Radical Relaxation: The Kopkind/CID Film Camp
Filmmaker Rebecca Snedeker had never made her debut. There had been film debuts, naturally, of short works; and she was preparing for the debut of her first full-length feature documentary, By Invitation Only. But the debutante’s world of coming out parties and Mardi Gras royalty, the white New Orleans society world into which she had been born, to which generations of young women in her family had been introduced, a world that she had fantasized about since childhood and was about to betray in her film, had not given her a bow. Rather, it had, and she had rejected it. Making the film was her way of explaining that rejection, telling the history and contemporary reality of race and class exclusion at the heart of the New Orleans cotillion and Mardi Gras krewe system, and exploring her own ambivalence toward a festive ritual that is at once fabulous and ugly.
Rebecca was in the deep green of rural Vermont in the summer of 2006, one of nine participants invited to spend a week at the first annual Kopkind/CID Filmmakers Retreat Seminar—informally, Film Camp—brainchild of the award-winning filmmaker John Scagliotti and the executive director of the Center for Independent Documentary (CID), Susi Walsh. Like the other attendees, Rebecca was there to show a clip of her work at one of the evening “film slams,” to view the work of her fellow “campers,” to spend the mornings discussing that work and the issues facing filmmakers, and to engage in something the project’s organizers called “radical relaxation.” What was that, she wondered, with a touch of angst. Was she radical enough? Political enough? She certainly needed to relax. Her house had been drowned by Hurricane Katrina the year before, her city and psyche wounded. This sojourn in Vermont was coming just after she had finished the last work necessary for the film’s broadcast on public television and just before what she expected to be a nasty storm of controversy from its New Orleans premier, as the people who had invited her inside their ritual, people unaccustomed to having their genteel folkways associated with the taint of racism, were unmasked.
“I remember coming to Vermont so exhausted and so vulnerable,” Rebecca says. “There’s a line in my film: ‘If you have manners the doors are wide open, and if you don’t the doors are going to close.’ I was preparing for a lot of doors to close. What I didn’t understand until coming to Kopkind—and that really was the beginning of this realization—was how many other doors would open.”
Rebecca came to Film Camp as a leap of faith. The same could be said for the beginnings of the summer program itself. John and Susi had been talking about this kind of collaboration for years: a way to offer filmmakers a break from isolation, a place to show and discuss their work without competition or stress, a space to think and dream and maybe make a little magic. They had worked together since the early 1980s, right after John made Before Stonewall, the landmark film of gay and lesbian history, and Susi co-founded CID as a fiscal sponsor and support center for filmmakers. Both were keenly aware of the problems facing filmmakers—not only the difficulty of raising money, managing it, and surviving when everything takes so long and so many people say, “You’re crazy, get a job,” but also the alienation related to the changing nature of the business. What does collaboration mean when, theoretically at least, you can make a movie almost by yourself? What does community mean now that its most organic engine, the need to share equipment, no longer operates as it once did, and “closed doors” describes too many media arts centers? Boston Film and Video Foundation, gone. Association for Independent Video and Film, gone. Film Arts Foundation, gone. What does it take to sustain yourself as a filmmaker, body and soul? Susi and John didn’t have all the answers, and didn’t conceive of Film Camp as a vehicle that would. But they knew a few things about mutual support, and at a regional meeting of NAMAC in 2005, Susi recalls, “We finally said, ‘Let’s just do it.’”
The template already existed. In the late 1990s, John and a few friends had launched the Kopkind Colony, a living memorial to John’s longtime companion, the radical journalist Andrew Kopkind. That began by bringing a handful of political journalists and activists from around the country to John’s home at Tree Frog Farm in southern Vermont for an extended week in residence.
Mechanically speaking, it was (and is) a simple project. Most of the participants sleep in Spartan but charming individual cabins. Each morning from 9:30 to 12:30 there is a thematic political seminar, then lunch, free time, dinner in the barn with occasional special guests, and a couple of free evening movies and lectures open to the public. But from the start, the mechanics weren’t what caused participants at Kopkind to say, “This changed my life.” It was something in the air, in the scent of green fields and the intimacy of the group; in the food lovingly prepared and beautifully presented by John’s partner and Kopkind’s cook/operations manager, Dave Hall; in fresh vegetables from the garden, afternoon swims, and hot tub discussions at night; and mostly in the people who started it, in the gay sensibility at Tree Frog Farm and the remembered example of Andrew Kopkind, who had intense curiosity and joie de vivre, a love of pop and politics, of horticulture and history, of serious things, artfulness, and jokes.
