Wednesday, September 20, 2006

2006 GLOBAL LENS—The Evening Class Interview With Susan Weeks Coulter

The Global Lens Initiative film series is currently in process at various venues around the Bay Area, wrapping up at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland this evening, and finishing up at San Jose's Mexican Heritage Plaza and San Francisco's Balboa Theater towards the later part of this week, but continuing on at the San Francisco Art Institute and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael for the remainder of this month into next. If you haven't caught any of the Global Lens Initiative films, you still have ample opportunity.

Shortly before leaving the Bay Area to attend this year's Toronto International Film Festival, I had the welcome opportunity to talk with Susan Weeks Coulter, chairperson of the Global Lens Initiative, about the Initiative's various aims and its ongoing traveling film series. As the Initiative's mission statement attests: "The Global Film Initiative promotes cross-cultural understanding through the medium of cinema. History repeatedly points to the importance of great storytelling in chronicling and influencing human affairs. Even today, a powerful, authentic narrative can foster trust and respect between disparate cultures and mitigate the social and psychological impact of cultural prejudice. In recent times, no medium has been as effective at communicating the range and diversity of the world's cultures as the cinematic arts. But this vital contribution to cultural diversity has been threatened by shifting economic conditions in the areas of film financing and distribution, a situation largely prompted by the international success of the American film industry. Filmmaking in the developing world has suffered most from these changes; traditional funding sources have all but disappeared and worldwide distribution channels have collapsed.

"Ironically, it is the United States, and especially its youth, that suffers disproportionately from this lack of exposure to other cultures. The stability of America's ethnic mosaic depends on deep cross-cultural understanding, particularly between young Americans and the children of recently arrived immigrants. A comprehensive effort to give value to stories from every corner of the world plays a vital role in promoting tolerance in all areas of human behavior."

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Michael Guillén: Susan, it's my understanding that the Rotterdam International Film Festival's Hubert Bals Fund has served as the template for the Global Lens Initiative?

Susan Weeks Coulter: Yes. We went to Hubert Bals, and they said sure, we've been wondering when and if something in the U.S. would happen. Because the Germans had been participating. The French had participated for years through Bennington. But no one from the U.S. had ever stepped up to offer this kind of support for filmmakers. What they did for us was they helped us structure all of our contracts. Told us how to avoid all the pitfalls and all of the mistakes that they had made in their first five or six years and three months later we opened our doors in New York.

MG: Now you are humbly saying "we". Who do you mean by "we"?

SWC: Noah Cohen, who is currently up in Toronto, and I met in a bar in Beijing. For the local interest, we had been at a banquet that I had held for members of the Exploratorium's board. I used to sit on the advisory board for the Exploratorium. Big segue, but, we held a banquet when we opened a joint venture with Sony called Sony Explorer Science and after that event there were some younger people and we all went out drinking. We began to talk about the state of the film industry in Beijing. We said, "There's got to be a way that we can showcase these films." From that, and then after 9/11, we decided it wasn't just China that we should address; we should talk about all the cultural issues that help answer the question that was posed during 9/11, which was: "I don't understand why they don't like us." We don't know much about them, all these other peoples in the world. So how do you offer people a passport who don't even have to leave home to exercise it? Hence, the film series.

But let's go back to how we begin. The way we begin is we attend festivals, and at our website twice a year we send out a request for proposals. So in September, our new deadline is September 29, and sometime in Spring we'll create a deadline and it goes out through the web network. We accept applications. We make grants at script stage but we don't release the money until we see rushes so that we know the film is really going to be made. Usually we see between 30 and 40 applications each time. We go through them and we take a look for the same kinds of things that we look for when we acquire films; we look for authentic voices. We look for good cinematic. So if the application is still based on the script, we ask for collateral material so that we know that somebody can actually shoot a picture. It takes us about six weeks to respond. If we get 30 applications in, we'll make seven or eight, maybe ten grants, from those 30 applications.

MG: So the grant process is—as I understand it—one of five programs the Global Initiative is endeavoring.

SWC: Correct.

MG: In terms of the acquisition arm of the Initiative, are you acquiring the projects that you have funded?

