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Navigating the Indie Festival Circuit

September 24, 2009

A friend suggested that I share a bit about my experiences in rolling out a feature-length dramatic film on the independent film festival circuit. I have just returned from a screening of The Enemy God at the Arpa International Film Festival. The festival was held at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, a landmark location. While this is definitely not a major festival, I think it is pretty typical of most of the thousands of smaller festivals in which really-independent, un-connected, filmmakers will find themselves. And I think there are some good lessons that we have learned since our film has been on the circuit.

Arpa Int'l Film Festival Poster

Arpa Int'l Film Festival Poster

Very briefly, our film is a dramatic, feature-length film that is set in the Amazon rainforest. It tells the true story of a Yanomamö Indian shaman and the supernatural struggles for the survival of his people. It stars a cast of indigenous actors and is filmed in the K’ekchi’ language. From that description, it is probably apparent that our does not have “blockbuster” written all over it. However, we believed when we began the project and have discovered that there is an enthusiastic audience for the film, when we can get people to see it.

Here are a couple of observations I’d like to throw out to you from our festival experiences:

1. Speak truthfully, and you can speak to people who may not normally be eager to listen to you.

Our film deals with spirituality and indigenous culture. The point of view presented is definitely one that embraces the positive change that has occurred among the Yanomamö who have embraced a Christian worldview. This means that they gave up many of their former beliefs and traditions. We expect lots of backlash from secular audiences because the idea of a person from a traditional culture giving up some of that culture is not politically correct. However, our commitment to the Yanomamö (who came to us with the idea for a film) was that we would help them speak with their voice rather than come in and tell their story from the perspective of outsiders. This made for a very difficult film, but in the end we have been welcomed in to festivals that are decidedly not Christian. Ten of twelve festivals that we have been a part of are ‘secular’ or ‘spiritual’ in a more broad way. We have received many nominations and a number of awards at these festivals. At a festival that was entirely about Native American/Indigenous filmmaking, our film was invited and celebrated by an audience whose normal view of white Christians is one of resentment and distrust because of past wrongs. But because they trusted us and believed that we were sincere in our storytelling we were able to enter their world and gain a hearing. We also made the effort to listen well and to honor their stories.

2. It is possible to create art that can live in the middle space between the secular and spiritual and have positive influence.

Alex K., Festival Director, and Tom Khazoyan talk with film fans at the Arpa Festival

Alex K., Festival Director, and Tom Khazoyan talk with film fans at the Arpa Festival

You may feel as though you are stuck outside of both worlds. Sometimes I think that the real truth is, if you try to walk in the middle you spend your time getting attacked from the left and right. While it can seem easier to work from the extremes, there are many of us who want to wrestle in the gray areas. With our film, we began with a story that had universal themes, but a definite Christian worldview. As we wrote the script, we were committed to being entirely truthful, but also to make a film that engages the viewer’s mind and speaks with a unique voice. Only a few ‘secular’ critics have had a problem with the message of the film. Perhaps they tend to compartmentalize what they see and probably spin it the way they are comfortable. Ironically, we have had criticism from Christians who feel that our film does not give a clear gospel message. [It does not help that we have demon worship, drug use, violence, and naked women in our film!] However, most Christians have embraced the film and the challenges of it. One festival actually put us in their “distinctly gospel” category – not the one we thought best fit our film. The bottom-line for me is that we have found ourselves in the fascinating middle of cultures. That is a place some “Christian films” find hard to penetrate. I’m glad we are here.

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