Censorship inspires fear in filmmakers

Risk-taking helmers face uphill battle

Funding and artistic decisions are important, but bigger concerns include fear of censorship and homogenization of the U.S. film industry for indie helmers, according to helmers at Saturday’s IFP-New York American Directors panel in Cannes, part of the Variety Conference series.

It wasn’t just Michael Moore’s presence on the panel that sparked the debate.

Nicole Kassel, whose first film “The Woodsman” tries to put a human face on a child molester played by Kevin Bacon, faces an uphill climb in the current climate.

“Talk about censorship! No one wanted to make this movie, between the fact I am a first-time filmmaker and (because of) the subject matter,” she said. “When Kevin signed on, it was a dream come true to find a major actor even willing to play this part.”

According to Jacob Estes, efforts to get his teen morality drama “Mean Creek” bankrolled also hit a wall, despite the imprimatur of the Nicholl Fellowship screenwriting award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

“Columbine tempered everyone’s enthusiasm to finance a film about kids and violence,” Estes said, even though the film had moral underpinnings that gave it weight beyond the usual teen fare.

“There came a point in its development where I’d given up on making this movie five or six times.”

He said the inevitable R rating, for language, undoubtedly will make it even more difficult to see for the target audience. Moderator Roger Ebert exclaimed, “The only good thing about the ratings system is nobody enforces it.”

The entertainment media came in for its share of blame for what the panel considers the sad state of things today, particularly from Moore, in Cannes for the third time with his controversial “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

“I worry that this art form is dying as an art form and that the movie press is putting the nail in the coffin,” he said. “I’m just amazed the way people don’t understand the issues of expression. We need to hear more voices, not less, and I think the entertainment press has contributed to that.”

“I’m as disturbed as anyone else about self-censorship,” said Jonathan Nossiter whose doc, “Mondovino” about the consolidation of the wine industry was a last-minute entry into the official competition. “I did this film because I love wine. It’s the only thing as complex as human beings. If the world of wine is in danger of self-censorship, then we’re all in trouble. What I heard in the wine business is the same discourse you hear in the White House these days. Maybe there’s more hope for wine.”

Panel was rounded out by two more docu helmers. Second-generation director Xan Cassavetes (daughter of John), in Cannes with her out-of-competition entry “Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession,” and Jonathan Caouette, whose gritty, autobiographical “Tarnation” was made using iMovie on his Mac for a reported $218.32 and now is competing in Directors Fortnight.

Proof that docs have found success in the Cannes competitions is no less than four of the six panelists got to the festival with nonfiction films.