What is Indie? | Documentary 1 of 100

On January 1st, I kicked off  my 100 films in 100 days personal challenge by screening a film loaned to me by Jeff Leisawitz, my friend who is also the Seattle musician who scored Shine. The film, titled What is Indie? is by first-time filmmaker Dave Cool, who hails from Canada (where I grew up).

What I immediately liked about this film was the intentions of the filmmaker. Here’s a guy who set out to explore a topic by making a film, funded by credit cards, no less. And the result is a totally credible contribution to our understanding of what it means to be an indie musician. Along the way we get to hear a lot of good music, meet a ton of musicians, and learn a bit about Cool, who narrates the film. I’m not sure that personal narration was the right way to go for this film. But it gets the job done.

The film succeeds in deepening our understanding of what it means to be an indie musician – if you are an indie musician or someone already interested in the topic. Cool lists Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) as one of his major influences, and I could really see that in the film’s narrative approach. Except for one thing: this film doesn’t manage to launch nearly as compelling a story train from the beginning, the way Super Size me did. If it had, I think this film could have appealed to a wider audience and made it easier to stick around to find out what happens while sitting through all of the many interviews. But if you’re into the topic, you’ll definitely stay with the film and enjoy it.

This film is spectacularly successful in one crucial way: it got made. It took Cool a year to make this film, and the fact that he did it is hugely inspiring to a beginning filmmaker like me. Making any film worth watching is a huge undertaking (it took us 8 months to complete Shine), and if more would-be filmmakers stopped thinking about the obstacles and just started doing it, we’d have a better understanding our our world.

This film’s run time is just under an hour. I’m guessing that made it hard to program at festivals, since all the advice I’ve received from people like SIFF programming manager Beth Barrett is that 30 minutes is the absolutely maximum for short docs. Otherwise, she said, if it’s in the 30-60 minute zone, it must be a truly extraordinary film in order to get selected for festival screening, because it will have to compete with feature length films (generally at least 80 minutes). Our first cut of Shine was 47 minutes, and it felt like the “right” length for the film. It was painful editing it down to 24 minutes. But I’m glad we did, and I ultimately I think it’s stronger because of it.

Key filmmaker takeaway: On the DVD, Cool added a lot of worthwhile extras, and the one labeled “Advice” really caught my attention. This section features people like CD Baby founder Derek Sivers giving advice to aspiring musicians about how to navigate the business side on their way to becoming a successful indie artist. I’ve got a TON of similar footage that we were not able to use in the final 24-minute edit of Shine, so I’m going to borrow this idea and create an Advice category when we make our DVD for Shine, where I’ll put the best of that stuff. Thanks for the idea, Dave, it’s a brilliant way to share helpful footage that would otherwise never see the light of day.

I discovered two noteworthy websites while writing this post, where you can purchase this film for immediate download or buy the DVD. Here’s links to purchase this film on bside.com (DVD $12.99; low-rez download $2.99; high-rez download $7.99 ) and also on filmbaby.com (DVD $14.00; download $9.99). On first glance, it looks like these sites are hints of a bright future in which documentary filmmakers can self-distribute their work directly to their audience. I’ll likely be looking for an online distributor for Shine after it’s festival debut later this year, so will take a closer look at these and post a more thorough review. Meanwhile, if you know of any compelling options for online and/or DVD self-distribution, please share them in the comments.

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