Last Tuesday, cinephiles from around the Twin Cities assembled at the Walker’s Gather restaurant to ring in what’s become a yearly tradition, a month-long screening marathon of Film Independent Spirt Awards nominees inside the Walker Cinema. For members of the Walker and the Independent Filmmaker Project MN, these free screenings offer the chance to catch up on a year that was littered with brilliant films, including some that are finally making their first appearances in Minnesota. The festivities kicked off on Tuesday with It Felt Like Love, a film which earned director Eliza Hittman a nod for the John Cassavetes Award, and Love Is Strange, which is up for Best Feature. Ira Sachs, director of Love Is Strange, presented the two films and joined Walker and IFP MN members for cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and some meaningful conversations about the importance of independent cinema.
For many guests, including longtime Twin Cities arts advocate Robert Spikings, Ira Sachs’ films embody the difference between independent and mainstream cinema. “Major studios try to make movies for a generic audience,” Spikings said, “But there’s a specificity of story to independent film, especially in Ira Sachs’ work, and I think intelligence comes from that specificity.” Love Is Strange, a film about a same-sex couple (Alfred Molina and John Lithgow) who get married after thirty-nine years together, may not have been created to reach a massive mainstream audience. But, as Spikings noted, “If it’s done right, specificity will appeal to a lot of people.”
With a year that featured some artistically adventurous films coming out of relatively large studios like Birdman and Nightcrawler, it’s become difficult to determine what makes a film truly independent. Some guests, like Walker Film/Video Program Assistant Kate Rogers and local filmmaker Jeremy Wilker, believe independent cinema is ultimately defined by the size of a film’s budget. Wilker, whose last film was made for “less money than The Hobbit spent on coffee,” worries that “independent film” is a phrase that is increasingly being co-opted by mainstream studios. Still, he believes the Film Independent Spirit Awards continue to recognize great small-budget films that fly under the radar of other awards ceremonies, including one of his favorite movies of the year, Land Ho.
Others found more conceptual definitions of independence in cinema. Nancy Paul, Development Director for IFP MN, argued that independent film comes from groups underrepresented in the blockbusters you find at the multiplex. Jeffrey Perkey believes that films untied to genre, like director Ana Lily Amirpour’s Iranian Neo-Noir Vampire Western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (nominated for Best First Feature), embody the independent spirit of cinema. “Independent film is refreshing,” said actor, filmmaker, and Managing Director of the Twin Cities Film Fest Bill Cooper. Everyone seemed to echo Cooper’s sentiment. Despite the increased visibility for some outsider filmmakers, independent film will always go places where mainstream films won’t in order to show us something we’ve never seen.
The 2015 Film Spirit Awards Screenings continue every Tuesday and Wednesday until February 11. Screenings are free for members of the Walker and IFP MN.