SWC: Sometimes. One of the things that's terrific about being a small organization is you can respond to the needs of your constituency. We try to model ourselves identically to Hubert Bals, they represent the Benolux countries, and so when they make a grant, they take rights. We were able to do that with some of our filmmakers but some of our filmmakers said, "Oh no, no, no, no, the U.S. market is so valuable that we refuse" and they would turn down a grant. Now, that was free money and it took them another 18 months to make a film. For $40-$50,000, they were saying no because that was a grant plus an acquisition. So what we decided to do was we restructured. Now we give flat grants of $10,000 and we separate it out. If you want to, Mr. Filmmaker, sign away your rights, then we'll pay you a flat fee, you take some risk, we take some risk (because we don't know how your film's going to turn out) and then we'll show your film when it's complete. Because we are really advocates for these filmmakers, we structure [a clause] in our contracts—I think we're really honorable about the way we conduct our business—so what if the filmmaker signs away because he needs cash desperately and Sony comes into the picture? It used to be Miramax that we'd use as an example but you know what I mean. They offer them a real theatrical release and a pot of money. We allow the filmmaker—if they can demonstrate that they have an offer that exceeds the distribution that we do—that we'll let them repay us for the presale and buy themselves out of the contract because, at the end of the day, that's what we want to have happen. We want these films to be showcased and be seen and if they can find someone who can do it better than we do, bravo, we have then really done our job.

MG: That is honorable.

SWC: If you take a look at what you really want to have happen, it's not about Global Lens or Global Film, it's about what do you really want to see as an end result? And we want these films to be seen. If we can find somebody who can show them in more than 15 or 18 cities and is willing to do so, yippee, because we've been a success.

MG: This is your fourth year in operation?

SWC: Yes.

MG: One thing that excited me about Global Lens is its educational outreach. Not only are you a filmgoer—who is probably sophisticated and wants this expression from developing countries—but you are also an educator in that you want to train the American mentality to appreciate and develop an appetite for these films. How did the educational branch get started and can you speak a little bit about that?

SWC: Absolutely because, in fact, that's my passion. I don't have a film background; I have a public education background. I started out in the public sector in criminal justice education and have come full circle after more than 20 years as a financial services person. Two issues we wanted to address: one is that issue of how can you get along with people if you don't know anything about them? And how do you develop a respect or an understanding of the commonality? Every nationality expresses joy. Every nationality expresses sorrow. There are ways and reasons for revenge. There are expressions of hope. There isn't a mother who doesn't want good health and a good life for her children. There are a range of things that are called universal themes. When we took a look at some of our audiences, what we were surprised to discover was that not only were high school kids totally unfamiliar with the subtitled film or a film from another country, but so were their teachers. I would have preferred and many have said why didn't you just focus on the college market? Well, we lose a lot of kids before they go off to college. College campuses now are so jammed with programs. We face similar issues that we do in our public schools. Middle schools were a little bit too young because they're strict about what can be shown as part of their curriculum. We decided to focus on high school. One, to develop new audiences. Two, to supplement what their teachers have available to them. And the third audience, interestingly enough, came out of an interview I conducted with a journalist in Denver and he said, "You mean to say I can go on your website and download a discussion guide and talk it over with my two teenage kids and we can all go to the movies and have an experience that we all learn something together?" I said, "Absolutely."

MG: And they're thorough study guides. As someone who has recrafted himself as a film commentarian, they're helpful to me!

SWC: Great! Because we're not trying to make people film critics. For example, there is one section on aesthetics and what kinds of things should you look for? What are examples in the film that help you understand how a filmmaker looks at making a film? Another perspective is: what kind of symbolism is being used? There's another section about vocabulary, because some of this vocabulary might not be familiar. So there are a wide range of topics that we address, maps, what's the per capita, what are the religions, what are the populations, what's the rainfall? Simple things that help that country experience and the experience of the film become more real and a richer experience.

MG: Has this educational outreach been endeavored all four years?

SWC: Absolutely.

MG: How has it worked? Is it working?

SWC: We have had some phenomenal reactions and responses. When we piloted the project, we piloted it with a film called Ticket to Jerusalem in a school in Manhattan. It was at that moment that we knew we were on to something. The first question that surfaced—and it's one of my favorites—is how do we know those subtitles say what those people are really saying in the film? We said, "All right. Who speaks Arabic here in the audience?" One girl put up her hand. None of her classmates knew that that's the language she spoke at home. So hit number one. She was able to say, "Well, you know that one part where dah dah dah happened, it sounded like the father was really angry and disappointed in his son; no, no, that wasn't it at all. This is the way they talk. This is his favorite son and it's the way he was expressing his affection for him. He was teasing him a little bit but you don't get the teasing on the subtitle." Suddenly we had a young woman who had something to offer to all of her classmates that she might never have had another opportunity to offer. Another fellow stood up and said, "Well, it seems awfully one-sided to me." And then another fellow jumped up, "Well, you don't think CNN is one-sided? Then what do we have going on here?" And so suddenly the discussion is….

MG: Rich!

SWC: ….rich and creative and takes place among the students, with a little bit of facilitating by a curator or a teacher or someone connected with an institution in the location.

