By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"This is a devastating blow to media artists in this region in particular, and for any region of the United States that isn't on the two coasts," says Celia Lightfoot, director of S.W.A.M.P. "It's not just damaging to independent filmmakers because the re-grants themselves were so important. It's also damaging because of what those grants represented to the artists. They were a vote of confidence in the artist's ability to do good work, and they were often used by artists to seek additional funding from other nonprofit groups and from private sources. A filmmaker used to be able to say, 'Hey, look guys--I just got this start-up grant from S.W.A.M.P., can you help me out with some money to finish my project?' Now that opportunity is gone. It's going to make it tough on filmmakers who don't yet have a national reputation or who are young and just starting out."
Katie Cocionos, who used to run S.W.A.M.P., and who now acts as managing director for the nonprofit Austin Film Society, offers another concern: that in the absence of a Media Arts fund, and an Independent Production Fund in particular, the NEA will fund work mostly by people they've already heard of--particularly higher-profile artists who live and work in Washington, New York, and Los Angeles--and bypass artists in middle-America who'd prefer to stay regional and work with smaller budgets.
"Now that the IPF is gone, there are no grants available at the NEA for experimental films, short films, and a lot of smaller-scale, more inventive documentaries," she says. "If you're doing offbeat work that isn't strictly old-fashioned fictional narrative, or a narrative-style documentary, then the NEA in Washington is off limits to you. It always has been really--only now, or course, there's really no other alternative."
Dallas Video Festival director Bart Weiss agrees: "This decision lops young, creative, unknown, and unconventional film and videomakers off at the knees."
"The regional re-grant program was one of the ones that gave the NEA the most bang for its buck," says Arlington-based filmmaker Andy Anderson, whose critically lauded 1987 thriller Positive I.D. was partially paid for with an IPF grant he received through S.W.A.M.P. "It wasn't a lot," says Anderson, "but I could never have made my feature without that money. What makes this situation worse is that the re-grant program was one of the few truly democratic processes inside the NEA. It didn't matter if you were doing work on a small scale, or if nobody knew your name--you could still get help through a regional agency in your area. The re-grant program was specifically put in place to help somebody besides the same big corporate-type organizations who get the same big grants over and over and over, like big city museums and symphonies."
"It's nothing short of a disaster, an instant decimation of local film and videomakers," says Richard Linklater, the Austin auteur whose NEA-assisted Slacker kick-started his career as a nationally known writer-director.
In addition to his professional career as a feature filmmaker, Linklater also serves as director of the nonprofit Austin Film Society, which helps fund independent, experimental movies, primarily by artists who live and work in Texas' capital.
"The Austin Film Society has never been able to get through the door at the NEA in Washington," Linklater says. "The idea that we can get money from the NEA with no regional re-grant funds available, just by applying directly to D.C., is a big, fat joke."
Spokesperson Dare repeats Alexander's assurance that the NEA in Washington was, and still is, receptive to offbeat work, even by untried and obscure and unconventional artists. "Our grant panels are diverse in every way--geographically, economically, racially, culturally," says Dare. "So I think it's a mistake to say this decision means the NEA won't be interested in regional voices anymore. Having a reputation in Los Angeles or New York or Washington won't be an advantage with them. It's still the quality of the work that counts."
Deare says that film and videomakers outraged with the NEA cuts are "shooting the messenger" and fail to see the bigger, more disturbing picture: that the organization has been whittled away by Congress for years, and that with a newly elected Republican majority in both legislative houses, it's time for artists to express support for the NEA, not hammer away at individual funding decisions.
"There's understandably a lot of concern here that the Republican steamroller could roll right over us without a lot of forethought," Dare says. "And there are people in Congress from both parties who have been after this agency for symbolic reasons for years and years. But the tone of film and videomakers who call us to complain has changed somewhat since last month's elections. They're not calling just to complain anymore--at least not as regularly.
"Instead, they're mostly calling to say, 'Hey, what's the strategy? What can I do to express support for you guys and maybe discourage more things like this from happening?' The issue used to be, me, me, me. Now it's us, us, us. And I think that's definitely the approach to take."