Twenty months after Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” took the nation’s box office by storm, what progress have conservatives actually made in challenging liberal hegemony in Hollywood? Is it any easier today for a conservative-themed film to make its way down the studio pipeline than it was in early 2004?
The answer to this question must be a resounding ‘no.’ Based on projects recently greenlit by the major studios – including a host of films openly dismissive of the War on Terror – one might argue that Hollywood is drifting even further left than it was in 2004, when films like “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “The Day After Tomorrow” or “The Manchurian Candidate” were released. Forthcoming studio films like “V For Vendetta,” “Syriana” or even Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” appear to question both the efficacy and the legitimacy of our current struggle against terrorism.
Frustrating as this may be, however, none of this should be cause for despair. If the studio system remains largely a vehicle for the liberal worldview, conservatives are nonetheless making a new niche for themselves in the world of independent filmmaking.
This is hardly surprising. Take the example of “The Passion.” Because it came packaged with a star actor (Jim Caviezel) and star director (Mel Gibson), many people forget that “The Passion” was an independent film, financed by Gibson himself. “The Passion” was spurned by major studio distributors until it was acquired by independent distributor Newmarket Films – which no longer even exists, having been absorbed into the Time-Warner empire.
Lacking Gibson’s fame and fortune, most conservative filmmakers face even more serious finance and distribution challenges. What they lack in resources, however, these new filmmakers make up with vision, feistiness, and a hunger for truth.
As co-director of the upcoming Liberty Film Festival (October 21-23 in West Hollywood), I’ve had the chance to watch countless films submitted by conservative filmmakers from around the country and around the world. A few trends were obvious: working on low budgets, conservatives are taking to documentaries like fishes to water – and are also embracing digital technology at a faster rate than mainstream Hollywood.
First-time filmmakers Nina May and Tricia Erickson, for example, wanted to tell the story of how many black Americans found their home in the Republican Party in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, all the way down through the 1950’s. To tell this largely forgotten story they interviewed black intellectuals like Shelby Steele, Deroy Murdock and Armstrong Williams – and important witnesses like Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King, and Gloria Jackson, a descendant of Booker T. Washington. The resulting film, “Emancipation, Revelation, Revolution,” tells an almost shocking tale of how the modern Democratic Party has worked to keep black Americans on a liberal ‘plantation,’ ignorant of their own history.
Meanwhile another first-time filmmaker, Mercedes Maharis, decided to pick up a video camera and begin documenting the corrosive, demoralizing effect of illegal immigration on her border community of Cochise County, Arizona. Her film, “Cochise County, USA: Cries From the Border,” vividly captures the tragedy of illegal border crossings for migrants and Americans alike. Neither abstract nor preachy, “Cochise County” simply depicts the sights and sounds of this ongoing crisis, even featuring footage of actual border crossings.
Perhaps most novel, though, are the efforts of Marine Seargant Kc Wayland, another first-time filmmaker and an Iraq war veteran. Wayland’s “365 Boots on the Ground” documents his year-long tour of duty in Iraq, from recruitment through deployment to his return home. This absorbing, first-person account (shot in part with a helmet-cam) shows the lives of Marines in Iraq, from their daily routines, to humorous and heartwarming encounters with Iraqis, to shocking outbreaks of terrorist violence.
Films of this type are more true to the spirit of independent filmmaking than most studio-distributed ‘independent’ films of today. Some other examples among this new wave of documentaries include Ron Silver’s sobering critique of the UN (“Broken Promises”), Stuart Browning and Blaine Greenberg’s witty look at Canadian healthcare (“Dead Meat”), Evan Maloney’s irreverent take on political correctness in academia (“Brainwashing 201”), and ProtestWarrior’s Kfir Alfia and Alan Lipton’s political and spiritual odyssey through modern Israel, “Entering Zion.”
Still more encouraging, though, are developments overseas.
For example, noted Kurdish/Iraqi filmmaker Jano Rosebiani recently sponsored the First Short Film Festival in free Iraq, after decades in which moviemaking had been suppressed under Saddam Hussein. Rosebiani paired young Kurdish and Iraqi filmmakers with trained professionals and digital technology to produce a series of anti-terror, pro-democratic short films presently touring Iraq. We’ll be showing these films for the first time outside Iraq on October 22nd at the Liberty Film Festival.
These sorts of independent, do-it-yourself developments are far more encouraging than any star-laden, expensive projects rumbling their way down the studio pipeline. Why? Although Hollywood is honeycombed with conservatives at all levels, most of these ‘closeted’ conservatives – having careers to protect and bills to pay – have little incentive to rock the boat. Having been rewarded by Hollywood for keeping their silence, very few such stars or executives are likely to become agents of change.
Nor should conservatives expect that ‘market forces’ will press Hollywood to change its prevailing ideology. Being owned by larger media conglomerates, most Hollywood studios can afford to lose astonishing amounts of money on left-leaning films without blinking an eye. For example, Oliver Stone’s revisionist epic “Alexander” lost Warner Brothers untold millions of dollars; he was promptly rewarded with the first major studio film about 9/11.
If conservatives want a voice in film, they’ll have to claim it the way so many scrappy, low-budget filmmakers are doing it today: without budgets, without stars, with the prospect of only limited distribution – but with a consuming passion for the truth. Eventually – when the budgets, stars and distribution come – conservatives will be able to expand beyond documentary films and move into narratives. And then conservatives will have a major impact.
Until then, they’ll need to be truly ‘independent,’ resourceful and unafraid—which is what conservatism teaches us in the first place.
Jason Apuzzo is Co-Director of The Liberty Film Festival and editor of the conservative film blog LIBERTAS.
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