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Celebrating small cinema in an age of streaming giants

Focusing on the true-blue indies amid the season’s deluge of movie news.

Image: A logo and screenshot collage. From top right, Brandon Colvin’s initial Micro-Wave Cinema Series logo; an overlay of two film stills—Hannah Lee Thompson reluctantly waiting for a train in the narrative feature “Hannah Ha Ha” and Andrew Cross setting up a camera tripod by a railroad crossing in the documentary “Ferroequinology.” Below him is Jamie Wolfe’s unique design for this year’s Slamdance Film Festival; and, to its left, the minimalistic second design of the “LakeFrontRow” logo.

The dead of winter is traditionally a time for big cinema. We’re all catching up on December’s deluge of high-profile features, and titans of the former year are represented during the crack-of-dawn nominations for the Academy Awards. And then there are the new year’s world premieres at Sundance in snowy Park City, Utah. The festival generates buzz for surprising showstoppers and expected successes alike, providing a timely guide for many North American moviegoers.

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With mounting safety concerns, Sundance shifted to a complete virtual version at the last minute with $20 paywalls per screening. This may have proved beneficial in terms of audience reach between January 20 and 30, but the average person and even devoted cinephile may have still found it a bit pricey. The counter-programmed Slamdance, a true-blue indie festival, started in 1995 by a grassroots collective of filmmakers fed up with “relying on a large, oblique system to showcase their work,” made a similar move into the exclusively virtual realm for its 28th edition. However, their entry fee: a comparably generous $10 for their whole slate of programming (128 entries, as I counted) available from January 28 through February 6.

Over that 10-day stretch, amid darting around town to campus theaters—and out to Market Square once—I managed to watch 23 films (6 features, 17 shorts) through the Slamdance app on my Roku. Their various categories brought together the standard “narrative features,” but also housed more intriguing and idiosyncratic work under labels like “unstoppable shorts” and “department of anarchy.” Even without a centralized venue or location, this online edition of the festival was an incredible showcase of microbudget filmmaking from around the world—all available for less than the monthly price of most streaming services. In an age of big cinema and conglomerates with a stranglehold on our attention, smaller cinema simply seems like a panacea, a palate cleanser. But it wasn’t always in my purview.

Brandon Colvin’s Micro-Wave Cinema Series, which ran from January 2014 through April 2018 on the UW-Madison campus, was my portal to that world of the modern underground. Several Sundays per semester, Colvin would reserve room 4070 in Vilas Hall, the usual UW Cinematheque venue, to present films produced with a lot of passion and poise but considerably less money than anything attached to a major studio or what we usually call “indie.” (As a bonus, he’d often host virtual Q&As and occasionally bring in guests.)

From my first attendance for Joy Kevin (dir. Caleb Michael Johnson) in October 2014 to one of my last for Tormenting The Hen (dir. Theodore Collatos) in March 2018, it was altogether rewarding to see close-knit crews creatively put together humorous and thrilling features on shoestring budgets. The joy of watching these films is manifold, especially when observing the freedom of the craft and the breezy run-times, as it is typical to see features of 70 to 85 minutes. And that excitement is often tied up with how those films capture location.

A number of the Slamdance films this year took place in larger cities, like Los Angeles in The Civil Dead (dir. Clay Tatum) and Ratking (dir. Eric Colonna), New York in Yelling Fire In An Empty Theater (dir. Justin Zuckerman), and Toronto and neighboring Mississauga in Retrograde (dir. Adrian Murray) and Therapy Dogs (dir. Ethan Eng). But it was just as interesting to see beyond their loci in films like Ferroequinology (dir. Alex Nevill), a documentary about train travel, partly set in remote Northwestern Nevada. Hannah Ha Ha (dirs. Jordan Tetewsky and Joshua Pikovsky) was shot in Dedham and Sharon, Massachusetts (populations 43,000 combined), rendering suburban streets, backyards, parking lots, train stations in the type of intimately hazy warmth that would surely be muted or trimmed in the final edit in something geared for larger festivals.

When the Wisconsin Film Festival comes to Madison every spring for eight days, it’s a time of figurative and literal rejuvenation. Perusing the fest’s “Wisconsin’s Own” program always boosts anticipation for their overarching showcase of shorts and feature-length films that capture a similar spirit as well as niche locales of some of those in Slamdance. Sense of place helps viewers develop deeper connections with student filmmakers, hobbyists, and professionals who have roots in our state.

For several years, David Klein of the resourceful but now-defunct Madison film website LakeFrontRow used to preview the film fest by publishing “five questions” interviews with as many Wisconsin-based filmmakers as he could reach. I worked closely with Klein for a few years at the site, and his ambition to pursue local conversations in conjunction with the larger dialogue around cinema nationally undeniably rubbed off on me. In the past several years, we’ve tried to follow his example. Tone Madison’s film coverage has included interviews with national figures like Ricky D’Ambrose, Zia Anger, Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson, but we have devoted time to locals like James Runde, Carol Brandt, and Alex Miranda Cruz and Noel Miranda of Bravebird, whose Madison-shot 90-minute feature Trace The Line is now in its final stages of post-production and equitable fundraising before a public premiere.

Whether you happen to be covering it in an official capacity or just appreciating as a viewer, new independent and homegrown cinema is worth our collective attention. Tone Madison and platforms like Slamdance, NoBudge, OVID, and Mubi provide an array of reasons to invest our time in these microbudget films—both for their innovation, and as a remedy to more mainstream monotony.

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