AIVF: And What it Meant to Me

I first became aware of AIVF when Martha Gever was editor of The Independent. I marveled at this national organization that put out each month a magazine chock full of weighty, intellectual and critical articles on film and video. The magazine wasn’t glossy and was not determined to be a general “industry rag.” At that time I was living in San Francisco, and I thought I would run for the Board and become active. Issues of freedom of expression and the right to use material in creative and personal ways became my platform. Having survived the NEA criticism of the sexuality in Nitrate Kisses with their silly demand to take their grant-giving name off of the credits, I felt a responsibility to continue the insistence for artistic freedom.

The four weekends a year meeting with the Board became important goal markers of my year. Not only did I develop friendships but I found that under the new leadership of Executive Director Ruby Lerner, the Board would be rewarded for their hard work with talks and discussions from experts in the field. Ruby brought the organization into financial stability and, along with Board Chair Rob Moss, guided us through difficult times while inspiring us with her enthusiasm and inspiration. Besides keeping the membership informed and ready to fight for our freedoms, I was able to convince the Board that students needed reduced membership fees to be able to afford AIVF. I knew from bringing magazines to my class how eagerly they were snatched up and that a lifetime of supporting film organizations could begin before university graduation.
—Barbara Hammer has been making films and videos, installations and performances for over 35 years. Her new film on the lesbian Surrealist sisters Claude Cahun and
Marcel Moore premiered this spring.

AIVF grew from the spirit of the ‘60s: likeminded people joining together with a common goal. Independent filmmakers were finding out that they might be doing a documentary on Latin America, a personal animated short, or an edgy narrative feature, but still have a great deal in common in terms of the kind of support they needed. It would be a mistake to paint an entirely rosy picture. There were conflicts and rough edges that needed ironing out. But the impulse to work together, to create a progressive, smart and sophisticated professional organization was—and is—admirable. I have the highest regard for AIVF’s goals and accomplishments.
—Karen Cooper has been the director of Film Forum, New York’s leading nonprofit cinema, since 1972.

Trying to make a living as an independent filmmaker is difficult at best. AIVF makes that job a little easier and considerably more enjoyable. As a producer/director, I find that it’s easy to become so absorbed in my own productions that I lose sight of the broader community of filmmakers. AIVF connects me to my colleagues and makes me realize that hundreds of other filmmakers share my experiences, struggles, and occasional triumphs. It’s also comforting to know that a powerful ally is my court. Whether it’s lobbying Congress to protect public television, holding workshops on the latest video technology, explaining the newest developments in the distribution of independent media, or announcing the screenings of its members, AIVF is always there to promote
the interests of independent filmmakers. Of course, no month would be complete without reading The Independent. This indispensable magazine regularly gives me a sorely needed dose of enthusiasm for the work I do every day. In short, being a member of AIVF helps make me crazy enough to want to continue producing documentaries for a living.
—Roger Weisberg has produced and directed 25 documentaries that have won over a hundred awards including Emmy, Peabody, and duPont- Columbia awards.

When I first started to work on Born into Brothels, I didn’t know anything about producing films. Really…nothing. Incorporation? No. Insurance? Not one clue. Releases. Producing. Copyright. Music clearance. Distribution. The list went on.

But luckily I found out about AIVF and its weekly seminars on all aspects of film production. I attended the seminars regularly and met some great people who helped me tremendously. And I learned enough to not get into too much trouble (legal and otherwise) while producing the film. The information I got from those seminars and those contacts helped me come out whole (with my wallet and sanity intact) at
the end of the process. Even though Born into Brothels has gone onto great success and I’ve been able to carve out a career as a filmmaker, I still have a lot to learn. But AIVF gave me a great head start. For a truly independent filmmaker with limited knowledge and few contacts in the industry, AIVF was a blessing.
—Ross Kauffman is the director, producer, cinematographer, and coeditor of Born into Brothels, winner of the 2005 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

It was 1997 and I had this notion that I’d get Texans into theaters to see my documentary about killers of gay men. A statewide tour of Licensed to Kill — that’s what the film needed to get the message out to a region that had one of the highest rates of anti-gay murders in the nation. You see, I was a victim of stereotyping and had dreaded visions of having to wrangle longhorns and cowboys into theaters. Remember, this was pre-Brokeback and the “d” word was still verboten. Lucky for me AIVF was there with a human contact.

