How To Spend Your Summer: Independent, International, and Documentary Cinema

The first time I was really awakened to the power of film was when I watched an esteemed German director eat his shoe.

This was in the aptly-titled 1980 short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, which documents the day that Herzog publicly consumed one of his well-used loafers after losing a bet with filmmaker Errol Morris.

Herzog had promised to eat his shoe if Morris was able to complete his first film, the surreal pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven. As Herzog sawed through the shoe leather, still tough despite being boiled for many hours in a stew, he noted one of the important cultural roles that filmmakers play: “Without adequate images,” he said, “we will die out like dinosaurs.”

I was struck at the time by Herzog’s conviction, and by his willingness to do something strange out of a belief in the social value of his art, but I wasn’t sure I understood him. Over time, I’ve begun to better grasp what Herzog meant.

There’s a sense in which film—particularly independent, art, documentary, or international film that shows us things we haven’t seen before—serves to water the thirsty plant of our imaginations in much the same way that our most surprising dreams do.

Whatever it is you are looking for, you can find it in film.

The summer is a perfect season to begin your own personal journey into the world of film. Many film festivals take place either during the summer or just at its end in early September, and volunteering at such festivals often provides excellent perks in the form of access to new movies.

Even if your time is too limited by other commitments to help out at a multi-day festival, there are plenty of other opportunities to explore independent, art, documentary, and international film.

Look for arthouse theaters in your community; they may require a yearly membership fee, but often have special discounts for students.

Finally, you can learn more about the language and concepts of film studies from thoughtful YouTube channels like Every Frame a Painting or Lindsay Ellis.

A Definition of Terms

Independent films are simply films produced without the backing of a major production company or studio; while this often implies that the film will use different techniques and explore different themes than blockbuster movies, this isn’t necessarily true. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is technically an independent film because, while it was distributed by Disney, it was produced solely by LucasFilm.

Art films are films which break in some way from the themes and techniques of mainstream cinema. While the line between art films and mainstream films is often very hazy, a general rule of thumb is that art films strive to be complete artistic works, and ask for different things from viewers. A technique that is integral to a certain art film—like a long, unedited shot of a scene with no actors present—might simply look, if used in a blockbuster, like a mistake.

A subset of art films are experimental films, which initiate an even more radical break from cinematic conventions. Experimental films may not have a plot or even feature any human performers; Hollis Frampton’s 1969 seven-minute film Lemon simply features a close-up of a shadow passing over a lemon. Films like this borrow many techniques and theories from other avant-garde disciplines, particularly installation art, performance art, still photography, and sculpture.

It’s also worth mentioning documentary cinema, which is essentially the essay of the film world. Documentaries are usually meant to explain, reveal, or make an argument about something that’s not fictional. They may use techniques similar to those of an art film, like Errol Morris’s Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, or they may be fairly conventional.

Cult films are another kind of film often seen in arthouse theatres. The term “cult” here simply means that the film has a devoted underground or subcultural following. It may be a good film that was overlooked when it first came out, and developed a dedicated fanbase later; it may be a quite terrible film that achieved popularity because it’s “so bad it’s good”; or it may be a film beloved by a specific subculture.

Finally, the category of international or foreign cinema describes films from a country other than your own.

Noteworthy North American film festivals:

New York: Tribeca Film Festival (independent film), Slamdance Film Festival (low-budget/emerging independent film)

Telluride, Colorado: Telluride Film Festival (independent film)

Ann Arbor: Ann Arbor Film Festival (experimental film)

Austin: Austin Film Festival (independent film)

Atlanta: Atlanta Film Festival

Cleveland: Cleveland International Film Festival

Chicago: Chicago International Film Festival

Toronto: TIFF and Hot Docs (documentary)

Montreal: Montreal World Film Festival (international film)

San Francisco: San Francisco International Film Festival

Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara International Film Festival

Seattle: Seattle International Film Festival

Park City/Salt Lake City: Sundance (independent film)

Vancouver: VIFF, Doxa (documentary)

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