A ribbon-cutting on Wednesday was lacking in a ribbon. Independent filmmaker John Sayles snipped a 35-millimeter film strip as he officially introduced his collections to the Hatcher Graduate Library’s American Film Mavericks at Michigan collection.
Since his directorial debut in 1979 with Return of the Secaucus 7, Sayles has directed 17 additional films. Go For Sisters, which had a budget of $1.2 million and was shot in just 19 days, will be shown at this year’s Cinetopia Film Festival. Several of his films has reached universal acclaim, such as The Secret of Roan Inish from 1994 and 1983’s Baby It’s You.
The library hosted a symposium titled “Declarations of Independence: John Sayles as Author, Auteur, Founding Father,” which lasted for the duration of Wednesday afternoon. Various Screen Arts & Cultures professors and administrators spoke at the event, separated into segments discussing Sayles as a screenwriter and author, the themes of gender and race in his films and the changing landscape of American independent cinema.
SAC Prof. Jim Burnstein, also a screenwriter, played a part in opening the ceremony with an account of Sayles’ identity and beginnings as a writer. Sayles began his career as an author; his works include four novels, two collections of short stories and numerous screenplays — the best of which he claims have unfortunately never been produced.
“John Sayles is the Godfather of the American independent film,” Burnstein said.
Sayles said although it is harder today to raise money for independent film and sustain a career, it allows him to tell the stories he wants to tell as an auteur.
“When I’m writing a movie for somebody else, I’m an employee,” Sayles said. “There are people who don’t raise their money independently and who make their own movies—they’re a lot more successful than I am and they also don’t get to do everything they want.”
Sayles came to this realization early on in his career when he began writing novels that allowed him to sculpt his own world, narratives and characters. Sayles has since translated this creativity to the screen but plans to write at least one more novel, which will most likely be based on one of his screenplays that are not yet produced to be films.
Currently, Sayles writes screenplays for TV and features by other directors to raise money for his own individual directorial projects, which he plans to pursue in the future.
The SAC department’s emphasis on writing grew with the acquisition of the Orson Welles and Robert Altman collections, Burnstein said. The Sayles collection will be joining both of these archives.
Phil Hallman, Film Studies field librarian and curator for the Screen Mavericks at Michigan Collection, said he hopes to expand the archives. Including Sayles’ work in the collection marks a significant step in this direction.
“The hope is to create a center for the study of independent filmmaking at the University of Michigan,” Hallman said. “All of these filmmakers have worked outside of the traditional Hollywood system.”
Students from Professor Mark Kligerman’s American Independent Cinema (SAC 455) class viewed numerous Sayles films. Their next assignment was to organize his work in a way that would be accessible to scholars — a hands-on endeavor they pursued throughout the duration of the Winter 2014 semester.
Screen Arts & Cultures junior Katherine Sherry, a student in SAC 455, addressed the audience, distinguishing her experience from that of other classes.
“So many times, you do the paper, you turn it in and it’s a checkmark,” Sherry said. “This has been an opportunity to really learn and it’s been kind of what education should be. The actual primary documents is something far more important anything that we see in a lecture or textbook.”
Melissa Gomis, an Instructional Technology librarian at Hatcher, played a large role in organizing and designing the exhibit and frequently met with both students from 455 and Hallman to discuss progress.
Gomis said the project itself, given the time span allowed for completion, was very ambitious, but its universal message will make the effort worthwhile.
“Whether you’re doing something that’s visual or more textual, you’re trying to tell a story and I think the story he’s (Sayles) telling has a lot of universal appeal,” Gomis added. “There’s a lot of humanity in them and I think that’s something that you don’t always see in films and it’s something I wasn’t expecting to see.”