MG: You usually have eight films that you show altogether in the Global Lens program? So how then do you choose the three films to be used for the educational outreach?

SWC: In the series itself in Global Lens this year there are eight. Usually it's eight to ten. We'll take two or three, usually it's three, to identify as education. We look for regional balance. We look for depth of subject matter and also breadth of subject matter. And we look for an accessible film. Some of the films that we do acquire or we show in the Global Lens series, tend to be slower and most audiences are accustomed to. That's even tougher when you've got a high school audience that's accustomed to shoot-em-up, blow-em-up, and car chases. We'll look for themes that will resonate with young people. We'll look for things that present social and ethical dilemmas because the conversation between the young people afterwards tends to be so much more intense and much richer and stays with them for a long time. We've gotten emails from students and from their teachers when they write evaluations, most of them are, "I never knew a film like this existed."

MG: So you provide the exposure, you provide the education through the study guides that help the student appreciate the film, but then you also provide—and this is what struck me as a writer—this opportunity for them to compete and write and win.

SWC: This is our first experiment. We're trying it here in the Bay Area. We've had some support from a private individual who's provided cash for prizes, so it's $100 for the top prize winner for each high school in the Bay Area that participates, and it's a $50 cash award for the second prize winner. We interviewed and talked with a lot of teachers and they're strapped for time. We took a look at what their curriculum standards are and we worked with them to create an exercise to define what is a character? They're asked to develop—based on the characteristics of the character they're assigned—a scene that doesn't appear on film. So it has to be creative. It has to be structurally correct. And it has to be in character. So it's a scene that does not appear on film but it is alluded to as important in the development of the story.

MG: That's fascinating. So you have the educational outreach, we've talked about the granting, now how about yourself? What drew you into wanting to work on this important uphill project?

SWC: I'm a little bit of an entrepreneur, I love a challenge, but I've also lived all over the world. I lived in Egypt as a kid. I lived in the Netherlands. I was in the Peace Corps in India. I studied multiple languages and I grew up in a household where my father was a professor and everyone in their house all the time was different.

MG: So you're aware of the importance of that multiplicity?

SWC: I love the multiplicity! In fact, in my life everyone's always different. I appreciate that multiplicity and the differences; it's made my life richer.

MG: Going back to how you choose the films: some of them are chosen from grants you have provided and projects you have fostered, and others you pick up from?

SWC: Film festivals. I've just been in Sarajevo.

MG: What is it you look for? What catches you?

SWC: The same thing. I look for an authentic voice. It's a film that's made for that country about something that is important to that country. The most difficult thing to find is a filmmaker from the developing world with humor. I look for humor as well.

MG: Max and Mona sounds fun.

SWC: It is fun. In fact, the opening scene is pretty raucous. I think the [Bay Area] high school students—well, in other locations I know they've responded to it with a tremendous amount of hilarity.

MG: So the Initiative started in New York but it's now in about 15 cities?

SWC: That's right. When we began, it was the Museum of Modern Art that stepped up and said, "We will be your anchor." Jytte Jensen, who's the curator at the Museum of Modern Art in the film department, is one of our committee members. We converse a lot about we've seen a great film, let's take a look at it, does it fit our mandate. Because I don't have a film background, I rely on the expertise and the critical eye of a number of people to say, "Am I crazy? Or is this really a terrific film?" It's not just my taste.

MG: And this is the committee of all the filmmakers and industry professionals cited in the Global Lens program?

SWC: No, it's a small committee. It's myself and one of my staff people and Jytte and we make the decisions together. But I get feedback from lots of other people informally. Then we work with the museum people and educators around the country to figure out, "Do we have the right film?" We work pretty hard on those questions and answers.

MG: It's my understanding the Global Lens film series project is amplifying this year in the Bay Area? For the first time you now have multiple venues?

SWC: This is an exciting venture. It's a little bit controversial for some of the members. Typically, venues like to be….

MG: Exclusive?

SWC: Very very exclusive. One of the things I've tried to impress upon them is that there is more value in the sum of these parts because we have nearly 30 days where people can talk about these films and refer people, whether it's to San Rafael, Oakland, San Jose or to San Francisco, and we think we can attract more audiences and create a bigger buzz.

MG: I know that, for myself, the way that I like to write, of course I looked immediately to when they would be shown first in the hopes of creating buzz, because that's where I feel my obligation—as it were—lies. But then the opportunity to attend the Toronto International Film Festival came along—I wasn't expecting to go—and all of a sudden I panicked because I thought, "Oh no! I'm not going to get to see some of these films." But then the expansion into multiple venues allowed the opportunity to catch the films I would not see while in Toronto elsewhere.