Film Camp follows the model of Kopkind’s other sessions but substitutes mini-screenings (“slams” is a playful term, not a descriptive one), usually of works-in-progress, in place of special guests at dinner, and workshop-like discussions in place of political seminars. Everyone is a peer. Each pays a token fee (about $50 a day). A call for participants goes out in the spring, and prospective campers send letters of intent giving their background, describing what they’re working on and what they would show related to the year’s theme. The theme is always broad: diversity, creativity, storytelling. Susi and John put together the group (never more than twelve) based on the range of experience and the mix of work and concerns that they think will blend in interesting ways. “It’s half science and half magic,” Susi says of the process. “We’ve been lucky [with the groups], but it’s not all luck. We know what we’re doing, even if we can’t quite describe it. And then you arrive at the farm, and you feel like you’re coming home, even if it’s like that line from the movie, ‘No home I’ve ever known.’”
Nancy Kates came to the farm in that first group with Rebecca Snedeker. She showed a piece from a film she had co-directed, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, but she wanted to talk about the problems she was having getting started on her next project, a film about the cultural critic Susan Sontag. The next summer Nancy returned, showing one of the most visually stunning and provocative trailers anyone had ever seen, for Regarding Susan Sontag. She’s still having problems—what filmmaker isn’t?—but the first year, she was stuck; and the second year, screening the trailer for the first time, she was scared; she is neither now. Film Camp wasn’t the only reason, but it was an important one. “I feel that I was myself there in a really primal way. Maybe that’s because while it’s not a gay camp, the farm is a gay place, and because everyone puts so much care into making people feel comfortable and included. Maybe it’s because it’s not competitive, which is a real gift to filmmakers, because we’re always competing, for funding, for attention. We need community, we need to support each other in our projects, and we need to cut loose, because doing this work is very hard. As important as the connections between filmmakers are—and Film Camp is unique because it’s so small, so those connections are really deep—there is also something to be said about the Dollar Store as therapy.”
Which brings us back to Rebecca’s debut. “Let’s give her that coming out party,” Susi said quietly one morning to Nancy and a few others, “only camp-style. Let’s get her a dress and decorate the barn and surprise her with an invitation and escort her to dinner, and afterward let’s watch her whole film so we can intelligently help her think about how to respond to her critics.” One group went to the vintage store in town for the outfit; another to the Dollar Store for eccentric party fare, laughing, playing. “It was late afternoon, golden light, when they came up to me,” Rebecca remembers. “They handed me an invitation, and I was so confused. ‘This is your special day…’ When I think about that time, I hold it up as something otherworldly. The party, it was so loving. I’ve struggled so much with expectations of my own heritage, and to go to a space where all these people were saying ‘You are a peer; you are totally accepted for who you are...’ That night felt like a rite of passage. It got me out of this little world in which I’d been scared for a long time. It grounded me in the reality that I was not alone; I could be part of a community with shared values. It gave me courage. I probably also got solid advice, but it’s the emotion I remember most. Just to be in a safe place and talk out what was coming. I couldn’t have done that in the same way in New Orleans. I needed to be away. I needed that safe place.”
Back home, when the gale force and legal threats of some of the city’s first families hit, she remembers once putting on that dress to remind herself, “I had been to another land where my work was respected, a land of green grass and thoughtful people and fun, where the questions I was asking had value.” She remembers thinking that “the balance of political acumen and warmth” was what radical relaxation was all about, and once again it “was exactly what I needed.”
JoANN WYPIJEWSKI, a writer in New York, is president of the Kopkind board.
© 2008 National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture. All Rights Reserved.
Kopkind is located at Tree Frog Farm, 158 Kopkind Road, Guilford, VT 05301. For more information on the Kopkind/CID Filmmakers Retreat Seminar, contact Susi Walsh at susi AT documentaries.org, or visit the CID website at www.documentaries.org, where the call for applications will be posted beginning in the spring. It, along with other information, will also be posted on www.kopkind.org, currently under construction.