The filmmaking industry began in New Mexico as early as 1898 when an inventor named Thomas Edison arrived in the dusty desert with his newfangled "camera" to capture flickering images of Isleta Pueblo schoolchildren for the short Indian Day School. Since then, the Land of Enchantment has been home to hundreds of productions, big and small.
For decades, New Mexico served as a backdrop for pioneering Hollywood filmmakers seeking an authentic Old West feel for their horse operas. Cowboy star Tom Mix stepped off a train here in 1914 and didn’t get back on until he had shot 17 westerns. True independent filmmaking didn’t begin until the 1960s, however, when the desert southwest became a Mecca for counterculture types seeking escape from the corrupted backdrop of big city America. Hollywood soon followed. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were frequent visitors to the communes of northern New Mexico and chose to shoot their anti-establishment opus Easy Rider in and around New Mexico. Along with the Hollywood contingent came a wealth of writers, filmmakers, and artists who took up residence in the state and never left.
Today, New Mexico’s wildly varied landscapes and wide-open horizons have given birth to a fractured film and video scene. Occasional high-profile Hollywood projects drift into the state (Natural Born Killers, Contact), briefly bestowing employment on a small group of hearty technicians who refuse to give in and move to L.A. The state has seen a steady decline in studio productions since the early ’90s, and taking advantage of the space now afforded them are scattered pockets of found footage assemblers, super 8 devotees, 35mm dreamers, video artists, and digital pioneers who prefer the glare of the Southwest sun to the glare of Hollywood klieg light.
"I refuse to wear the hairshirt and matching panties that Hollywood requires," declares Su Hudson, an Albuquerque-based filmmaker with several shorts to her resume (including Fire which premieres at the annual Weekly Alibi Short Film Festival in Albuquerque). Hudson is one of the independent few who garner their inspir- ation from the arid environment of New Mexico.
The decrease in professional gigs, however, has caused many filmmakers to guard jealously their projects. "[New Mexico] filmmakers tend to be very secretive about what they’re doing," notes Hudson. As a result, many local filmmakers are genuinely surprised to hear of other homegrown projects.
Michael Dellheim, executive director of the New Mexico Film Office, believes the decline in studio film production has driven the local professionals to seek out more independent films. His office has seen a sharp increase in film professionals looking for local indie efforts to round out their empty dance cards.
New Mexico’s film scene, not unlike its art, literature, and music scenes, tends to be extremely spread-out—not surprising in a state with so much land mass (fifth-largest) and so few residents (1.7 million). The state grew up around the endless appeal of Route 66. As a result, its cities are marked by unchecked urban sprawl and a population that can’t seem to find its center. This lack of cohesion is visible, too, in the indie film scene. Asked to define what New Mexico’s "scene" is like, most observers are left at a loss for words. That is not to say, of course, that there isn’t a flourishing film scene in New Mexico. You just have to turn over the right rocks to find it.
Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos, three of New Mexico’s most populous northern cities, are the triangle around which nearly all film and video work is based.
Albuquerque boasts a number of well-equipped postproduction houses, from the large (30 Second Street with its full-service postproduction, animation, and computer graphics) to the small (Field & Frame with its super 8 equipment rentals, flatbed editors, and digital video transfer). Alan Fulford, the owner of Field & Frame, has worked for many years as a crew member on countless in-state productions, from commercials to feature films. Fulford’s business is as much a clubhouse for underground filmmakers as it is a rental and postproduction facility.
"I think most people that are doing films are pretty happy here," says Fulford. "They know they can go work production in Los Angeles just to get a little more experience. A lot of people do come back; but a lot of them give up their dreams of making a film. You stay away from the big industry, you’re more likely to be directed about what you want to do."
Encouraging filmmakers to stay is the key. Frank Zuniga was born in Gallup, NM, and escaped to attend film school at USC where his classmates included Francis Ford Coppola and B-movie king Jack Hill. Zuniga spent much of the 1970s working for Disney Studios. Eventually he returned to New Mexico and founded the SouthWest Institute of Film and Television (SWIFT) in the spring of 1998. Zuniga’s goal was to provide a voice for independent filmmakers, particularly Native American and Hispanic youth. SWIFT has taught classes in everything from screenwriting and sports videography to stunt driving. The school is currently negotiating to find itself a permanent campus, and Zuniga is working hard to kickstart a program he developed called "Videos from the Barrio." The program is being operated in conjunction with a local youth development group and seeks to teach videography skills to inner city youth.
While the University of New Mexico’s film and media arts departments remain underfunded, UNM’s Department of Art and Art History has worked hard developing what instructor Michael Cook calls, "a very innovative field study format." During the last two weeks of every May, Cook takes between 10 and 14 graduate or advanced undergraduate students up to the remote D.H. Lawrence Ranch outside Taos and subjects them to an intense course in video art. Cook, who also functions as the department’s Associate Dean of Technology, is intrigued by the idea of "taking rather sophisticated technology and trucking it out into the woods." Cook is himself an award-winning videographer who specializes in short, installation-style video projects. His students have demonstrated a stunning control of the digital medium, producing fluid, multi-layered video art pieces using high-tech digital cameras plus Avid Adobe Premiere programs on Mac computers.
