Finding Yourself in the Indies

“A book isn’t supposed to be a mirror, it’s supposed to be a door.” – Fran Leibowitz

A lifetime of watching independent film led up to covering this years’ Tribeca Film Festival, which allowed for screening films including the Tribeca Film Festival Official Selection Blondie: Vivir En la Habana, receiving its North American debut at Tribeca after having premiered in Italy at the SeeYouSound festival in Turin, as well as festivals including Sheffield Doc/Fest, and the upcoming RIZOMA film festival in Madrid, Spain. This opportunity to tell a story of my own, as all writers do in one way or another, in the context of telling the story of the concert documentary short Blondie: Vivir En La Habana inspired exploration of what it is to find yourself in the indies.

This aforementioned exploration happened through a retrospective look at films like Eve’s Bayou (1997), Gia (1998), A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006), Basquiat (1996), Paris Burning (1990), & Kids (1995), which 26 years after its initial release has been revisited with a 2021 retrospective documentary from Director Eddie Martin and Cinematographer Hugh Miller – screened at and awarded by the Tribeca Film Festival. It also included a conversation with Blondie: Vivir en la Habana filmmaker Rob Roth, about what it means to find yourself in independent film.

Why is it meaningful to find yourself in film through characters who are not yourself? Not representative of who the world tells you, or who you think that you are. What does doing this mean for the way that you understand yourself and the world around you?

While direct representation has both merit and importance (for example T A P E Collective’s season and digital takeover But Where Are You Really From? at BFI Southbank – with a focus on mixed heritage identities) there’s something to be said about films that allow you to recognise your spark or even your struggle, without seeing your own face. Like great books, great films can be a door. Granting you entry into a world that isn’t yours, allowing you to relate with something more than someone’s approximation of a reflection of you; even your own.

A primer for what finding yourself means in this context: seeing yourself. Seeing your beliefs and a future you sense will parallel your own, receiving an intangible something that allows you to deeply resonate with a film in unexpectedly deep ways, especially when the story being told is not exactly your own.

Even when visual representation is there, the difference in time and customs, such as those portrayed in Eve’s Bayou (one of a handful of films that centre Louisiana Creole people to this day, and that allowed me to see people who resembled my relatives and came from where they came from) the vast difference between the lives of the characters, my own life, and the lives of my own Lousianna Creole family in the 90s, was enough to see them without seeing me. Still, there was a sort of energetic connection to the plight of these characters and my own.

Julian Schnabel’s moving tribute and biographical film Basquait inspired deeper reading after classroom presentations on the artist had failed to rouse further interest. A fun fact about Basquiat: the first painting he sold went to an up and coming musician and model by the name of Debbie Harry. The front woman for Blondie. A type of character who serves as a door for seeing through to see oneself.

The story of Blondie: Vivir En La Habana being made is the story of a cultural exchange sponsored by the Cuban Ministry of Culture. The exchange hosted both the band and a group of their fans from the US to Cuba for activities ranging from architectural tours to the first performance in Cuba by a band the wider world first became familiar with in 1976. I felt like I had been there before says Harry of her arrival in Cuba, as drummer Clem Burke speaks of the percussion and horns in traditional Cuban music as a connection between the island where he found himself performing for the first time and the island of Manhattan that he’d long called home.

More than the story of a concert, Blondie: Vivir En La Habana is a journey through place and space, infused with sights and sounds commemorated on a six-track EP limited edition blue vinyl released on 16 July 2021. It is the story of a filmmaker going back to the moment when he saw something he’d never seen before, and maybe, a little bit of himself and who he could be.

Roth says of the experience that would ultimately lead to the making of this film, I discovered them in my adolescence, I remember the first time seeing them on TV when Heart of Glass came out. I think like most gay boys, seeing Debbie on TV was a magical experience, you had never seen someone like that before on TV.

Roth also shone a light on the archetypes and characters that you come across outside of the medium of film. When asked what seeing yourself in a character or archetype means for the way that we understand ourselves and the world, as people as well as filmmakers (and film viewers), Roth replies, I think archetypes are helpful to navigate certain situations. You can interchange them too for survival. I personally use [the] Tarot to guide me through situations as it expresses all the different archetypes we have inside. Some days you can be the Queen, other days the Fool. I think it’s a guide.

Too young for most of the films that would serve as guides and even reference points at their time of release, the story, set designs, and scripts were secret worlds that showed how big the world could be, how even the most tragic lives could be exceptional. The stories told in the way that they were – in the styles of documentaries, out of chronological sequence, visually different than mainstream films that were never first encountered on television – did something more than allow me to hear my feelings eloquently expressed or see that my struggles had been the struggles of another way before I came along, it told me that I could maybe pick up a camera and tell a story that other people would immediately know as their own. Their story, that wasn’t their story.

Perhaps this link is what’s experienced with Stendhal or Florence Syndrome, a psychosomatic condition examined by artists and writers like Alex Grey, that causes physical reactions like fainting, hallucinations, and rapid heartbeat as a result of exposure to moving and beautiful art.

What do we know about what happens when a person becomes so taken by nonfigurative static visuals? What do we really know about why we have the reactions that we do to auditory or moving ones? Probably as much as we know about doors left unopened – containing multitudes that include our past, futures, and hopes. Even when we aren’t there.

– Ashley C. Jones

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This piece is part of a co-commission between Make It in Brixton and T A P E Collective. Read more about T A P E Collective in our interview with the founders here.

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