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Above: Busch's Bright
By Ryan Wilson

By now, in its 7th season, the Traverse City Film Festival is any serious Michigan film lover’s answer to the lighter entertainment that populates mainstream movie houses during the summer. Michael Moore’s hand-picked week of films is a welcome relief, not just from the heat of late July but to those seeking serious contemplation during their two hours in a cool dark room. No doubt Moore’s choices are always stimulating, both politically and artistically, but this year what struck me was how the festival has worked to move beyond provocation. I was most struck this year by the various sessions and screenings meant to educate attendees regarding the making of movies.

For example, for a mere five dollars you could attend a session at the festival’s Film School, including seminars on “Storytelling in Documentary Film,” “Acting for the Camera,” and “Producing Your Independent Film,” among others. This has to be the cheapest quality film school in existence, offering advise that includes and transcends what you might spend thousands of dollars and multiple years investing in a Master’s program. I attended one session entitled “The Indie Director: From Script to Screen.” The Indie director was one Benjamin Busch, whom you might recognize from the HBO series The Wire. Busch is also the son of legendary late fiction writer Frederick Busch, whose works include The Night Inspector and Girls. Needless to say, Busch inherited some of his father’s storytelling gifts, mainly attention to detail regarding dialogue. His short film Bright, which played at the festival, was weighted with multiple meanings, from the symbolic use of light to mythic qualities that lay underneath the narrative’s surface.

I know I wouldn’t have interpreted every layer of the film without Busch dissecting his work for me in his Film School seminar, and while a part of me feels it uncouth for a director to explain his film’s meaning to an audience, this is what you want in Film School: an artist going through the nuts and bolts of his process. Busch cheerfully spoke about writing the film in two weeks, shooting the film two weeks later, and then editing and post-producing the rest in a mad scramble to submit it to multiple film festivals. He financed the forty-minute piece by borrowing $10,000 from a friend. He’s hoping to play enough festivals to either see Bright nominated for major awards or to catch the eye of larger producers willing to see his potential as a filmmaker. His is a difficult journey, as is any independent filmmaker, but how would we know how arduous and labor intensive it is without his telling us.

Busch’s experience only confirms what you presume when you go to a film festival like Traverse City’s and watch independent films: that the people who make these movies scrape together whatever they can for their productions and then care deeply about every frame of their work. Even when a festival film falls flat, one can’t help but admire the individual effort involved.

I also saw this fervor when I attended the short films produced by the University of Michigan students. This in fact is a university class that produces the first third of a feature film by collaborating with other academic departments, such as music and theater. Two films were produced last year. The first, Work/Study, was a fun yet personal tale of two female burglars who make a specialty of stealing test answers for their fellow students. The second, Shark Tank, was a coming home story about a university swimmer who must decide whether he wants to strive for glory or sacrifice for his loved ones.

Both of these student films are good first steps in the rigorous collaborative process of filmmaking, but I should note that the University of Michigan isn’t the only school making movies. Our own Delta College is now also producing student films within the capstone project of its Film Certificate Program in much the same way that the Michigan students are. The major difference is that Delta students produce short ten-minute films, whereas the Michigan students, as I said, produce the first third of a feature film.

Yet merely mentioning film talent in the state of Michigan raises a major controversy that was loudly on display at this year’s festival: the recent state cuts in film production incentives for filmmakers.Funny how the tone of a festival can change in just a year. Last year, when the subsidies were in place, the festival proudly declared that Michigan was the place to make movies, and that film production could bring back the educated and the creative class to the state. This year’s tone was decidedly different, best revealed by a Saturday Panel entitled: “Who’s Killing Hollywood in Michigan,” which argued that the state is losing billions of dollars flowing through the state’s economy without the incentives.

At the end of the discussion after their screening, the young University of Michigan filmmakers were asked if they were going to remain in the state. None of them could say yes. When asked if they wanted to remain and work in Michigan, all of them said that staying had been their desire but now it wasn’t possible. It will be interesting to see if that changes again in a few more years.

Take 5 on Film is a production of  Delta College Quality Public Radio. 

© Ryan Wilson, 2011