Further north in the state’s capital, the College of Santa Fe’s Moving Image Arts Center has quickly blossomed into an in-state Mecca for eager young film and video artists. In 1990, the college completed work on two professional sound stages, the result of a generous donation from Oscar-winning actress Greer Garson. Garson Studios consists of a 14,000 square foot studio with a 1600 amp, 3-phase power system, and a hard cyclorama plus a smaller 7,000-square-foot, 400 amp studio. Both studios have access to production offices, wardrobe facilities, and trailer hook-ups. Wild Wild West, The Hi-Lo Country, and John Carpenter’s Vampires are a few of the films that have availed themselves of Garson Studios. The students of CSF have also taken advantage of visiting productions by working as interns on the various shoots.
Moving Image Arts Department head Jonathan Wacks began work as an indie producer/director (Repo Man, Pow Wow Highway) before revamping CSF’s film and video department. Because of Wacks’ efforts, the Moving Image Arts Department is CSF’s largest, with some 175 undergraduates. This last year, students produced their own 35mm film, a 20-minute compilation called Suitcase.
The students were granted special dispensation that allowed them to use professional talent for less than scale. The result was a dazzlingly professional mini-anthology.
"Unfortunately," admits Wacks, "I would say most of my students head for New York." In order to encourage local filmmakers to stay, Wacks has been instrumental in founding FOCUS New Mexico, an advocacy group consisting of more than 100 film professionals dedicated to luring more productions to New Mexico. The group hopes to accomplish this by encouraging larger tax breaks (the state currently grants only a 6 percent waiver) and by educating New Mexico bankers about the benefits of bankrolling local films. For Wacks, "it all comes down to financing. There isn’t any here."
Another advocate of local film is Fidel Moreno, president of the American Indian Chamber of Commerce, an award-winning filmmaker (Wiping the Tears of Seven Generations, The Peyote Road), and founder of the Native Visions Media Arts Center. NVMAC was created to use video and film to document and preserve oral traditions, history, and languages of Native cultures. Located on the Navajo reservation outside Santa Fe, the center trains youth in media literacy and technology to establish cross-cultural bridges. Under Moreno’s guidance, the center has produced short films, PSAs, and a series of CD-ROMs containing educational, cultural, and historical information in a "multidimensional" format.
Since their move from New York to Santa Fe 20 years ago, pioneering video artists Woody and Steina Vasulka have seen many changes on the local arts scene. "The whole movement of video—I’m talking about independent work—has moved from experimentation to kind of a psychological work again that’s closer to television," observes Woody. "The new generation takes its complete resource from television, because they’ve not gone through this whole invention of the small format." Of his Santa Fe contemporaries such as Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi) and Alton Walpole (The Tao of Steve), Woody notes "they have a hard time raising money," while funding for the Vasulka’s work comes from out of state. Yet while most of their work goes overseas (Steina recently had a video installation in The Windows Project 66, a multi-venue exhibit that filled downtown Albuquerque storefronts with art installations) they’re working to create another "artistic and scientific laboratory" in Santa Fe similar to The Kitchen, which they set up in New York. Kit Fitzgerald, another New York mediamaker, made "a personal move, not a professional move" to the southwest, where she teaches at the College of Santa Fe. However, most of her own mediamaking is still done in New York rather than in New Mexico. "The problem is not technology," she asserts, noting how desktop systems have levelled the playing field. "[But] there just aren’t the number of talented collaborators and trained production crews here in New Mexico."
Farther north, pushing toward the Colorado border, is the tiny arts community of Taos. For such a small town, Taos has a surprisingly vivid film scene. This is thanks in no small part to the annual Taos Talking Pictures Film Festival in mid-April. While other NM film festivals seem to be on permanent hiatus (such as the International Family Film Festival in Albuquerque and the Native Americas International Film Exposition in Santa Fe), the five year-old Taos Talking Pictures Film Festival was recently named one of the top 10 film festivals in America by Chris Gore in his Ultimate Film Fest Survival Guide. With festivals like Sundance and Telluride pushing maximum density, Taos has established itself as the up-and-comer having premiered such indie hits as Big Night and Gadjo Dilo. In addition to hosting top U.S. premieres, the festival has founded an innovative Media Literacy Forum in which a diverse collection of media professionals (found footage completist Craig Baldwin, Newsweek critic David Ansen, newscaster Hugh Downes) discuss and demystify TV and movies and explore vital issues surrounding the mass media. The festival also hands out the prestigious Taos Land Grant Award (five acres on Taos Mesa) to the festival’s most innovative filmmaker. The hope is to foster a community of talented artists who consider Taos their second home. Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals) and David Riker (La Ciudad) are among the cozy neighbors of Taos’ most filmic neighborhood.
Like most festivals, Taos accepts submissions from all over the world, but is careful to include programs of regional note. The 1999 festival contained 11 Latino-produced and themed films and seven Native American works. An open sheet screening allows local artists to show off their wares every year and a multi-media dance/screening is presided over by Albuquerque-based micro-cine group Basement Films. And the Taos Talking Pictures organization remains active all year long, hosting workshops, lectures and film screenings throughout northern New Mexico.
While New Mexico’s film and video scene remains a disenfranchised one, there are those who tough it out for the incredible landscape, light, and lifestyle that New Mexico offers. Perhaps Albuquerque-based Native filmmaker Aaron Carr sums up New Mexico best: "I think it’s a really nice place to be if you’re a filmmaker, because—for one thing—there’s an incredible mix of people here. . . I thought I might go to New York or L.A. for school, but I’ve learned a lot more here. Just on my own and hanging out with other filmmakers."
Devin D. O’Leary is the film editor for Albuquerque’s Weekly Alibi, a correspondent for AMG’s allmovie.com, and founder of the Short Film Fiesta in Albuquerque.