anything get you down. — Courtney Fathom Sell

Courtney Fathom Sell’s recent short documentary, and the first to NOT be shot on his Hi8 video camera, entitled The Hole which he co-directed with filmmaker Billy Feldman will be screening August 7th at Brooklyn Grange, a part of Rooftop Films Summer Screening Series sponsored by IFC. A portrait of a mysterious neighborhood on the border of the Brooklyn-Queens border infamous for being sunken below sea level, a mafia body dumping ground, and home to the Federation of Black Cowboys, the film was the recipient of ‘Best Documentary’ at the 2010 Red Hook Film Festival in Brooklyn. Recently, Sell teamed up with writer and artist Rev Jen to form ASS Studios, a production company specializing in no-budget, underground films based in or around the Lower East Side. The Studio held its official Launch party at the Bowery Poetry Club on July 27th where they presented their short films. Currently, Sell is preparing for his upcoming feature length documentary Riding the Current, which will find him kayaking the entire Mississippi River.)

THE HOLE from Alley Oop on Vimeo.

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