Through Cinetopia’s Lens: The Current State of Michigan Filmmaking

Wednesday, June 15, 2016 - 8:06pm

From June 3rd to June 12th, the Cinetopia International Film Festival graced theatres in the Ann Arbor and Detroit metropolitan areas with a variety of dark full-length feature dramas, sardonic comedies, documentaries and shorts to satisfy any local cinephile.

In its 5th year, festival staff and filmmakers alike were able to discuss Cinetopia's progress over the years, and the current and future states of Michigan filmmaking.

Ruth Lednicer, managing and marketing director for Cinetopia, moved to Ann Arbor from Chicago two years ago and is the senior director of marketing and programs at the Michigan Theatre.

“Cinetopia came about because Russ Collins, who is the executive director of the Michigan Theatre, realized that there really wasn’t a film festival in Detroit,” Lednicer said. “Any world-class city deserves a film festival, but also all of southeast Michigan really deserves a film festival.”

According to Lednicer, the Theatre’s long-standing relationship with the Sundance Film Festival took the form of a program called Direct From Sundance, where films are brought to the festival in Park City to a one-night screening at the Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor.

“Based on how much people love it, we knew there was a demand here for seeing festival films in Ann Arbor,” Lednicer said.

From its first year in 2011 in Ann Arbor, Cinetopia has spread its screenings to theatres in Detroit, West Bloomfield and Dearborn.

As the festival expands, the cinematic history of the region cannot be overlooked. In recent years, a series of horror films utilized Detroit's landscape as a place to depict gruesome murders and psychological thrillers. This method of adapting Detroit's raw landscape for its striking imagry has a dirtier name for local artists — ruin porn.

Ruin porn — a self-aware, self-effacing medium that glorifies the crumbling bricks and rust of cities, such as Detroit, that were once symbols of modernity and industrial growth. Those that generally seek to create ruin porn are the inexperienced filmmakers who descend upon Detroit and climb over the ruins of the Packard Plant as if they had discovered the lost city of Atlantis.

Beyond contributing to the ever-increasing “ruin porn” genre— with films such as “It Follows” — the legacy of Detroit’s cinema artists seems to be one of outsiders and insiders focusing their camera lenses on empty factories and vacant lots. The organizers, filmmakers, actors and attendees at Cinetopia would beg to disagree.

Barbara Twist is a festival programmer at Cinetopia and a Detroit-based filmmaker in her own right.

“The story being told about Detroit right now is about the new-ness of Detroit, when in fact, it has been around for so long, and there have been people living there for many many years that are forgotten and not seen because they’re not flashy or building super-trendy coffee shops and stuff like that,” Twist said.

Because of its increase in popularity over the past few years, Detroit’s external image has since been reduced to a creepy barren wasteland, perfect for the portfolios of outsiders and as the backdrop for horror films.

But is using the city for its barren aesthetic really that bad? Or would limiting its production just serve to divert attention from some of the city’s main issues, such as poverty, gentrification and its inability to sustain its infrastructure.

According to Lara Sfire, a filmmaker, electrician and gaffer from Grosse Pointe, said the onus on Detroit's future has a lot to do with the increaed traffic of artists to the area.

“I think it’s already beginning, but I think everyone is trying to find that same thing right now, where they’re trying to figure out how can the skills that we have —  the artistic and creative skills that we have —  how can we hone them or turn them into something that will help revitalize the city.” Sfire said.

So, is it unfair treatment, or properly leveraging assets? Sfire, whose parents are real estate developers, said where creative types flock to make names for themselves, progress and creation seem to follow.

“Every artist and filmmaker who’s doing something in Detroit has probably had that idea floating around in their head. It’s the conversation of using slash exploiting what is the balance, what’s the fence?” Sfire said. “Maybe ruin porn is a potential way to get excitement for the city, and I think it’s actually brought a lot of developers to our city.”

Sfire, who’s just moved back to Detroit only a few months ago, said her aim is to figure out a way that independent film, combined with art or music or another kind of creative endeavor can make a place more exciting, which could mean more proceeds to then hopefully spurn the city.

For Sfire, ruin porn is anyone’s game. Despite the pros and cons of blatant exploitation, the focus should be on improving the city no matter the cost, a stark contrast to others’ beliefs.

“If we started right today and never again shot ruin porn in Detroit, we would not be denying it because there’s so much out there already,” Twist said. “And yet it’s like when you look at representations of women onscreen. There is nothing wrong with having a female character on screen who is maybe shallow and vapid. Because there are people out there who happen to be women who happen to be vapid and shallow. However, if all representations of women are vapid and shallow then we have a problem.”

Twist said the best way to combat the damaging effects of ruin porn is to find the people.

“I think having place-based filmmaking and people-focused filmmaking you don’t necessarily run the risk of going into ruin porn or something like that  —  that’s really what is a city but a collection of people,” Twist said. “Having more people focusing on building positive visual images of Detroit will help balance out those people that do want to come in and look at decay. The more stories you can gather you can start to shape a different image of Detroit.”

One of Twist’s current projects is a Super 8 documentary about coffee culture in Detroit. She’s hand-processing the film in a solution of coffee and Vitamin C powder.

