In this installment of our Focus on Filmmakers series Veverka Bros. chats with independent filmmaker and visual artist Adam Forrester about film funding and his latest documentary, Eat White Dirt.
You are currently working on a documentary called Eat White Dirt about people who eat kaolin, or white dirt. What drew you to this unusual topic?
As I was finishing up college I had a paper route for the local paper in Columbus, GA. I was the guy that went around collecting old unsold papers and bill payments from convenience store owners. Most of the convenience stores that I sold papers to were locally owned and located in neighborhoods. They were not as regulated as some of the gas stations along the interstate. After the first week I began to notice these strange little baggies of a chalk-like substance for sale in the stores. These baggies were most often for sale right at the front of the store, next to the register. This was something I had never seen before and would ask the clerks “what is this white stuff for?” “Oh I don’t know, people eat it,” they would reply. “Why?” would always be my next logical question. None of the clerks could answer this question. It’s been almost 4 years since I had that paper route and I’ve put a great deal of effort into finding an answer to that question. What I’ve found is that not only do the clerks have trouble answering this question, so do the patrons that purchase the dirt, and I suppose any question that can’t be easily answered can function as good material, at least this is my hope for this film.
How would you describe Eat White Dirt? Is it a controversial social issue film? A character driven doc? Verite? Something else?
I realized that my role in the telling of this story is to be more of an observer and a mediator for the two different sides of the story. I needed to step out of the way and let the researchers, the medical community, and the practitioners of geophagy, or earth eating, share what information they know about this topic. This project has turned into somewhat of a social issue film. There is a lot of disagreement about the health benefits/hazards of this practice. There is also a great deal of myth and misunderstanding surrounding earth eating. Additionally, this white mineral has been right in the middle of an ongoing debate between landowners and mining companies.
You are both an assistant professor and a filmmaker, do you find it hard to balance your work with your projects?
Absolutely, but what I’ve come to realize, though, is that in teaching a subject that I am wholeheartedly committed to, I have to revisit and analyze my approach to my own personal work, daily. So while it is more time consuming than I ever could have imagined, it is both rewarding and enlightening to have an open dialogue with students that are just beginning their artistic careers. As cliché as it sounds, it is absolutely true that one learns the most by teaching.
You were awarded a grant for Eat White Dirt, tell us about that experience.
Obtaining a grant really catapulted me into a new level of filmmaking. Not only was I able to obtain project specific equipment but when a group of strangers get together and decide that you are doing good work and they want to support that work financially, without ever meeting you, that’s incredibly flattering and greatly reassuring that you might actually have a subject that could captivate an audience.
Let’s talk about film funding, particularly for American filmmakers. Unlike Canada or Europe we don’t have a lot of public funding available (outside of ITVS). What are the options out there? How does the right fit depend on the type of film?
I was actually told by a potential fiscal sponsor that I needed to be more “realistic” and not include funding sources like the big national foundations in my proposal to obtain funding. While I don’t fully agree that I should exclude bigger funding sources from my casting net, the sponsor was right in calling my attention to the smaller more localized entities. Nearly every state has an arts and humanities foundation. States would love to support a resident filmmaker making a film about their state. This is one of those win-win situations for sure. A filmmaker gets funded and a state gets a product that in some fashion could be seen as a promotional tool. Although many other countries have a greater selection of support for the arts, if [American] artists and filmmakers utilized a more localized approach to funding I think we would begin to see a shift in the number of available grants.
What are your thoughts on using Kickstarter to fund films, particularly documentaries?
Crowdsourcing is a wonderful way of obtaining funding and it didn’t begin with sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Filmmakers have been asking friends, families, and investors for money long before these platforms became available online. But what’s so great about these sites is the wonderful accessibility that they bring to the film funding table.
Additionally, when people like Zack Braff and Spike Lee utilize Kickstarter I think it’s great. These established filmmakers are able to take back a little bit of that artistic direction that may have gotten lost in projects sponsored by an investor with alternative interests. I don’t really understand why everyone is surprised that famous people need money too, as Spike would put it he’s “been kickstarting since before Kickstarter.” Everyone knows that making anything worth while is expensive. Show the world why your project is worth while, and the expense will be taken care of.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to support oneself as an artist, particularly in film, photography and music. Do you see things getting better or worse?
Everyone probably now knows someone that is in a band, they can probably listen to that band on iTunes or Pandora, and so can anyone in the world with internet access. The drawback to all of this is that no one can support their art practice on a salary of fractions of pennies that places like Pandora pays its artists. So artists must supplement their income, which isn’t necessarily a bad trade off. If filmmakers were not able to self distribute their films on platforms like, iTunes, or Vimeo they would have to keep hoping and waiting for a distribution deal to come along, and maybe spend all of their time and money pitching their project. If musicians couldn’t release music for purchase online they’d be limited to touring and hoping to sell enough t-shirts and cds to afford to make it to the next gig. Supporting oneself as an artist is indeed difficult but I’m almost certain that it was just as difficult in the 50s as it is today.
What advice would you give a young person trying to get involved with filmmaking?
One must absolutely be in love with storytelling. But since human beings have been telling stories visually since the era of cave paintings this shouldn’t be a problem, it’s in our nature. Secondly, read stories. I mean works that let you into the author’s space on the other side of the page. Whether she or he is alive or dead, a good story allows you to connect on the very basic human level with the person who wrote those words. You can have a shared experience through the written story. It is your task as a filmmaker to create an opportunity for a similar shared experience between the audience and you, the main character, and/or the place depicted. And finally, I would say please, please find someone already making films and pester them, pick their brain, work for free, do internships, borrow their equipment, glean everything you can from someone already doing something similar, and then go make and tell your own story in your own way.
Tuition is becoming increasingly expensive, and many young people go into massive debt to finance it, do you think art/film school is worth it? How should young people approach student loans?
Well I think academic inquiry is incredibly important and valid for a lot of people. I do think art and filmmaking is better learned by doing. I learned more about filmmaking in just a few months of freelance work in film than I probably would have learned in two years of film school. I can’t be exactly sure but I didn’t want to pay the tuition to find out.
I think anyone with a good undergraduate education in something they are passionate about would make a great filmmaker. The techniques of filmmaking can be learned by simply going out and making a film, but the subject matter and initial research interest may be birthed in a university setting.
I will also say that if you can convince an institution to cover your tuition then going to graduate school is a great opportunity. You will never have another chance to have a more focused and dedicated timeframe to make work about whatever may be intrinsic to who you are. Just be really careful when applying to programs that offer little to no financial aid. If a university is credible enough and wants you bad enough they can make it affordable.
What projects would you like to, or are you planning to get involved in within the next five years?
Earlier this year I published a book entitled, Supermoon. It is a collection of images and stories based on the impact of the moon’s gravitational pull upon nature and human behavior. What I hope to do is morph the photographs and stories into a series of short fictional films. I’m also currently working on a short documentary about a man from Texas who was wrongly incarcerated only because his ethnicity matched that of the perpetrator.