It’s easy to get caught up in the glamour of Hollywood: the red carpets, celebrity scandals, multi-million dollar paychecks, and big-budget blockbusters. But once you widen your scope and look beyond the shining lights of Hollywood, there’s far more to the industry than meets the eye.
This underbelly is what Justin McConnell seeks to expose in his documentary about his own experiences trying to ‘make it’ in the independent film business. Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business follows five years of what appears to be constant disillusionment and difficulty, interspersed with interviews with filmmakers who – while more successful – are also brutally honest about how spirit-crushing the industry is.
There are moments that are difficult to watch: McConnell records many moments of hope followed by disappointment when deals don’t go through or pitches are rejected. As the years tick by, very little seems to change. McConnell produces numerous scripts and pitches and even a short film, but he always remains just shy of the success he professes to want. But he also makes sure to emphasise that his story is not unique, and that it isn’t as simple as being ‘good enough’ to succeed.
Guillermo del Toro, perhaps the most conventionally successful interviewee featured in the doc, puts it incisively when he points out that the language of streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Disney Plus is also the language of sewage. For him, and presumably, for most of the other filmmakers interviewed, films aren’t ‘content’ to be put through a ‘pipeline’; these people went into the industry looking to create art, and gradually discovered that the trappings of capitalism can have a stultifying effect on such an endeavour.
The lows can appear to outnumber the highs, and the subtitle of Clapboard Jungle, ‘Surviving the Independent Film Business’, immediately tips you off to the gruelling nature of the filmmaker’s journey. Should the film industry really be something to ‘survive’?
McConnell does a good job of inviting a range of opinions, from an impressive scope of interviewees. There are some for whom the sheer volume of films being produced is discouraging, and others who believe the more, the better. McConnell interviews women and (relatively few) people of colour, who he acknowledges face even more obstacles than he does to making a start in the industry. The section of the film where he confronts his own privilege does raise the question in one’s mind: what would this documentary look like from the perspective of a marginalized filmmaker?
At the very beginning, McConnell jokingly points out that one of the ‘rules’ of documentary filmmaking is to never centre the narrative around oneself. Said focus ends up having its pros and its cons. The intimacy and honesty both make for a documentary that feels truly authentic, but by telling the story of just one man, it is harder to examine the systemic issues and pressures.
Nevertheless, Clapboard Jungle is an insightful, albeit potentially discouraging, documentary with enough of a variety of perspectives to make it worth the watch. If you happen to dream of being a filmmaker, it will either double your determination to finish your screenplay or make you want to throw it in the bin in pre-emptive defeat – so do proceed with caution.
The Fantasia International Film Festival’s virtual event is composed of scheduled live screenings, panels, and workshops, taking place from August 20th to September 2nd, 2020. For more information, visit the Fantasia Film Festival website.