Rising helmers make their visions a reality

Exactly what qualifies as an “indie” film for a Spirit Award nom may continue to be a subject of contention among industryites, but no one will argue the indie cred of the filmmakers competing for the Someone to Watch award. Now in its 15th year, the kudo exists to give helmers working outside the system recognition and some cash — a $25,000 grant courtesy of Acura. Past winners include Andrew Bujalski, Larry Fessenden and Lodge Kerrigan. This year’s nominees are:

Barry Jenkins

“It’s kind of ironic that my first feature is overtly about being black — about blackness — because I see myself as not being limited to any one theme or category,” says 29-year-old helmer Barry Jenkins of his debut effort, “Medicine for Melancholy.” Set against the backdrop of a rapidly gentrifying San Francisco, the film chronicles the trials and tribulations of two twentysomething African-American hipsters after a one-night stand.

Jenkins shot “Medicine” on digital video for “the price of a midsize sedan” with the help of several friends from the Florida State U. film program. “We did it in a run-and-gun style, but I wanted it to be rooted in a kind of formalism,” he says. “I see myself doing bigger films along with more intimate ones. Steven Soderbergh and Michael Winterbottom have proven that it’s possible to avoid being labeled as a filmmaker, and I’d like to follow in their footsteps. I’m running away from all distinctions.”

Nina Paley

“I don’t look at animation as a career, I look at it as art,” Nina Paley says. A New Yorker by way of Champagne, Ill., the helmer began her career in the comicbook business before taking up animation in 1998. “I ruined comicbooks for myself by thinking of it as a business, so when I started getting into filmmaking, I made the decision only to do exactly what I wanted to do.”

In 2003, Paley embarked on her most ambitious project to date: “Sita Sings the Blues,” a Flash-animated retelling of the Ramayana, a 2,000-year-old Hindu epic set to the 1920s jazz and blues recordings of singer Annette Hanshaw. The film took five years to complete, then made its world premiere at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, where it took home the Crystal Bear.

Over the past year, Paley has devoted most of her time to “free culture” activism, which promotes the distribution of intellectual property free of charge, mostly via the Internet. “Anyone can do whatever they want with my film, including selling it and modifying it. I want my work to be as widely available as possible, and the way to do that is to allow the audience to share it.”

Lynn Shelton

By the time Lynn Shelton built up the confidence she felt necessary to direct a film, the Seattle native already had pursued careers as a photographer, actor, documentarian and film editor. “I always knew I wanted to be an artist, but I took a long, circuitous route before I found the right medium,” says Shelton, who also teaches at the Art Institute of Seattle. “When I finally made my first film, I knew I had arrived at where I belonged.” 

Since finding her groove, Shelton has wasted little time. In the past four years, the helmer has completed three features: “We Go Way Back” (1996), “My Effortless Brilliance” (1998) and “Humpday,” one of the most talked-about titles at Sundance this year.

For the latter two pics, Shelton employed an improvisational style. “The whole traditional method of filmmaking is almost designed to obstruct the acting on the set,” Shelton says. “Instead of writing a script and imagining characters in your head, why not make characters that are inspired by people you know and let them create their own dialogue?” 

Up next: a collaboration with acclaimed novelist Sherman Alexie.

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