Notes from a Festival Programmer: Filmmakers, Please Stop Being So Cavalier Using the Words "Homo" and "Fag"

I wasn't sure if I should write this one. Telling any artist, any creator, any filmmaker what they can and can't include in their movies is not something I endorse or believe in. Any piece of art is a result of  a series of choices and while some choices may or may not work, some are strong, some are weak, some are just plain confusing, it's in the hands of the artist to make and decide which of those choices they think are the right ones. However, I'm a programmer for a festival in a city with one of the largest and most culturally, politically and socially active LGBT communities in America. We're a festival that has an LGBT award, if we program a film in which characters, which in films submitted to us are overwhelmingly white, male and straight, drop the word "fag" or "homo" every five minutes we have to be able to defend why we chose that film. If the use of terms doesn't add to the film, if it's more distracting than illuminating, if the use of those words don't organically (be it a comedy or a drama, fiction or non-fiction) exist as a part of the film, why should we select that film over another?

I'm personally a huge Tarantino fan. In fact, I was the only one on the staff who came out of an afternoon screening of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS who loved the film and I've been eagerly awaiting DJANGO UNCHAINED. Yet, when Spike Lee had issues with Quentin Tarantino's use of the word nigger after the film JACKIE BROWN was released, I totally understood why.

 "I'm not against the word," [Spike] Lee said. "And some people speak that way. But Quentin is infatuated with that word. What does he want to be made--an honorary black man? ... I want Quentin to know that all African Americans do not think that word is trendy or slick."

When my roommates and I, four young black men in our 20s, rented RESERVOIR DOGS, this was about a year after PULP FICTION had come out. One of our roommates had seen FICTION in the theaters like the rest of us. When we had told him that DOGS was from the same writer and director of that film, he expressed his concerns over Tarantino's use of the word nigger, but he said he would give the film a chance.

My roommate gave the film a fair shot and two-thirds of his way into the film he got up and in a visible rage left the room. He didn't come back in till we had finished and moved onto the next movie of the night.

“I am working with The English language. I am not just a film director who shoots movies. I’m an artist, and good, bad, or indifferent, I’m coming from that place. All my choices, the way I live my life, are about that.” - Quentin Tarantino

What many folks forget is that Tarantino was cast as the character QT in Spike Lee's GIRL 6. A film that came out after DOGS and FICTION and before BROWN. If Lee had taken exception to the use of the word at all I doubt the incredibly outspoken Spike would have included him. Although, considering QT is auditioning African American actresses for "the greatest romantic, African-American film ever made. Directed by me, of course," Spike might have been channeling a lot of his issues and critique into a meta casting stunt.

I didn't have an issue with Tarantino's use of the word in either DOGS, FICTION or JACKIE BROWN. In each case I felt the use fit the worlds he had created. But, I like Lee did have to wonder and be concerned why the word had showed up so prominently in three of Tarantino's films back to back. Four if you count Tarantino's script for TRUE ROMANCE.

I can AND will defend a director and writer's use of any word. Language is as much an artistic tool as the camera itself.

What is not always defensible is the why a word was used. Which can be easy to parse at times and at others can be muddy and convoluted. And sometimes there is no why. Again, it comes down to choice.

What becomes incredibly difficult to defend is when any creator demonstrates a continued lack of understanding and empathy, especially when they have ultimate control over the worlds they are creating. As Spike put it later, "[Tarantino] says he grew up on Blaxploitation Films and that they were his favorite films but he has to realize that those films do not speak to the breadth of the entire African-American experience."

Tarantino never seemed to truly acknowledge that it would be natural and right for folks to be offended when he used the word "nigger". He's defensiveness at times signaled almost an unwillingness to take responsibility for what he had written and created.

Spike on the other hand, never really acknowledged that Tarantino's worlds are specific and were never meant to speak to or replicate the African-American experience. At least not the African American experience that existed outside of a certain genre of films. A genre that, while reflected the themes and issues of African-Americans, never claimed or aimed to be realistic. Tarantino has repeatedly noted that some of his movies are meant to exist as a heightened reality in an alternate universe he's called the "Realer Than Real World Universe". Others exist in the "Movie Movie Universe" and these moves are much more like comic books and films.

SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT, DO THE RIGHT THING, RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION are by no means constructed using the same rules. As far as I'm concerned, PULP FICTION is the film characters in DO THE RIGHT THING could rent and watch, but never be in. While, even for all their intelligence and experience, PULP FICTION's character would likely struggle to last more than a month in Mookie's shoes.

For all the shocking things that happen in PULP FICTION, there's a grounded reality in DO THE RIGHT THING that even Samuel L. Jackson's Jules would be ill prepared for psychologically. From the mundane work of delivering pizzas to watching his neighborhood explode, I truly believe Jules would be rendered powerless and go into shock if he had to watch Radio Raheem killed in front of his eyes. In PULP FICTION,  the violence is integrated into that world on an almost a molecular level and its effects, while impactful, are so common and natural, they could not happen with the open regularity they do in that film in the real world. DO THE RIGHT THING is still a powerful work because the source of violence in that film is tangible, experienced by men and women of all races, classes and religions in the United States everyday as well as by young protesters in Arab countries and workers fighting for their rights in Russia today.

