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True Independent Film - The Iconographer Goes Back to Indie Film Roots With Film Maker Andy Mingo

 By Lidia Yuknavitch

Remember when Indie Meant Indie?

Remember the first days of independent film? Those were the days of "Eraserhead" and "Mala Noche" and "Crumb" and "Pi" and "El Mariachi" and "Clerks" and even "Roger and Me." Remember how exciting it was to watch the dominant mode of production of our time, film making, be put into the hands of a regular person who might live next to you? Or might even be you?

Remember when ten grand, maybe twenty if you cleaned out your bank account and maxed out your credit cards and asked all your friends and neighbors and relatives and even people you barely knew but bought drinks for? And it was worth it?

Portland independent filmmaker Andy Mingo wants you to know two things about independent film: first, it's alive and well in Portland, Oregon, and second, there is a difference between the history of independent film, the present corporate takeover of indie film, and what he is calling True Independent Film.

Andy Mingo is the director of The Iconographer, a new independent feature film currently under consideration on the festival circuits this year. Written, directed, and edited by Mingo, The Iconographer was made on a budget of less than 20 grand with local actors who worked for cheese and wine and lasagna that his wife baked.

Mingo shot the entire film at locations around Portland, Oregon ranging from a local liquor store, to a beach on the Sandy river, to warehouses, the insides of cars, and strip clubs. Cameras came from equipment grants and loaners from the Northwest Film Center. Actors knew each other from local productions and jobs and bars and the passion of doing something because you just can't not. The music came from people Mingo had known for years. The sound guy had a day job. Pretty much everyone did.

The story of The Iconographer has one foot in the history of independent film and one foot in the territory Mingo is calling True Independent Film. According to New York Times bestselling author Chelsea Cain, "The Iconographer is personal, funny and incredibly smart, a little story with big waves that resonates on many levels, from its pitch perfect portrayal of family dynamics, to its socio-political allegory... And there's enough fake blood to keep things interesting."

True Independent film, according to Andy Mingo, still works from the ground up, and brings into focus the small and human story. In addition to "The Iconographer," Andy Mingo has written, directed and produced six short films, which have appeared in various national festivals and screenings including the Longbaugh Film Festival, the Northwest Film and Video Festival, the PDX Film Festival, and Northwest Tracking- Journal of Short Film V.11. Mingo is a Professor of Media Studies at Clackamas Community College as well as the author of the novel, East of Elko. He also runs Chiasmus Press, one of Portland's award winning independent literary press. And he's on a mission to advocate for True Independent Film.

Independent film used to exist. Alas, in 2009 "Independent Film" has become just another branding device to make big money films sound...hip. The Sundance Film Festival winners feature Hollywood actors and big money sponsors. Fox uses its "Searchlight" as a hipster mask. And Warner Independent Pictures? Really? Let's face it. The corporatization of independent film has eaten it alive and shat it out as a glitzy mainstream thing consumers with enough money to burn can buy to impress their friends and feel...edgy. True Independent Film, according to Mingo, is both a return and a movement of the future.

2009 Portland, Oregon, well, we're a Petri dish. For instance. Gus Van Sant made "Mala Noche" in 1985 for 20 grand. It earned overnight fame on the festival circuit, and the L.A. Times named it the year's best independent film. It took "Drugstore Cowboy" and "My Own Private Idaho" to nail New Line Cinema, and the rest is history. So by all accounts, Portland ought to be an incredible breeding ground for more Gus Van Sant's, and particularly for Indie Film at its best.

In most ways, it is. Independent filmmakers such as feature filmmakers Andy Mingo and James Westby, documentary filmmakers Brian Lindstrom and Andrew Blubaugh, and experimental filmmakers like Miranda July and Matt Mcormick are keeping it real by, according to Mingo, creating in the fires of True Independent Film.

It used to be that when people talked about independent publishing or music or film-indie art-they mostly meant art that subverted its genre. Not just in terms of content and style and mode of production, but also in terms of dissemination to an audience and the interruption of capital. You could hear the best music in a rat hole downtown, music born out of someone's garage or from brave kids squatting in abandoned houses to practice their licks. You could turn yourself on to the best literature by passing it hand to hand on the street or in bars or alleyways. You could witness the rebirth of film in an arthouse cinema for half the price of the Cineplex, and feel baptized afterwards instead of covered in butter and chocolate.

But today, even trying to get into the circuit of film festivals that pepper the country means having to compete with corporate backed films made by already established filmmakers on huge budgets with Hollywood actors and distribution going to the highest bidder. Films like "The Iconographer" are basically up against the Hollywood studio industry. And there's no way to bake enough lasagna to compete with that.

Still, filmmaker Andy Mingo insists that True Independent Film is still being made, and in fact, might hold the possibility of something the corporatization of independent film cannot quite absorb:

Look. Independent filmmakers have not gone away or stopped doing that thing they do. They simply have a harder time getting seen than ever before, since "indie," has itself become a market driven genre. Don't get me wrong, there are a number of great films coming out of the corporate independent market. But there needs to be a distinction made between those polished, well financed products and and films that are made in the true spirit of real independent film. I don't think less people should make their own films. I think more people should.

It's a hopeful sentiment just about now. True Independent Filmmakers, just like the people who can't help making music, can't help writing the closet manifesto, survive on close-knit communities and grants and dinners at each others' homes. So even while we're paying close to 8 bucks these days to see a blockbuster hit or checking our mailboxes for next Netflix Oscar winner, I'm secretly hoping Mingo is right:

There isn't time to despair. In 2009's darkest days, when things have gone to shit, redefinitions are possible. It may be that more, rather than less art forms are available. People are sitting in front of Mac computers. People have more and more access to cameras. With all that money at stake, entire careers grow and fizzle at the speed of light, and films that don't gross, sink. True Independent Films are unsinkable, because they're not tied to anything but the people who make them.

For Mingo, True Independent Film "is exactly like a Petri dish-things that are unique are allowed to grow. Things that regular people make have a way of...dangerously thriving."

Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of three collections of short fictions-- Real to Reel (FC2, 2002), Her Other Mouths (House of Bones Press, 1997) and Liberty's Excess (FC2, 2000)-- and a book of criticism, Allegories of Violence (Routledge, 2000). Her writing has appeared in Postmodern Culture, Fiction International, Another Chicago Magazine, Zyzzyva, Critical Matrix, Other Voices, and elsewhere, and in the anthologies Representing Bisexualities (NYU Press) and Third Wave Agenda (University of Minnesota Press). She has been the co-editor of Northwest Edge: Deviant Fictions and the editor of two girls review. She teaches fiction writing and literature in Oregon.
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