Being blinded by our ideas

I spent most of my free time in high school making movies. You’re imagining shaky, grain-laden home movies with two actors playing seven characters and little to no plot, but it was more than that. Me and my friends were lucky enough to have access to good equipment and basic film education through school, and we cashed in on both. There’s a stack of DVDs in the drawer of the desk where I’m sitting to prove it.

As sophomores, we submitted several films to the Westport Youth Film Festival. It was the festival’s second year but already it had garnered substantial attention. A highlight of the festival that year was seeing Shane Carruth, fresh off his success with Primer, speak on a panel. Forever will I remember sitting near the back, craning my neck to see him speak, while he told the room of young, bloodthirsty filmmakers: “Do whatever it takes to make movies. Find any camera you can, and pirate a copy of Premiere.” In that moment he became a god in our teenage eyes.

Of the films we submitted that year—two of them—one was a joke, the other serious. There were zero similarities between the two: one had a humorless, somber plot, the other didn’t have a plot; one had scripted scenes and planned out camera work, the other was shot freeform in an afternoon. The decision to submit both was half our decision—to submit the serious project that we’d worked hard at—and half our friends telling us to submit the other—they thought it was funny, and I suppose we did at the time, too.

The serious project was a war film. This particular group of friends and I were more politically outspoken than most at our age, and on occasion we would exercise our legal right to counter-recruit alongside Army and Navy recruiters in the cafeteria at lunchtime. Our beliefs, fueled by an undeniably unjust war underway in Iraq, eventually led to a script.

The Greenhorn Hero: a story about a young military sniper alone in the woods, his spotter killed in combat. The film is narrated by the soldier and deals with his slow realization that war is far more traumatic than how it is marketed and sold to teenage recruits. How the military provides drugs to snipers to “steady their aim”, but that in reality simply numb them to the reality of killing people day in, day out. The subject matter was heavy, and it was a significant undertaking for a crew of four to five high school students. We shot all summer and took the first several months back at school to edit.

We were delighted when both of our submissions to the festival were accepted. Somewhat mystified as to how the more frivolous of the two got in, but happy nonetheless. The day of the festival was a blast, running between theaters to see the entries that intrigued us, attending Q&As with the directors of select films. By the end of the day, as we picked seats for the award announcements, we were nearly too tired to care about winning. But still, we were anxious with anticipation.

To our dismay, the awards for the “Drama” category in which The Greenhorn Hero had been accepted were read, and the name of our film was not mentioned. A disappointing result, but not one that changed our pride in what we’d created. Then the awards for the “Comedy” category were read. Again, nothing. No surprise this time.

But just as we were making sarcastic sidelong glances at each other, in mock surprise of not having taken home the top awards for a film that took us, literally, an afternoon to make, they announced it: “we would also like to recognize Lag as an honorable mention in the comedy category.” I don’t doubt that we laughed harder at that then the audiences who saw our film.

Last week I watched that film, Lag, for the first time in years. It’s horrendous. Absolutely unwatchable without the context of being in high school and a particular sense of humor that has evidently evaded me since. And yet this memory stands to point out a crucial truth, one about the work that we do and the pride we take in it. Very seldom do we allow ourselves to see the objective value in what we make. It is this harsh criticism of our own work that pushes us forward. But there is also exceptional value in understanding, or at least being aware of, our impact on the people who view our work, rather than the blind conceit where many ideas begin. It is the process of learning empathy in the realm of artistry.