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Strength in Union: The Rise of Film Collectives

January 29, 2015

• Marty Lang

Independent film has legendary stories of lone filmmakers seemingly creating work by sheer force of will. Robert Rodriguez worked ten crew positions by himself making his debut feature El Mariachi, earning the nickname “The One-Man Film Crew.” That's admirable, but also a really difficult way to make a film. So, many filmmakers have developed a team-oriented approach to creating and distributing content. While these teams differ in construction and focus, they share one thing: They're groups of creative people working together. They call themselves collectives.

In its simplest form, a collective could be a group of directors, working together to help make each other's films. That pretty much describes BorderLine Films, a New York City based production company collective comprised of directors Sean Durkin, Antonio Campos and Josh Mond. Whenever one directs a film, the other two produce. When they first started, if one of them needed time to write a script, the other two would make commercials and music videos, and they would split the money three ways.

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To say they've done well is an understatement. Campos directed his feature debut Afterschool in 2008, and the film premiered at Cannes. Then Durkin directed his first feature, Martha Marcy May Malene, which won the Dramatic Directing Award at Sundance in 2011, and made Elizabeth Olsen a star. Mond rounded out the group with his directorial debut, James White, a Sundance premiere this year. The collective was also honored with a retrospective, “BorderLine Films: The First Ten Years,” at the 2013 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic.

But BorderLine's structure isn't the only successful one in the feature film world. Court 13, a New Orleans-based collective, calls themselves a “band of filmmakers, artists, musicians, and frontiersmen devoted to creating adventurous art.” In addition to films, they also create music videos and art installations. But it was their first feature film, Beasts of the Southern Wild,  that got the world's attention. The mythic drama grossed over $12 million in theaters, and was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, in 2013. Despite the film's success, however, Beasts director Benh Zeitlin isn't quick to pigeonhole Court 13.

"A lot of people have seen Beasts of the Southern Wild, and they sort of think of us as filmmakers, but we're really a completely different organism all together," Zeitlin said. "We're this huge collective of artists that are down here in New Orleans, and we've built things in a very different way. Everything is very collaborative.”

This collaborative production spirit can also carry over into documentary production. The Russian underground collective Gogol's Wives consists of two anonymous filmmakers. Their work includes the documentary Pussy Versus Putin, chronicling the protests of the Russian feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot, and the subsequent hooliganism trial and conviction of three group members. Making this film required a quick, nimble and incognito crew due to the constant presence of Russian police. So while Gogol's Wives is the smallest of possible collectives, its size worked perfectly for the story they were telling. The first part of the documentary will be screened in February at the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Some collectives don't focus on a particular type of filmmaking, but rather generate art with a local focus. In Miami, the Borscht Corp. is, in their own words, “an open-source collaborative dedicated to telling Miami stories. We believe in interdisciplinary collaboration. We believe in regional filmmaking. We believe in Miami.” They've made over 60 short films, music videos and special projects, including work from directors Amy Seimetz and Barry Jenkins. And they also host the biannual Borscht Film Festival, where you can not only see their films, but also attend events like bike crawls, pool parties, spaceship launches and laser light shows. (They've even showed a crowd-sourced remake of Scarface.) They've become known as a regional filmmaking powerhouse; for the last five years, a Borscht short film has played at Sundance.

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Not all collectives need to be production-centered, though. The Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective has a roster of Sundance, SXSW, and Slamdance veterans, but they don't create work through official collective events. Their interaction comes in weekly peer workshops, where filmmakers present their work, and engage with other members about ideas and issues related to the work. They also invite guest filmmakers and industry professionals as speakers, and they interface with film festivals, museums, galleries and theaters throughout New York City to show the best of the collective's work.

And sometimes, a collective exists entirely to promote the work of others. The Parallel Film Collective in Washington, D.C. is a branch of the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement, started by alumni and students from Howard University. They are a non-profit organization “focused on promoting images out of the mainstream.” They've partnered with distributors and indie filmmakers to show works from African-American, Indian and Pakistani directors, including Ava DuVernay's Middle of Nowhere. And they're planning on getting into feature narrative and documentary production in the future, too.

There's definitely no one definition of a collective in indie film today, but it's obvious that when people team up with the goal of creating and showing films, great things can (and do) happen. Collectives prove that in filmmaking, the whole can truly be greater than the sum of its parts.

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Marty Lang

Marty Lang is an award-winning filmmaker and journalist. His feature writing/directing debut, RISING STAR, won Best Premiere at the 2012 Seattle True Independent Film Festival, and can be purchased on Amazon.com. His producing credits include OUT OF MY HA

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