Cinetopia — What’s the Point?

Film festivals are important to communities for a lot of reasons. To name a few, they acquaint a regional public with difficult to access cinema. It’s an opportunity to get people out of their homes, and by bringing the filmmakers and writers on location to discuss the works is a way festivals open yet another door to an otherwise secret world.

The festival’s advertisements about Michigan’s “proud legacy of outstanding cinema artists” produces a contestable argument for Michigan’s cinematic triumphs. The first thought that comes to mind is the tax incentives briefly offered by the state in 2008 in the hope of increasing revenue.

Michael Curtis Johnson, director, screenwriter and producer of the film “Hunky Dory” attended Eastern Michigan University and said the importance of tax incentives to independent filmmaking cannot be overlooked.

“I know everyone talks about the tax credit thing, but it is so important. I mean, I grew up in Joliet, south of Chicago. I’m shooting a film this summer there, and the reason I can do it is because of their tax incentive plan,” Johnson said. “I think when the tax incentives kind of lapsed I think the people that were hurt the most were the local filmmakers. Not just that Hollywood comes in and makes films, it's that actors, crew — you know — can’t get on these projects.”

Johnson said if tax incentives were embraced, there would be more independently produced, local products to go around.

“If there is a little bit more openness to that, there’s going to be more content for Cinetopia that’s local,” Johnson said.

But film festivals aren’t just there to help engender a love of culture in regional areas — it helps the filmmakers as well. Drew Waller, a programmer with the festival, said Cinetopia’s raison dêtre is not only bringing films for the communities, but it's also to provide a much needed stage for up and coming filmmakers.

“That’s why Cinetopia is here, to bring those films to this area. A lot of times they don’t get to be seen,” Waller said. “The film festival circuit is sometimes the only way that folks can actually see it to get excited and get distribution.”

Johnson echoed Waller’s statements, asserting that films like “Hunky Dory,” wouldn’t get made without the existence of local screenings.

“It’s more difficult for us to get distribution and we won’t do that without getting eyes on it from different parts of the country,” Johnson said. “It’s essential for films like ours and I think it's essential for local filmmakers to have a venue like this.”

Waller said “Hunky Dory”, a film about the tumultuous life of a rock star-turned-dive bar-drag-queen embracing fatherhood was just the kind of film they were looking for.

“We were really excited about this film because it represented what our vision is," Waller said."I think that his represents a good version of one that folks were saying was a really well-crafted film that deserves a platform.”

Lednicer cited the program’s “fine tuning” as the reason that the number of films dropped to 54 from the 72 films screened last year.

“We really wanted to focus on what we were bringing in,” Lednicer said. “We look for the best but we’re learning — every year better — our audience. We try to do a good mix without making it feel formulaic.”

“It’s a balance. We want to bring the best films from around the world, but we also want some part of that track to celebrate Michigan based filmmakers,” Lednicer said.

Waller said the festival aims to attract outsiders so that they can see what Detroit is really like. An example of how Cinetopia does this is through Detroit Voices, the only submission based program within the festival, is there to bring in actual original voices from the state of Michigan about what Detroit means to them. Of the 400 submissions, the festival featured the works of 12 finalists.

“The happy accident is that while we were trying to find the best films from the world’s best film festivals that several of the folks would actually have an area connection," Waller said.“With Cinetopia as long as we are continuing to bring in audiences that can really discover, interact and have great dialogue about the films that they’re seeing, it gets beyond just seeing a film in a shared box, it’s about having a shared experience,” Waller said.

What is a “Michigan” film?

While focusing on certain parts of one city cannot accurately tell the story of Michigan, local filmmakers have a lot to do in order to craft a new vision of Michigan. Many said that in order to combat ruin porn, more narrative-based, character-driven films from the area are the way to go.

Johnson calls the deviation from ruin porn to more realistic depictions of Michigan filmmaking a two-way street, involving not only the efforts of a filmmaker but of a local audience willing to come out and see the film. He said the spotlight should be on more than just films like “The Myth of the American Sleepover” which is a Detroit film that played at Cannes a couple years ago.

“The filmmaker’s gone on to make “It Follows” and has done great things and it was embraced by the film community,” Johnson said. “But I mean if I was to mention that film and say it’s a Michigan film I think you’d probably hear silence.”

Twist said despite being a filmmaker and from the area, she wouldn’t claim herself qualified to tell the story of Detroit.

“For me as a filmmaker, moving to Detroit and I’m a white woman and I just try to focus on people I would never want to tell the story of Detroit because number one, I can’t for a number of reasons and the main being that there are so many stories of Detroit,” Twist said. “I think right now there is so much focus on Detroit as ruin porn that it isn’t cool anymore. It doesn’t feel good and it doesn’t sit well and it doesn’t represent properly the history and experience of a lot of people.”

For Lednicer, zooming in on the ruin is not what makes Detroit.

“Detroit has always made things. In fact, if you see the design of our cover it’s actually based on the idea that Detroit’s a making community,” Lednicer said. “It’s the original maker’s space — they made cars, industrial things, auto parts. We make films.”