AIVF Board president Bart Weiss, who also headed the Video Association of Dallas, got me rolling and helped me realize that, counter to my preconceived ideas, there was indeed a documentary audience in Texas. I ended up traveling with the film to five cities. Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, San Antonio.

Out of my theatrical rollout in over 50 cities, the Texas tour was the most gratifying; it validated my reasons for being a filmmaker and distributor. Some folks question whether AIVF matters to members outside of New York City. Well, from my point of view, AIVF was really never about the Big Apple, but about getting independent work made and out there, no matter where. Thanks AIVF for staying the course and providing real world maps!
—Arthur Dong is a triple Sundance winner and Oscar nominee, and has been selected for film fellowships by both the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations.

AIVF smashed those golden gates. I’m talking about the invisible barriers between artists and their communities, artists and their audience, artists and other artists, artists and the means of production. Institutions, as they expand and grow, can so easily fall into the trap of exclusion rather than inclusion. Suddenly, without anyone noticing until it’s too late, these institutions are surrounded by the gilded gates of their own self-importance. And then there’s AIVF. Here’s an institution that celebrates the accomplishments of their members as their own success. They don’t wait for members to come to them, they find ways to draw folks in. I was one of those lucky filmmakers who was embraced, supported, and inspired by AIVF.

As a fledgling filmmaker, I read the articles about stalwart makers with awe and tried to absorb their power through the thoughtful and insightful text that allowed the artists to articulate their process and created space for the insights of the writers charged with discussing their work. Then I made a movie that people seemed to like and AIVF
published what is still my favorite article about the piece.

AIVF is not only a model for an institution, it’s a model for community building of all kinds. It’s a way of making the world the way we want it, rather than succumbing
to the world in ways that’s comfortable for those who like it the way it is. AIVF, for opening your arms, and never building gates, for opening my mind and leaving my checkbook mostly alone, and for including me because of my work and ideas rather than as a placeholder for race and gender, I thank you.
— Cauleen Smith is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin where she teaches experimental film and a comedy class sponsored by National Lampoon.

Twenty years ago, I used to drop by the AIVF offices and comb through the library or stare at the bulletin boards. I might’ve been looking for info on grants or copying a number from a tacked up index card about a Super 8 camera for sale. But I was also there to confirm the existence of “independent film,“ and AIVF served as a junction for its many divergent streams: docs, smaller features, experimental work, etc. These broke off into various differing, sometimes contentious, components, but they still shared something apart from and opposed to what Hollywood was all about.

Working at the time on crews, often for studio features, I’d come to realize that the world of big-time filmmaking had very little to do with any belief in cinema as an art form and a mirror of life as regular people lived it. AIVF catered to a different world, and I thought visits to their office might somehow lead me to that elusive thing known as community. I’m not so sure that ever happened, but that may just be because the kind of filmmaking I ended up doing is a largely solitary pursuit.

However, looking back over old issues of The Independent, I’m reminded that “community” did and does exist, more as a spider web than a close-knit group that could be instantly “joined.” There’s Chris Smith and Sarah Price over there, talking about American Movie, there’s Steven Bognar demonstrating the microphone setup that he and Julia Reichert refined in the field; there’s an article sorting out the intricacies
of time code, or the tax code as it applies to freelancers… Many things have changed, but the need for proof and support of this sometimes elusive Un-Hollywood community is still crucial, and we still face some of the exact same issues. One example: In an issue of The Independent from 1990, I find an in-depth article on fair use. This year I went to a meeting celebrating the important release of “The Statement of Best Practices on Fair Use,” and was pleased to see AIVF listed as one of the contributing forces. The fight to define and maintain fair use is indicative of just the kind of combined research, advocacy, community-building effort that AIVF has, and should continue to be, a part of.
——Jem Cohen’s feature, CHAIN, had its international premiere at the Berlin Film Festival and was broadcast in Europe on ZDF/ARTE. His other films include Benjamin Smoke, Instrument, and Lost Book Found.