SWC: That's right. And with our superb public transportation system—with the exception of the Bay Bridge—there is an opportunity for our populations in the Bay Area to move from one venue to another if they don't have an opportunity to see a film at its closest [venue].

MG: So in its long-range objective, what are you hoping with Global Lens? What do you want?

SWC: My big dream?

MG: Yes.

SWC: My big dream is that in 10 years we won't be necessary.

MG: Because you will have created an appetite where these films will be in demand?

SWC: That's right. We'll be happy to relinquish our mantle because we will have done the job that we set out to do. The other piece, however, is for the filmmaker in their country. When we make these grants, these filmmakers are now learning to syndicate the development for their films, but also able now to go back to their ministers of culture or their local governments or their national governments and say, "These people in this market place say this is a good project. Can't you help us get this moving forward?" And ministers of culture are stepping up and making funds available.

MG: That's great. And so now to understand this correctly, when you acquire the films, the Museum of Modern Art serves as the repository of the films and to maintain that they're preserved. So when Global Lens acquires the films, that means you'll always have this library. Will you then be providing them on dvd? Where does it go from there?

SWC: Ah. We usually order a couple of prints and we bicycle them, we circulate them around the country as a set. At the end of the Global Lens year—so it's January 1 to December 31—then we move to our relationship with First Run Features. They've been in business 20-25 years and they produce and sell the dvds and provide the service for the home and school markets. They're the fulfillment house. We're a nonprofit. I didn't want to be a fulfillment house. We've learned enough. There's enough to learn on the end of the business that we're managing; I didn't want to warehouse dvds and fill orders. They will send and sell dvds to Blockbuster and to Netflix—

MG: Don't forget Greencine!

SWC: That's right. We now have ten of our labels available. And we will be the anchor tenant for Link TV's new World Cinema.

MG: Is this Cinemundo?

SWC: No, this is Link TV satellite t.v. and some have equated it to the satellite t.v. version of NPR.

MG: Have you heard of Cinemundo, which Peter Scarlett is hosting?

SWC: Yes.

MG: But this is a separate organization?

SWC: This is a separate organization.

MG: Because I was reading on IndieWIRE that Cinemundo in their first season is offering three of the films that are in the Global Lens Initiative and I was wondering how that happened or how you interact with them on that?

SWC: It's in conjunction with Link TV. I just saw Peter, in fact, Peter was in Sarajevo as well.

MG: I see. Finally, to wrap things up, the Film Board I was reading about in the Global Lens brochure composed of these incredibly talented directors, how did you solicit that and what do they do?

SWC: Béla Tarr, in fact, at the top of that list was in Sarajevo as well. We felt that it was important—and important to young filmmakers as well—we needed an imprintur. We contacted each one of these people directly and every one we contacted agreed to lend his or her name to our cause that it's an important vehicle to create international understanding; it's an efficient vehicle.

MG: For myself, I can say there is something intrinsically correct about the project that draws in good will. What I've noticed of late—in terms of film writing or film commentary—is this interesting cultural alternative that is happening away from print press (which is tethered really by commercial concerns) to online writing and a whole new generation of writers that are writing about film more freely, more democratically. That's why I became excited about the prospect of offering to Global Lens space on The Evening Class and Twitch for the young writers who win your educational outreach essay competition to publish their pieces because I suspect online venues are going to be the ones available to them in the future.

SWC: I think so too. And to be able to begin to establish some dialogue among young people about a topic that is such a wonderful, creative medium. It's thrilling to be part of it.

MG: As a medium, I absolutely agree. Film is a fairly new medium for me, my writing was always focused elsewhere, but this is the year that film has become a new fulcrum for my writing, a new lens, and the year that I'm meeting people in film and learning about film culture. It's a fascinating, visionary realm. That's why I was excited about Global Lens and its objective to teach people to appreciate foreign film because it is, in some ways, the political alternative that might help us.

SWC: I believe so too. One of the things that seems to be a common theme throughout many of these films is that there is a background of conflict of some sort, whether it's interpersonal conflict, whether it's political conflict, whether it's moral conflict, there are a range of issues that there may not be a right answer to; but, seeing it and experiencing it through the expression, you do it vicariously. You don't have to do this yourself. You don't have to discover how awful you feel by being disloyal when you see what it does in someone else's life. It's cause and effect. Where we can supplement parenting and life skills is through the use of film. Just the way we've done in the past through good literature. There are plenty of things, mistakes that other people make, or plenty of things that people have the courage to try, that good literature and/or film provide us some modeling for. That's one of the things that I find to be so exciting.

MG: Susan, I'm very impressed with what you're doing. I'm excited to take part in Global Lens this year. Final thoughts?

SWC: Get out of your chairs, folks, and go to the theaters!

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