We receive films that have women calling each other "bitches" and "ho's", black men and women calling each other "nigga" and LGBT characters calling each other "fags" or "dykes". Over the years we have programmed some of those films with no reservations and with no concerns.

But, the number of film submissions over the years that have had straight characters casually calling each other "fag" and "homo" has been troubling. Yes, it's true that people straight and gay call each other "fag" or "homo". However, just because one replicates an event, big or small, in a film,  in a book, or on stage, doesn't mean that replication has verisimilitude. It doesn't mean that replication gets deeper to the ideas, themes and undercurrents that those events represent and what  led to those moments to begin with.

I grew up with guys who playfully called each other "fag" and while they may have not meant each other harm, their inability to connect or interact with gay men said volumes about what all that "playfulness" reveals about how they truly felt, knew and understood about sexuality, gender and masculinity. The irony wasn't lost on me how many of those guys who wanted to grow up to be "real men" never quite achieved the vision of manhood they were striving for: home, car, wife, good job and kids. Did some of those guys fail because they used some word 20 years earlier? NO. However, their lack of insight into the power and meaning of the words they used. Their lack of growth to look back and gain that insight is definitely reflected in their inability to see their own lives with clarity.

To be truthful, some of those guys are also now very successful, happily married and have gotten pretty close to their childhood dream. I'm not going to lie to you and say they were punished or that they'll likely have horrible, crappy lives at some point. However, I do wonder how they'd cope not only if one of their children comes out to them, but if their child comes to them with anything that doesn't fit their worldview. A few may be able to adjust, others may completely reject their kids and others may need some time to work at it.

Just a few weeks ago, a filmmaker at festival related a story of a friend whose mother was incredibly supportive of her coming out. She marched in parades, wore the shirts and donated to organizations. Then her daughter announced her engagement to her partner and this mother started to freakout and some of what she said shocked her daughter.

Filmmakers are free to put anything they want in their films. And a viewer, an audience, is free to be offended by whatever has been included. However, it's not the offense itself that we should be concerned about it. The ability to offend is what not only makes some art work, it's what fuels it. Without it the art is inert. Without elements that may offend, nor can a creator be free to comment, explore or document any number of issues or events. They can't raise questions, nor can they attempt to answer ones that have been posed. Without the ability to offend so much of our comedy and humor would become bland and lifeless. It's history reduced to dates and names without any of the understanding and awareness.

And it's that awareness and understanding that should be first and foremost in a filmmaker's mind. A filmmaker could never use the word fag or homo, include Gay and Lesbian characters, even have them get married as part of their stories, and still create a film that offends. A few weeks ago me and my fellow programmers watched a short film at another festival that we found to be incredibly sexist and misogynistic. It's steampunk fairytale aesthetic couldn't cover up what were some troubling messages and themes. That it won an award troubled us. Having spoken with many filmmakers over the years, I'm sure the filmmakers of that film never intended to create a sexist short, however, I can't ignore the results and go on intention alone. It was a really good looking film and minus the issues I would have enjoyed it. Just a few tweaks, or even a tacit acknowledgement of the sexism that was made a part of the story, and it might have been a work we would have invited to submit to us for consideration.

When a filmmaker uses words like "nigger", "fag", "bitch", "dyke', "homo", et cetera and they're submitting to us as a festival, we're never going to automatically dismiss the films. Nor are we going to evaluate a film on those words alone.

However, even "nigger" is not used so blatantly casual as the word "fag" in film submissions. That filmmakers aren't submitting anywhere near the same number of films that have non black characters using the word "nigger" as they are "fag", it's an indication of one of three things.

One, filmmakers are aware of the problems using the word fag and they're choosing to ignore it. Two, filmmakers still don't have an understanding of not just the problems with the word fag, but the larger social implications of that word. Three, they know the word is damaging, but are underestimating just how damaging it can be.

Again, let me stress in very big, bold letters: I'M NOT TELLING FILMMAKERS WHAT THEY SHOULD OR SHOULDN'T INCLUDE IN A FILM. I'M NOT SAYING THEY CAN'T HAVE CHARACTERS CALL EACH OTHER WHATEVER THEY WANT. I'M NOT SAYING A FILM THAT USES ANY OF THOSE WORDS WILL NEVER BE PROGRAMMED, BECAUSE WE HAVE PROGRAMMED THEM AND WE WILL CONTINUE TO PROGRAM THEM.

While we want risky, bold and interesting films, we take this job seriously and we aren't just programming films, we're programming films for our community as a whole. We are programming to reflect where we are in the world not just where we've been. As such, we will aim to judge fairly, but we won't turn a blind eye. Filmmakers shouldn't create work to just please or appease, but the "I'm an artist" defense can and only will go so far.

Notes from a Festival Programmer: NEVER, EVER Hire That Guy (or Gal) for Sound Again. Or, Why We Loathe Omni-Directional Mics

Of all the advice festivals and festival programmers will give, sound is likely the one that will appear in everyone's list. Sound is the one element almost no film can overcome when it's noticeable for all the wrong reasons.