Back in 1977 I went to a meeting held at the Great Hall in Cooper Union, about plans to create the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers. By then I had been an independent for about ten years, after producing for the Edward R. Murrow/ Fred Friendly unit at CBS, and for Oregon and Iowa public television.

In 1981, the year after I was elected to the AIVF Board, Larry Sapadin, a lawyer and
one-time film student in Paris, became executive director and I was elected AIVF Board president.

For a few years AIVF ran the Independent awards, giving out Ishaped
metal chunks resembling a thin slice of railroad track. The award ceremony was at the
Museum of Modern Art where I presided, with Spike Lee and Jim Henson among the presenters.

Independents were beginning to be noticed. Two weekly series produced by independents from all over the U.S. were funded by CPB for primetime national PBS telecast in 1981 and 1982: “Crisis to Crisis” and “Matters of Life and Death.”

On the AIVF Board we began to try to figure out how independents could survive. In an AIVF committee that I chaired we dreamed up what ultimately became the Independent Television Service (ITVS). But as the victory and our role in it faded in memory, AIVF lost members and financial survival became central to AIVF’s agenda. We used to fantasize that if only we had another crusade, AIVF would come out fighting and even stronger.
—Robert Richter’s newest film is The Last Atomic Bomb (see review in this issue).

She was actually selling them out on the street. The first issue of The Independent. Her name was Suni Mallow. This was in the early ‘70s. She seemed very intent and not particularly smiley. I forget the exact street; somewhere downtown. I also can’t remember why we spoke. Since I wasn’t carrying a camera it’s unlikely she spotted me as a likely prospect.

I thought of this a few weeks ago when I was handing out leaflets in Union Square Park for my doc feature, Following Sean, which was about to open at Cinema Village around the corner. We have clearly not come such a long way baby. I was there as part of a street team made up of my sons and their friends. Our distributor has very little money for advertising and I was told that in most cities, if I wanted the film to live beyond its opening weekends, we’d have to come up with innovative ways of spreading the word. Thinking outside the box office we could call it. So we went to Union Square on a sunny Saturday and stopped people who didn’t have both hands clutching produce bags.

This kind of guerrilla marketing, although it turned out to be a lot of fun, is not the most dignified of activities. When your feature opens in New York you’d like to be someone who demurely permits himself to be interviewed by Charlie Rose or NPR, rather than the guy standing out there leafleting in the middle of a farmer’s market.

But AIVF members tend to know that calls from high-profile talk shows, not to mention funders, don’t come often in the beginning of a career. In fact they don’t come all that often later on. One can find oneself “emerging” for quite some time. You can moan about it but it’s better to do so in the company of others and to find different ways of getting the films made. My sense is that AIVF has always struggled with the balance between those poles of mainstream competence and fringe energy. To pull it off well you have to draw from the strengths of each extreme, and the organization probably hasn’t been doing that so skillfully lately.

I have a filmmaking friend who places great store in professionalism. To him the AIVF has always been a caricature of amateurism. A bunch of raggedy beginners with minimal skills and crossover dreams. I think this is a harsh and too-comfortable view.
I don’t want to over-romanticize those early days on the wooden folding chairs in Soho (endless cranky meetings) but I do remember that when we went to Washington in ’78 to make a case for more access to PBS funding that it was precisely our “amateur” (the root of which is “love” after all) enthusiasm and non-corporate style which got the attention of people in Congress. I don’t think most of the congresspeople and their aides had ever seen anything quite like us. It was exhilarating.
—Ralph Arlyck’s most recent film, Following Sean, has been featured in numerous international festivals. He has produced and directed more than a dozen prize-winning, independent films.