It’s early and my tea is still warm. At this point in my life, waking up before 9 AM makes me feel like I’m a child again, watching the day start and letting each breath fill me with the hope of a ripe new day. The fun things happen late at night, but the beautiful ones happen just after the sun rises, when the day hasn’t yet accumulated any of the complexities that come with time. It’s also the perfect time to watch amateur films.
I click play to begin the BoxFest Detroit Film Festival, a contest that has for the last 16 years served as a platform for up-and-coming women directors. This section is “Box 3” a set of 5 narrative short films. First up is an animated short, Chatterboxing!: it’s delightful, it’s funny, and it combines drawn animation with photographed objects to create a lively, kinetic verbal-boxing match. Chatterboxing! is a clean high compared to the rest of the films; it’s something that might be featured as a Disney short. And it lures us into a kind of false sense of security.
The other four films do not have the luxury of animation’s universal simplicity. The rest are live-action and thus much more susceptible to all the technical shortcomings of low-budget films. A Basement Film, the longest piece of the event—and the most emblematic of the low-budget genre—is plagued with distorted sound, strangely delivered lines, and no color-grading. So, what are we left with? Story. Without the traditional pleasures of mainstream film aesthetics, narrative eclipses all else. We must force our way into the narrative like a benevolent intruder, searching the narrative for any signs of life. We’re looters who have shown up to the party a little too late, and we must be content with any useful thing we find.
When everything else is stripped away, A Basement Film is a surprisingly close-to-home vignette about a girl who struggles with her mental illness during a basement hangout. The dialogue falls short and the camera lingers a bit too long after someone speaks, but we truly get a film about the culture of the basement, complete with meandering conversations about the future, awkward groping, and psychedelics. It feels honest, even if it feels rough around the edges—really, because it feels rough around the edges. Even the over-lingering shots seem to reveal the little moments of silence that make real life so uncomfortably real. So, when A Basement Film does a character well, that character feels especially done well. The stoner guy who’s actually really smart but is content working his blue-collar job and learning about drugs on the internet—that’s some variation of someone a lot of us have met. And this same sincerity applies to the remaining three films, whether we’re watching a video game possess two boys, the apocalypse test a couple’s relationship, or a group of teenagers navigate the intersection between faith and blackness.
Really, the best thing about low budget films is how little people care about them. When a student film begins and one hears the deafening roar of a camera’s internal microphone (God forbid), most people check-out. After all, film is a mixed-media, comprised of sound, photography, and story. If a movie can’t hold up its end of the bargain in providing you all those elements, why watch? We know what it takes for a movie to be entertaining, and we expect that standard to be met. But, when we go beyond our expectations to be entertained—or, more aptly, below them—we stumble upon the little kernels of beauty that often go unnoticed in a polished Hollywood film. There’s a freedom in it, to portray something simple without the control of a studio that needs to turn a profit. Rather than grimace at the faults of these amateur films, I revere them because they give me a little bit of hope that there are still young people out there doing the work of stumbling in the dark to find good art. And hey, you’re bound to stumble onto something, someday.
I drain my tea and look for something productive to do.