"Getting good sound is one of the most affordable things that you can do to up your production values and make your movie look better" -  David Hechenberger

In the past, the biggest issue in this area has had to do with productions relying on the on camera mic. That was even more so five or so years ago when the digital cameras indies were using would be of the more affordable prosumer quality, which would have a mic built in. In general, they're terrible for capturing sound on narrative productions. There's almost no compensating in camera. The mic's are omni-directional so they're pulling all sounds that are within range. The mic is at the mercy of the acoustics of wherever one is shooting. And you're pretty much stuck filming close ups and medium shots, because they only pick up sound at relatively short distances.

Fast forward and the mantra of "boom mic, boom mic, boom mic" is one we don't scream at the screen much anymore. More filmmakers, especially self-trained, are aware that shooting on set without a boom mic is a non-starter.

Which brings me to a new issue, that's really an old one, and that's having people who know nothing about sound running it on set.

I've watched films this submission process that have been filled with:

  • dresses rustling against the lavaliers
  • clearly audible mic bumps
  • scenes that sound like they were filmed in a bathroom, but weren't
  • extraneous background noises, such as cars honking and passing on the street
  • mic pops
  • the sound of the dreaded, overbearing, and pretty loud, refrigerator and or drink machine
I've personally been on indie film sets in which the person running and monitoring the sound has immediately after the take, let everyone know when they didn't get clean sound. They've never let production move on till they were sure they had something usable. To watch a film and hear such errors, angers me.

No, it pisses me the fuck off.

Why would you do that to a filmmaker? And filmmakers, why would you find that acceptable?

Now, the reality is that sometimes you can't actively monitor sound as you're shooting. Or, get as fancy as you'd like. Logistically and budget wise there are constraints, we get that. Here's some advice and observations from a layman, who isn't an expert, but knows he detests bad sound, especially in what could be good movies.
  1.  Always include the sound guy when making final decisions about locations. Figure out what the issues will be before the day you start shooting.
  2. When in doubt, ask the guy behind the counter for a uni-directional microphone.
  3. If you can hear the car, dog, plane, door slam, yelling without a headset, you know for sure the microphone picked it up. Do another take.
  4. Always be monitoring the sound as you're shooting, not afterwards. And a semi-decent headset is better than no headset at all.
  5. If you can't afford to monitor the sound--which means you probably shouldn't be shooting, but if you decide to go ahead anyway--then build in time to review sound on set every few takes. Missing a key line of dialogue could come back to bite you in the ass, don't let it. However, this will EAT UP time. Monitoring is the faster, cheaper way to go.
  6. If you've got a dialogue heavy, or quick paced scene, with lots of back and forth, and you're only working with one microphone, you may need to get more coverage. Shoot more with a few takes focused on just getting the dialogue of one character. Yes, you may have to add shoot days, or hours, however, this may save your butt in editing.
  7. If you can use multiple mics and multiple recorders to record each character to a separate track do it.
  8. If you're using lavaliers, work with your costume designers, or in the case of most indies, the actors who will be picking their own costumes, to make sure the mics are firmly secured and the costumes won't present any issues. If it dangles, jangles, or swings, it WILL bump up against something. ALWAYS.
  9. ADR for exterior scenes (almost) never work for low budget films, and even at best, are just barely convincing. ADR for interior scenes can kinda work for low budget films (but rarely do), and are convincing after lots of work and manipulation, i.e. you'll be spending extra cash or extra time. Aim to avoid ADR if you really don't have the budget, or find ways to shoot key scenes without the dialogue--even if you plan the shot to be entirely silent, or to only have music, still capture on set sound to give you the option of layering that back in.
  10. Use the same mic(s) and gear, throughout an entire scene, and ideally the entire shoot. If your sound person owns her own equipment and won't be on set for next week's shoot, see if you can rent her gear for a nominal fee if she won't allow you to use it without her present. Trust me, that extra bit of consistency will be worth it.
  11. You can NEVER fix it in post. You can only patch it up.
  12. Never be afraid to fire the sound person as soon as you know something is wrong, even if they are your friend.
  13. And following that up, unless you know your friend, or anyone for that matter, is really great at sound, don't hire them. Take your time and find the right person, not a person for right now. Delaying shooting may save you the heartache of having a nearly useless film.
Good reading:

EcoFocus Film Festival (Athens, GA) Submisison Deadline Approaching

Dear Filmmakers: The Call for Submissions Deadline for the fourth annual EcoFocus Film Festival has been extended to October 22, 2011. Please see EcoFocus Film Festival for submission details.

The 2012 EcoFocus Film Festival will run March 23-31, 2012 in Athens, Georgia. We accept film submissions in three categories: Environmental Features (50 minutes or more), Short Environmental Films (20 minutes or less), and Family Programming (any-length). Films may be submitted to more than one category. Pleae review our submission details and fill out our on-line entry form. No submission fees!

EcoFocus is an annual celebration of environmental films in Athens, Georgia. Our mission is to screen a diversity of high-quality films that promote discussion and inspire audiences into awareness and action on behalf of the environment.

Inquiries can be directed to: ecofocusfilmfest [at] gmail dot com.

By: Sara Beresford